In this cycle of four songs I have tried to show the change which takes place in Ophelia: From a normal healthy young woman at the beginning of the play into the tragic and pitiable figure who takes her own life at the end.
There are four movements (I have included the directions to the performers from the score (below)):
Ophelia 1 (Hamlet, act 2, scene 1)
In this first song (a spoken text in "Hamlet") she is telling her father, Polonius, of Hamlet's very strange behaviour towards her. She believes he is showing symptoms of genuine madness and is very worried about him.
It is important that the singer (and also the pianist) show this normal agitated concern. In the last line (which is repeated in the song) one should suddenly have the feeling that this feigned madness of Hamlet's has had a very real effect on Ophelia, and that this “light” which, as she says, is “bended on her”, will be the cause of her own madness.
My Lord, as I was sewing in my chamber, Lord Hamlet, his doublet all unbraced, No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle, Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, And with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosèd out of hell To speak of horrors, he comes before me.
He took me by the wrist and held me hard, Then goes he to the length of all his arm, And with his other hand thus o'er his brow He falls to such perusal of my face As a would draw it. Long stayed he so. At last, a little shaking of my arm, And thrice his head thus waving up and down, He raised a sigh so piteous and profound That it seemed to shatter all his bulk And end his being.That done, he lets me go, And, with his head over his shoulder turned, He seemed to find his way without his eyes, For out o’ doors he went without their help, And to the last bended their light on me.
Ophelia 2 (Hamlet, act 3, scene 1)
This song starts with a mood of intense sadness, bordering on depression. At first Ophelia is horrified at what has happened to Hamlet, but gradually this compassion changes into self pity.
Towards the end she breaks out of her depression into anger, but it is no longer normal anger, she is already slightly demented.
O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword, The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form, Th'observed of all observers, quite, quite, down! And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, That sucked the honey of his music vows, Now see that noble and most sovereign reason Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh; That unmatched form and feature of blown youth Blasted with ecstacy. O woe is me, T'have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
Ophelia 3 (Hamlet, act 4, scene 5)
Ophelia is no more the noble lady of the first song. She is not however completely insane, there is still “method in her madness”.
The singer should show a difference between the anger and bitterness of this song, and the complete withdrawal from the world in the fourth song.
One has the feeling in this third song, that she knows very well what she is saying and how it affects the listener (the Queen, Hamlet's mother) but she uses a language and a delivery which is the very opposite of that of the noble lady of the first song.
Her anger with Hamlet for having given her to believe he loved her and now, for no apparent reason, for having rejected her, seems to have robbed her of her own reason.
She believes that Hamlet has used her like a whore and deserted her, and so she now acts the role of a whore. Because she is already slightly mad she is oblivious to the pain that her behaviour and uncouth language has on those around her.
How should I your true love know From another one?— By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon.
He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone. At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone.
White his shroud as the mountain snow— Larded with sweet flowers, Which bewept to the grave did–not–go With true-love showers.
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window To be your Valentine
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes, And dupped the chamber door; Let in the maid, that out a maid Never departed more.
By Gis, and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do't if they come to't, By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she ‘Before you tumbled me You promised me to wed.’ So would I ‘a’ done, by yonder sun, And thou hadst not come to my bed.
Ophelia 4 (Hamlet, act 4, scene 5)
She now appears to have passed from the phase of the demented woman into that of the innocent child.
Her span of attention is short and she springs from one idea to another.
One moment she is “teaching” those around her the words or steps of a dance and the next she has either withdrawn into herself or she has returned momentarily to the mood of the last song. These changes should be visually and aurally obvious.
In the play she should be speaking to the King, Hamlet's uncle, but instead she talks passed him to an imaginary audience. She teaches them about the plants she has gathered and as she distributes them to imaginary bystanders, she jumps from one world to another.
In this last phase of the fourth song, she has withdrawn completely into her own world.
In the very last line, she tries to come out of this imaginary world but she doesn't quite succeed.
They bore him barefaced on the bier, Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny, And on his grave rained many a tear– Fare you well, my dove.
You must sing ‘Down, a-down’, and you, ‘Call him a-down-a’ O how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward that stole his master's daughter.
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember: and there is pansies; that's for thoughts.
There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say a made a good end. For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
And will a not come again, And will a not come again? No, no, he is dead, Go to thy death-bed, He never will come again.
His beard as white as snow, All flaxen was his poll. He is gone, he is gone, And we cast away moan. God ‘a’ mercy on his soul. (spoken) And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi’ ye.