Review: Ophelia

Ophelia by Lisa Klein

I found Lisa Klein’s Ophelia while picking over the Teen section of a Barnes & Noble. For whatever reason (probably the very nice cover), I wrote it down and it ended up on my list, from which it could not be revoked. On a lazy afternoon, picking through the Young Adult section at my local library, I found it and decided to take it home. Okay, I thought, A retelling of Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective. How bad can it be?

Ophelia retells the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of Ophelia, a Danish noblewoman and daughter of Polonius, adviser to King Hamlet and his successor, King Claudius. A motherless child, Ophelia spends her childhood copying her brother’s lessons until she is summoned to become one of Queen Gertrude’s ladies-in-waiting–where she meets and falls in love with Prince Hamlet. But their relationship takes a turn for the worse when Hamlet discovers that his uncle murdered his father and becomes hellbent on revenge.

Ophelia shoots itself in the foot right out of the gate by revealing that Ophelia faked her own death and is still quite alive. In itself, having Ophelia fake her own death is not a bad choice, but revealing it so early makes me mourn the missed tension–why not surprise an audience thinking she’s coming ever closer to her death? This brushing away of canon and lack of tension characterizes the entire book. While yes, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern do have precedent for being at the Danish court as early as Klein puts them at court, Hamlet’s university friends seem implemented only to make the Danish court feel like high school, complete with a mean girl Ophelia slut-shames without a second thought. These characters seem to be going through the motions more than anything else; it’s only Claudius and Gertrude that actually do anything organically. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is lackluster and dull– we’re never shown why either of these characters love each other or would even be interested in other, especially Ophelia, who spends a lot of the novel tearing up and pondering what on earth Hamlet could have meant by his seemingly mad utterings… despite the fact that Ophelia is in on the whole fake madness thing and could easily just ask. (Miscommunication! It’s a killer.) Of course, one of the biggest problems in the relationship is Ophelia herself.

Klein’s Ophelia is perfect. She’s beautiful, smart, clever, and, miraculously, a modern feminist in 1600s Denmark, something guaranteed to enrage this modern feminist. (Seeing historical characters with extremely modern ideas about gender, race, or anything else makes my skin crawl; it speaks to sloppy research and a desire to clean up history instead of making us like a heroine who doesn’t think like us.) She is presented as flawless and victimized, which makes for a pretty portrait, but not an interesting and engaging heroine. But as a reader, I found her whiny, especially in a portion of the novel where Ophelia does get herself to a nunnery, widowed and pregnant. When she hears the sisters gossiping about a nun who was expelled for her pregnancy, she starts panicking about what will happen once the nuns discover she is pregnant–despite the fact that she’s taken no vows and can prove the identity of her dead husband with a letter from Horatio. (Irritatingly, this forced conflict propels the last third of the novel.) I had wanted to like that section, Ophelia finally being in a female-dominated space where she can hash out her mother issues, but it was just silly, watching her panic and whine for no good reason. The icing on the cake, however, is that a character commends Ophelia for her supposed bravery, which made me roll my eyes.

I completely understand Klein’s impulse in trying to give Ophelia a fair shake–I do it all the time with The Legend of Zelda, as Zelda, despite being the titular legend, doesn’t get much screentime. (I feel this is a fair comparison, as fanfiction is fanfiction.) But my fanon (kiss your productivity goodbye!) works with existing flaws and even adds them; this Zelda is a coward, that Zelda uses her manifest destiny for material benefit. Klein expands the canon well in a few spots; for instance, Ophelia knows about herb lore based on her madness scene (which, in a parallel wasted here, recalls Hamlet’s feigned madness). But if canon doesn’t agree with her idea of Ophelia, she breezily dismisses it–instead of exploring the conflict the play’s Ophelia feels between the commands of her father and the pull of her heart, Klein makes Ophelia, at a young age, start disregarding whatever her father says. (According to the summary on her website, Lady Macbeth’s Daughter deals with canon similarly.) I can see why a teenage girl might pick this up after reading Hamlet for class–but I can also see her putting it down again, wondering why this character is so flat.

Bottom line: Lisa Klein’s impulse to give Ophelia fair shake in Ophelia is a noble one, but the execution is poor and Ophelia is turned into a flawless, beautiful, and modern woman who spends most of the novel whining her little heart out. Misunderstandings that would be easy to clear up are forced to act as conflict, since Klein has removed most of the conflict Ophelia has in Hamlet. Skip it.

I rented this book from the public library.

16 thoughts on “Review: Ophelia

  1. Ugh. I’m so with you on hating it when historical characters have overly modern ideas. Hate, hate, hate that. I’ve encountered a few cases where characters are ahead of their time in a few areas, and that can work, but all too often historical fiction heroines end up being women you could drop into the 21st century, and they wouldn’t bat an eye. I just don’t understand it. Do authors think we can’t accept people who think differently from us?

  2. Yup, totally agree with you and Teresa re:historical characters with Modern Views. It’s why I liked The Tapestry Shop so much despite not liking the romance part of it– no one had a modern viewpoint anywhere! And I think the author even went out of her way to demonstrate that, sometimes, lol.

    Anyway, don’t think I’ll be reading this book. Good review, though! 😀

  3. I wouldn’t have thought a retelling from Ophelia’s POV could be very bad either, but apparently it can :S One of the things I love about older fiction and well done historical fiction is exactly that it invites me to engage with characters who hold views I find problematic at best AND see them as human beings despite them. So yeah, I’m very much with you there. Taking that way just defeats the purpose.

  4. Oh dear. That just sounds like a trainwreck…which is unfortunate since the motivation is noble, as you say. I have to say that to see characters that aren’t totally boxed into their history (I mean, hell, people are different everywhere and in all times–even if there are certain general, social group-think limitations), but it does feel a bit weird to read about someone who might as well be a time traveler–especially without any story explaining why they would have such outrageous (for their time) views.

    On a related note: I do find it absolutely fascinating that Ophelia has become the (female) character m0st re-appropriated from Shakespeare. I mean truly re-appropriated as in trying to give her story, life, and fairness. Sure, there’s a ton of Mirandas out there, but Ophelia is the one that has become the posterchild for assorted nonfictions and fictions.

    • Exactly!

      I think it’s because Ophelia gets killed off vaguely (did she kill herself? Did she slip? Did Gertrude do the deed?) and because of her doomed relationship with Hamlet. To be honest, the most spirited tragic female in Shakespeare is probably Desdemona, which surprised me when I read Othello this year.

      • Othello is quite a few years behind me, so I have to admit that I’ve pretty much completely forgotten every character other than Iago… Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the strong/dangerously ambitious women in Shakespeare: Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth… But I think you’re right: Shakespeare’s ambiguity dealing with Ophelia is most probably what keeps her alive now. 🙂

  5. I liked how you said “it speaks to . . . a desire to clean up history instead of making us like a heroine who doesn’t think like us.” I think an important result of an active reading life is the development of empathy for a diverse range of people. Making historical characters more palatable to modern tastes works against that, and also makes those characters more forgettable.

  6. Blech. I love the notion of retelling familiar stories from a new point of view, but it’s hard to make a success out of it, especially a story with lots of details that you have to stick to. Fairy tales are easier because they’re vague and have a dozen different versions.

    • I’m a writer who believes in limits, so I actually find working around details fun and creative. (This is probably why I enjoy writing fanfiction.) But you’re quite right–fairy tales are easier, because you can fudge without people calling you out.

  7. Pingback: Review: Wildthorn « The Literary Omnivore

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