Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday. I’ve been thinking about how life-changing his work has been for me, how he more than anyone else has taught me the power of words and their arrangement. He arranged words in such a way that we can easily distinguish characters, mood, time, and relationships. And he was a magician, a wizard.
Consider Taming of the Shrew. Katherine and Petruchio’s extraordinary exchanges are mind-blowingly crisp, directed, expressive, and at times fun.
But for me, the most powerful scene I have read– I say “read” not “seen” because I’ve seen enough incredible Shakespeare, particularly The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet, that there is no way I could single one out– is the scene at Ophelia’s grave, starting with Laertes’ opening question.
I love Laertes’ raw, angry, destitute grief. I love how he takes it out on everyone. I love Hamlet’s glorious expression of love, mixed with what has to be a significant dose of guilt.
So the scene is this: Hamlet was shipped off to England to either recover his wits or whatever. Actually he was to be executed, but, spoiler alert: he got the better of Claudius. Hamlet is back in time to see Ophelia, who may or may not have taken her own life, be buried. This is the first time he learns of her death. And Laertes is back from school and is very, very upset.
So when the funeral is to be simple, Laertes’ question is a pointed one. But since Ophelia is believed to have taken her own life, the priest refuses ceremony for her.
What ceremony else?
That is Laertes,
A very noble youth: mark.
What ceremony else?
Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warrantise: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.
Must there no more be done?
No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
Lay her i’ the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.
What, the fair Ophelia!
Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.
O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:
Leaps into the grave
Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.
[Advancing] What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.
Leaps into the grave
The devil take thy soul!
Grappling with him
Thou pray’st not well.
I prithee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I something in me dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear: hold off thy hand.
Pluck them asunder.
Good my lord, be quiet.
The Attendants part them, and they come out of the grave
Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.
O my son, what theme?
I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?
O, he is mad, Laertes.
For love of God, forbear him.
‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.
This is mere madness:
And thus awhile the fit will work on him;
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.
Hear you, sir;
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever: but it is no matter;
Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.
I pray you, good Horatio, wait upon him.
Strengthen your patience in our last night’s speech;
We’ll put the matter to the present push.
Good Gertrude, set some watch over your son.
This grave shall have a living monument:
An hour of quiet shortly shall we see;
Till then, in patience our proceeding be.