Books Magazine

Book Review: Ophelia by Lisa Klein

Posted on the 04 July 2013 by Anytimeyoga @anytimeyoga

The bad news: I accidentally left my copy 2000 miles away while visiting. Therefore, regardless of how much I like or dislike the book, it will not be up for giveaway here. Also, from here on after, there may be spoilers.

Bussiere Ophelia

[By Gaston Bussiere [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]

The book.

The premise: Very simply, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as told from Ophelia’s point of view. It starts with her backstory, before she meets Hamlet, and well before the events that make up the play Hamlet.

Content concerns: Ableism, particularly in the form of affecting “craziness” to facilitate specific ends. Additionally, a brief scene of non-consensual sexual contact (involving Ophelia but not Hamlet).

What I liked: I like retellings of Shakespeare in general. I especially like retellings that have a “this is what really happened” effect, sort of like when a magician repeats and reveals how they’ve accomplished a particular trick. I like to see the written sleight of hand. This book definitely attempts such an effect, though I’m not sure how successfully it accomplishes it. But the attempt was always enough to make me root for it — and to keep me reading — in the hope it would succeed.

I also appreciated that Ophelia fleshed out the stories and personalities of both Ophelia and Queen Gertrude. Moreover, it creates a relationship between Ophelia and Gertrude that is believable and satisfying. Ophelia has grown up motherless — you know, as Shakespearean characters are wont to do — so when her father moves into the king’s service and her brother goes away to school, she is particularly lonely. The queen takes Ophelia into service, out of some combination of pity and amusement, as a lady in waiting — where Ophelia proceeds to fail miserably at tasks like insipid giggling and needlework (can’t say that I blame her). At some point, Gertrude discovers that Ophelia has an interest in and talent for reading (in multiple languages — apparently she used to do Laertes’s homework for him), and instructs Ophelia to read both for the ladies in waiting and for the queen herself. That personal reading gives room for some deeper discussions and heart to heart talks and stuff. I’m making light of it here — partly to avoid spoilers — but some of the strongest parts of this novel are Ophelia recognizing her own talents and strengths and Ophelia’s forming of strong female relationships, both of which happen in this particular arc of the story.

Beyond that, Ophelia’s relationship with Gertrude is instrumental because it allows her to observe the queen with some of the other people at court. So when her first husband dies, and Gertrude abruptly marries Claudius, there is a reason behind it — a reason that has been carefully building for a number of chapters. The second marriage is not a thing that happens to Gertrude; it is a choice she makes for reasons of her own. It is incredibly satisfying to see a version of Hamlet where both Ophelia and the queen are actors determining their own fates — at least inside their circumstances — rather than as passive plot points.

That said —

What I didn’t like: A lot, unfortunately.

Hamlet, for starters. I don’t think Klein’s characterization of him is consistent with Shakespeare’s, which isn’t a negative in itself — after all, it works for Gertrude and Ophelia — but I have a hard time believing that this Hamlet performs the some of the key actions of late in the play and, more importantly, that he has those very Hamlet-esque psychological dilemmas before doing so. In fact, he has an arrogance and self-absorption that remind me more of Claudius (as he’s portrayed in the novel) than it does of any other character. So it’s tough to buy that Ophelia — on the whole, intelligent and good judge of character that she is in this book — is infatuated, let alone in love, with this Hamlet while she is equally repulsed (and rightly so) by this Claudius.

Similarly, I also have problems believing the master plan that Hamlet and Ophelia devise in order to both keep Hamlet safe from Claudius’s wrath and to allow Hamlet to exact his revenge on his uncle/step-father. It just… no. Even knowing that Klein was constrained by Shakespeare’s plot line, I was left going, “What? And you thought that would work?”

And so, it’s hard to love a book when the climax sucks. Almost by definition, the resolution is left wanting.

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