Response to Ofelia:
Lawrence Nowel:
Excerpta Quaedam Danica (1565)
Translated by Graham Holderness

Arthur Lindley

 

     1. In case any of you missed the clues, let's run through them quickly. We are offered what purports to be a translation of a manuscript without a physical location or cataloguing information, the original text of which is not provided. That text, wherever it may be, is a Latin translation of a lost Danish original. "There is no other trace of any of the 'Hamlet' documents translated in Nowel's manuscript" (Intro., ¶11), but they are "of course indisputably genuine." These are in turn linked to an unverified and unverifiable story, not even sourced, about a portrait whose whereabouts are also unknown (or at least not given). And all this is supposed to solve a mystery that apparently does not exist: if the historical Lawrence Nowel fled England in 1570, he somehow managed to retain the offices of rector of Drayton Bassett; Archdeacon of Derby, Dean of Lichfield, rector of Haughton, and Prebendary of York until his death in 1576, in spite of royal hostility (see DNB, s.v. Nowel). More remarkably perhaps, he managed to father a son who was baptized in St. Mary's church, Lichfield, on 7 December 1571.1 At this point, I probably don't have to remind you that if Graham Holderness had actually found a lost source for Hamlet, he would have taken the news to the New York Times, or at least The Guardian, rather than a scholarly journal of elite but modest circulation.

     2. We are dealing, it seems, with a not very well disguised "trap for the unwary scholar" (Intro., ¶13), as Graham Holderness's persona puts it: Hamlet rewritten as an epistolary novelette pretending to be a source, so that Shakespeare and/or Oxford can be accused of "pirating" the non-existent original. (Exactly how Shakespeare can be plagiarizing Nowel if Oxford wrote the play escapes me, but perhaps it's meant to.) The pastiche nature of the project at least explain why the style of the non-Shakespearean bits of both the Introduction and the "manuscript" lurches between A. S Byatt and Sylvie Krin, Private Eye's parodic version of Barbara Cartland, who is clearly responsible for the opening paragraph. Byatt seems to have been drafted in for the narrative of Ofelia's death, more post-modernized late-Victorian than medieval. Identifying this as a farrago is relatively easy; figuring out the point of the farrago is a good deal harder. Postmodern pastiche, after all, is usually supposed to be funny; this isn't. I mean, by the way, to express genuine puzzlement rather than critical sarcasm. I am used to finding Holderness useful.

     3. He is generous with possible points, of course, most of them disappointingly banal. We are offered, for the umpteenth time, Shakespeare the "shifty bumpkin" (Intro., ¶1) and upstart crow whom you will remember from his more amusing outings in Shakespeare in Love and Shaw's "Dark Lady of the Sonnets." In establishing Shakespeare as plagiarist, Holderness has even borrowed from Stoppard's Arcadia Septimus Hodge's trick of presenting a Latin translation of a famous speech as the original. In Stoppard, it's the barge speech from Antony and Cleopatra; here it's "what a piece of work." This involves us in a familiar, if faintly amusing game of authorship-as-theft in which the "actual words" of eleventh-century Danes are Latinized by Nowel so they can be plagiarized by Shakespeare/Oxford/whoever and presented as new creations. At this point, we are perhaps meant to remember Foucault's authorless, floating texts or simply to note that Holderness has invented his own ur-Hamlet, presented to us with appropriate irony as "altogether more fascinating" (Intro., ¶ 8) than Shakespeare's version. Otherwise, it is difficult for me to see why someone as clever as Graham Holderness would bother demystifying a figure that, for contemporary criticism, at least, is always already demystified.2

     4. Of course, Holderness's narrative also offers us a feminist decentering of Shakespeare's text -- Hamlet rewritten as the story of Ophelia -- that makes a similarly familiar case: Ophelia (or Ofelia) as the victim of pervasive masculine power and bad faith. In this version of the play's backstory, Polonius (with help from Laertes) not only procures her for the Prince, but offers him Ovidian advice on how to seduce her, which Hamlet promptly puts into practice (IX-X). This amplifies Hamlet's famous reference to Polonius as a "fish monger" (2.2.174 in the Riverside Shakespeare). while requiring us to imagine a Hamlet who takes stylistic as well as erotic advice from Polonius. Having made themselves complicit in the resulting affair, father and brother berate and coerce her pretty much as they do in the play. This leaves us with the melodrama -- again more Victorian or mock-Victorian than medieval -- of the good girl beset on all sides by bad men, even if the final predator turns out to be Gertrude. To be sure, the poor waif has been given a feminist make-over that allows her to claim that she has "with all reserve proper to a maid spoken out, as my learning and good sense have obliged me, whenever I have seen foolishness or injustice" (XXIX). The hints of a backbone in Ophelia's rebukes to Laertes in 1.3 are thus amplified into the real thing in Ofelia; both women remain, however, in the same role of entrapped and acted-upon victim. The only significant alteration is that Ofelia is rescued from Ophelia's watery death so that she can be killed in childbirth. Wouldn't it have been more fun to have her learn to swim?

     5. When Stoppard rewrites the play from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or when Updike does so from that of Gertrude and Claudius, they offer us fully fledged counter texts that re-imagine the story in profitable ways. What do the actions of the powerful insiders look like to powerless (and perpetually misled) outsiders? What might the choice between warrior king and courtier brother look like to Gertrude? What might be going on behind that character's impenetrable opacity? The "Ofelia Murder Case" that Holderness offers us at best amplifies what is already apparent in Laertes' self-righteously incestuous preoccupation with his sister's sexuality or Polonius's dirty-minded wittering on the same subject. We are, of course, offered a solution to that old tutorial puzzler about how Gertrude could have witnessed Ophelia's death without intervening. Gertrude's willow speech is now simply the last of the tale's many cover-ups. That puzzle, however, is normally used to disabuse undergraduates of the very assumptions on which this version at least pretends to operate: that the characters are real people engaged in realistic action, and that the play, in Umberto Eco's useful terms, is a detective story, whose mysteries can be solved, rather than a failed-detective story, whose insolubility is its primary point. It may be, I suppose, that the whole project is meant as a parody of source-hunting and mystery-solving scholarship; if so, I wish it were more amusing.

     6. If the Introduction offers us a whiff of that traditional West Midlands delicacy, the Oxford Red Herring, the text as a whole offers us the full barrow load of herrings: among others, a roman-a-clef about Elizabeth and Leicester; a (fictitious) chapter in the rivalry between the Admiral's and the Lord Chamberlain's Men; and a political fiction full of cover stories, spin-doctoring and state secrets that, again, is already better done in the play. No doubt I am being obtuse, but the point of all this -- what atom is being added to the sum of human knowledge or the criticism of the play -- eludes me. It is not merely that Stoppard and Updike play this game better; so, to my mind, does a reasonably skillful mystery writer like Philip Gooden, whose Sleep of Death has one of Burbage's company using the plot of Hamlet to script his own murders.3 I commend it moderately to your attention. I await further elucidation from Graham Holderness.

 

 

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Notes

1 See the International Genealogical Index: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp. I thank Lisa Hopkins for the reference.

2 For a useful and thorough summary of the process, see the Introduction ("The Author Formerly Known as Shakespeare") to Courtney Lehmann's impressive new book, Shakespeare Remains (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002), 1-24.

3 London: Robinson, 2000.

 

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Content copyright © 2003 Arthur Lindley.