I am working on an editing project with an impending deadline, so for this week’s blogpost I am hijacking a review that I wrote for my MFA paper. 🙂 Enjoy!
In Jean Betts’ Ophelia Thinks Harder – which she credits as being written by both her and William Shakespeare – Ophelia is reborn as a modern and free-thinking everywoman, one that experiences an awakening spiritually, philosophically, and sexually. Like Heiner Müller in his work Hamletmachine, Betts is fighting against the conventions that trapped Ophelia in Shakespeare’s original play. The play itself, however, is a bit of a conundrum. It is clear that the play is written with the goal of promoting a positive feminine worldview. Betts makes Ophelia the mouthpiece for every woman’s quandaries about her role, her religion, and her relationships. In doing so, however, Ophelia herself becomes rather lost. Though ensconced in a story that mirrors Hamlet in structure and resembles it in context, Ophelia isn’t really Shakespeare’s Ophelia; she is an entirely new character with the same name, thrust into a familiar situation rife with clichés, stereotypes, and a terrifying level of ignorance that she is forced to battle or to which she must succumb.
In an attempt to give Ophelia some complexity, Betts retells the story of Hamlet but takes other people’s words from Hamlet – and other Shakespearean plays like Romeo and Juliet – and stuffs them in Ophelia’s mouth. “To be or not to be – that is the question,” quotes Ophelia, mimicking Hamlet’s speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Betts 27; Shakespeare 64). “Now I could drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on!” Ophelia says later, again stealing Hamlet’s words (Betts 67; Shakespeare 83). This is sometimes effective, but not so much complex as confusing. Betts does the same for Gertrude and Horatio – who is the hero in this play more than Hamlet – and for a new character, Maid, who is eventually mistaken for Ophelia, goes crazy and drowns in Ophelia’s place. The goal is to give Shakespeare’s words new meaning by giving them to someone else and applying them to a different situation. Ophelia’s speech is more effective, however, when Betts gives her words of her own to speak.
The play turns Hamlet on its head, regurgitating the original plotline and filling it with subtexts to communicate a new message. Polonius is sleeping with the maid; Hamlet is an outright jerk and an idiot to boot; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very progressive-thinking men who turn out to (shocking!) really be women; and Gertrude is puppet master of the King who is, literally, a dummy. Everyone is preaching a different gospel to Ophelia – be this kind of woman or that kind of woman – but her enlightenment comes when she realizes that “a true Virgin is a woman who chooses her own direction; who is submissive to no one, who is in charge of her own life, who allows no one dominion over her inner being…” (Betts 44).
In the end, Ophelia emerges as a liberated heroine. She sleeps with Horatio, dresses up like Osric, and then becomes one of the players. In this way, Ophelia is given a chance to live. She ultimately fools the men who were abusing her, escapes the queen who wishes to change her, and avoids the fate of other women – such as Maid – who let others affect their decisions for better or worse. Betts’ Ophelia is a survivor, but then there is not much about her that really resembles Shakespeare’s Ophelia at all. She is a new Ophelia for a new time, with new impediments that she is, fortunately for her, clever enough to escape.