They Say He Made A Good End

Quick, what’s the saddest line in Hamlet? Maybe you went for “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” Horatio’s final words to his dying friend (often spoken while cradling Hamlet’s head in his lap).  I have to admit, that’s a good one.  But it doesn’t tear me up like it used to.  [If you’re going to stake out the final lines of a Shakespearean tragedy for sadness, give me Lear leaning over his dead daughter, believing that she’s still speaking to him.] For me it comes earlier, and it comes from a different character.

“I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end—”

That’s spoken by Ophelia, whose boyfriend Hamlet (apparently crazy in his own right) has killed her father Polonius.  Hamlet is now banished to England.  Her brother Laertes, for what it’s worth, is off back to school as well.  So she’s quite alone to deal with this turn of events. Ophelia has lost her mind by this point (in stark contrast to Hamlet’s “feigned” madness that still has method in it, Ophelia makes little sense at all) but it’s clear that her father’s death has hit her very hard.  Though much of her song is about Hamlet (and being tumbled before being wed, whatever she’s alluding to there…), most is about “being dead and gone….will not come again….” and "lay him in the cold ground…at his heels a stone….” I’m intrigued primarily by the second half of that sentence.  They say he made good end.  Well technically no, he didn’t – he was run through quite unexpectedly and unfairly when he was hiding behind an arras in the queen’s bedchamber.  Never even had a chance to defend himself.  I suppose you could argue that he stayed in the room at all in an attempt to protect the Gertrude? Question – where at this point do you think Ophelia’s line comes from?  Do you think somebody actually told her the circumstances of Polonius’ death, and if so, do you figure they embellished?  I suppose that’s the likely answer – “Your father gave his life to protect the queen, when Hamlet, clearly mad, attempted to do her harm.” Do you think she knows the real story, and this is something of a denial – she’s tells herself, out loud, that he made good end as a way of coping with the unfortunate circumstances that really occurred?  Refuses to believe that her father was taken away so quickly and cruelly in such a pointless manner? [We haven’t done one of these  in a while, and I should really post more like this.  This is the stuff I like.  Some people love to dig into punctuation and “form” and such, but for me it’s the psychology of the characters I find most fascinating.  I could forever read between the lines of what Shakespeare does not tell us.]

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16 thoughts on “They Say He Made A Good End

  1. My personal belief (and should I ever get to play Ophelia, I'll make sure this is supported) is that she overheard the madness of the Prince after he hid Polonius's body and made obscene jokes about it. Once Polonius's death is verified, so must the story of Hamlet's insane and gruesome actions. That, more than anything, might make his former lover go mad with grief. That he could use and abuse her father's body so ill.

    The line that always makes me cry to say is Paulina's from Winter's Tale "nor is it directly laid to thee the death of the young prince, whose honorable thoughts, thoughts high for one so tender cleft the heart that could concieve a gross and foolish sire blemish'd his gracious dam…"

  2. That? More than anything?

    More than the fact that she's been forced to live without Hamlet by the very person for whom she now grieves?

    Or, perhaps she hated her father for ordering her to repulse Hamlet at every turn; for literally USING her callously to bait the trap for Hamlet, knowing of her love for him; knowing, of course, that his chief concern was not at all for her but for himself, his own stature in the court; knowing that his meddling, manipulative, machiavellian ways are what have set on the series of events which have now left her VERY alone, with neither of perhaps the two most important men in her life?
    Perhaps, she has been left with a guilt she can't sustain, cannot live with; thinks it's all her fault?

    Or perhaps she's simply of a constitution prone to a mental breakdown when being dealt a series of blows by fate over which she's completely powerless? (Much like the state of things some other character in the play has been forced to deal with All Along–Loss of a father, apparent willing betrayal by a lover–How ironic that she was willing to play such a large role in helping to deceive this other character and bring the situation to a further state of confusion)

    Or perhaps her madness lies in the recognition of the futility of even beginning to try to figure out what's happened in this morass of intrigue and deception; this "play-acted" of plays, where even the most honest of them all is forced to play a role he'd rather not undertake, has brought about an unmitigated sadness in recognizing it can no longer be "fixed"–it's broken, mangled, disordered beyond repair. The only 'real' and understandable thing is the futility. It will now go on and on–forever. Why go on living?

    Or, perhaps it's all Hamlet's fault, as you have said.

  3. I think you give a great deal of credit to Ophelia, JM. I suppose my opinion of her has always been skewed by the Olivier – somewhat of a mindless innocent who goes where and does what she's told by the men in her life (Hamlet included). Once they are all gone she loses it.

    I know that others have portrayed her as more rebellious, trapped by her own circumstances but well aware of how lousy her deal is. I think that's wishful thinking. I think that her situation does suck, no doubt about it, and there's nothing really that she brings about herself, it's all just the nature of what's around her. But that's what makes her story the more pathetic. At least Hamlet has something to do with his own demise. Ophelia's basically doomed and can't do anything about it.

  4. I lived with the Olivier impression for a long while myself, Duane. It ties into something we've spoken about before.

    Interpretations, most times at best highly theoretical and almost always seriously lacking in completeness of scope, can leave an imprinting that's almost as hard to remove as a tattoo. Although their aim may be laser-sighted and accurately honed-in on the desired target, the focus is seriously muddied elsewhere.

    As you know, Freud ruled Olivier's interpretation, so we forgive Hamlet because he's under the powerful influence of the mumbo-jumbo that is the Oedipus Complex. He's a 'helpless' woman-hater.

    But remove the theoretical nonsense and Ophelia simply has to take SOME responsibility, for no other reason other than she's a sentient being!– with all that's going on in front of her face?

    Trouble is, we've removed Hamlet's safety net while we still look at Ophelia through the same rose colored lens. Result? Poor, poor, pitiful Ophelia.
    Baad Hamlet, baad, bad Hamlet.

    In reality, she–and circumstances– render him helpless to help her, though he would otherwise. It's right there in the play, in the lines, on the page. To hell with "interpretation". 🙂

    "I loved Ophelia"

  5. But where is Hamlet's guilt? Am I missing the bit where he says "Wow, maybe dumping her without provocation, letting her think I'm crazy, accidentally killing her dad and then playing hide and seek with his body might have had just a *teensy* bit to do with her mental breakdown?" Is his profession of love too little, too late? Is he just one-upping the annoying Laertes with a "who loved her more" contest?

  6. His profession of love was Spurned–remember? Continually– by…Ophelia. Why does everyone seem to want to forget this?

    Hamlet thinks he's lost Ophelia even before the nunnery scene. Polonius should not have been spying on a private conversation between the Queen and her son, the Prince. Claudius knows now that Hamlet KNOWS–it could have been an assassin behind the arras. HE CAN'T TRUST a SOUL–not even his mother–tough stuff, that, don't you think?

    And I don't think she's lurking around witnessing any of Hamlet's " I just killed Polonius, whoops… hey everyone,see how loopy I still am? Don't kill me yet…ok?" Of course it's going to affect her. To the that she loops out immediately and from no other cause–no.
    But Hamlet's in a bit of a fix at the moment. The last thing that would be on my mind is explaining myself to someone who I truly believe has betrayed me–former lover or not. He's immediately, on the wind, whisked off to England.

    LOL! …the "annoying" Laertes.
    And he is isn't he? He's the one acting like a freaking lunatic and Gertrude and Claudius are busy apologizing to HIM–I guess, because at the moment Hamlet seems to have forgotten his manners, and has something of a vested interest in removing Laertes' hands, which are, at the moment, closing off the air from his windpipe.
    Gertrude asks Hamlet, sincerely, what is the problem!?–with HIM!
    He responds simply and sincerely -to her-[Mom,] I loved Ophelia".[YOU KNEW THAT!] She has stated, only just seconds before, her wish that Hamlet and Ophelia had been wed.
    Now, with dual purpose of underpinning his previous simple statement, and as both an admonishment (he announces himself as Hamlet The Dane!–he's come to claim, remember) and an appeal to reason and sincerity (even though he IS The Dane, the Prince–soon to be King if fate allows) to this somewhat cheeky would-be murderer, the guy who still wants to choke the life out of him, and to those Subjects attending this display (he still demurs to an extent though he need not).: "Forty thousand brothers…etc. MOM, still embarrassed by the Victim of attempted murder– "he's mad".

    The inmates are in charge of the asylum! They have been through the entirety of the play up to this point.

  7. "His profession of love was Spurned–remember? Continually– by…Ophelia. Why does everyone seem to want to forget this?"

    Are you talking about when Ophelia returns his gifts? I've always taken it as a given that he saw right through that – she's doing what Dad told her to do. True, that only adds to his feelings for the frailty of women in general, but it's not like he so much as breaks character. I've always liked the idea of Hamlet as someone who thinks much, much faster than the people around him. From the minute Ophelia walks up to him and says "Here, take back your gifts" I like to imagine in that brief space of time that he's already seen exactly what's going on, and while it crushes him (on many levels), he can't let it break the facade he's put up. At this point, he essentially uses Ophelia as a pawn in his own game just like Polonius and Claudius have done. Does she deserve it?

  8. If he thought she'd ever allow it, he might have continued to attempt to communicate with her. But "psyche Hamlet!!! "PS–take everything you've ever given me and… g'day."

    But this isn't the first time she's had less than the time of day for Hamlet. Polonius has, at Laertes departure, commanded her to repulse him at every turn, every attempt at contact or communication–letters, visits, all. Presumably, this has gone on for some time, since her report of Hamlet's appearing "down-gyv'd" is immediately following Reynaldo's exit, after a scene during which Polonius instructs Reynaldo in the fine art of lies and deception, then sends him out to spy on his own son after time (?) Laertes has spent in France. (a scene most often cut, in play and film, and more the pity, for its absence has deprived many of an understanding of the real quality of Polonius' nature.) "To thine own self be true…blah, blah, blah…"

    Don't buy a used car from this guy.

    By the way, the state of Hamlet's dress, when he appears to Ophelia, just happens to be an often depicted iconic representation of the jilted or pining lover. Even then her response is? Nothing.
    I wouldn't say Hamlet feels as though he's too much abusing ANYONE HE KNOWS.
    Of the gifts he says "No, no: I never gave YOU aught".ie. This YOU is not anyone I know, (nor has it been for quite some time I think) Also very significant in that he still speaks in respectful pronouns–not lover's pronouns, but keeps her on his own level all the way up to "I did love you once, etc.. Not until "Get THEE to… does he condescend. The 'thee' he might have used, had she seemed willing at all to smooth over the waters,or even signal an attempt to at least point him in the direction of the cliff off which she so suddenly pushed him immediately after Laertes' departure, is now a quantum shift away from the manner in which he now addresses her with 'thee'.

    He's given her every opportunity–she says/does more of what has now become her all too usual response. Signal or no signal of her possible further and more damning betrayal as a spy:

    Is he now talking to Ophelia–or to someone else?

  9. Time management is quite the nightmare in Hamlet, I have to admit. Even when the Reynaldo scene is left in, the audience not paying attention could gloss over it as Polonius sending the spy right on top of Laertes' exit – you even have a (?) next to your "after a time" comment.

    That passage of time might appear obvious upon analysis, but the audience could miss it completely and think that Hamlet's reaction comes immediately upon Ophelia's dumping of him.

    If, as you say, Ophelia has repulsed him at every turn and this has gone on for some time, then what is the significance of the returning of gifts, in your view? Have you visited the "Hamlet vs Ophelia" videos I put up, yet? I'm curious which of them is closest to your own interpretation. I have not had time enough with each of them yet, it's hard for me to get past seeing the individual actors. I'm pleased to have found Kevin Kline's version, while I tend to be more critical of Brannagh. I can appreciate his performance without necessarily liking his character, if that makes sense.

    By the way, your comment serves as a far better example of the "you" to "thee" transition than I got out of Shakespeare on Toast. Maybe that's just because the scene here is more familiar to me. But I see exactly what it means, now.

  10. Time:
    Reynaldo leaves. Ophelia rushes in, describes Hamlet's "visit"–in the conversation
    Polonius: "What, have you given him any hard words of late?"
    Ophelia: No, my good lord, but as you did command,/I did repel his letters and denied/His access to me.

    In the gift-returning scene itself:
    Ham:"…Be all my sins remembered." Ophelia: "Good my lord. How does your honor for this many a day?"

    Hard for anyone not hard of hearing to recognize that some goodly amount of time has passed.

    Once again, it's in the lines themselves.

    The significance of gift-returning?
    Could it be that Ophelia has resigned herself to the fact that the relationship is impossible? She certainly seems to have played the role rather well. And Dad hasn't, with all of his protesting about Hamlet being "mad for love" of Ophelia, reconsidered his initial estimation of Hamlet's lack of sincerity!
    Or, maybe it's one more "suggestion" of credibility from the architect of deception, Polonius–(she hasn't really been "praying" either)–"icing" on the sadistic cake he's having both Ophelia and Hamlet gorge on in order to prove his theory to the court!

    My take is really less of an "interpretation" than it is simply following the script and deducing from the hard evidence there. I haven't foisted any grand theories in need of over-analyzed extrapolation for their substantiation. It's simply what I'd do were I playing a role or directing others in them.
    –What makes the most sense? What cannot be denied in face of the evidence on the page? Therein lies at least a smattering of truth. A foundation to build on.

    Glad I could be of help with the pronoun thing. And no I haven't yet seen the videos but to thumb through the page. I'll give a look. It's great of you Duane to do the work to get them there.

  11. I disagree, JM, with just how obvious it may be. Obvious, perhaps, to those who already know the answer. But the casual "this many a day" comment could just as easily be read as a "So, how've you been?" It's formal, yes, but give no indication of whether the two have not spoken in 3 days or 3 months.

    Likewise with her shutting him down – it could have been mere days.

  12. So the strongest impression left with you as to the passage of time, from Laertes' long trip to Paris from Elsinore and the time taken for his establishing residence, friends, and habits to "spy on", the appearance of the Ghost to Hamlet, time for Ophelia to repulse all of Hamlet's repeated attempts–letter(S), visit(S),, the time for Hamlet to respond to Ophelia's REPEATED denials, and for him to have, as a result, (this observation by Polonius:"And he, repulsed, a short tale to make,/Fell into a sadness, then into a FAST,/Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,/Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension/Into the madness whereon now he raves,/And we all mourn for.), the King and Queen's decision to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a possible "fix" for the behavior they've been observing for what, a few days? R&G's travel to the court from 'the city", decision made to send for The Players, their travel to the court,–all this has happened in mere days?–possibly 3 or less?
    If so, you're the first person I've ever known who got that impression about the passage of time relative to the events they've observed in the play. Certainly it has taken much more than a few days for Hamlet to DECLINE into this "madness", and for those around him to become alarmed, reactive, and attempt to look for the causes of it, and solutions for it. This is the "obvious" impression, and doesn't "look for" an explanation; unless of course someone decides on making it an issue in order to prove something else other than what has actually occurred in the play. Ah…theories, theories, theories.
    And yes, although "many a day" in particular could be construed by the modern ear to be colloquial and indefinite, it isn't up for discussion as to how long a time; it literally means MANY, AND MANY, DAYS.

  13. My original point was only ever that the time management is difficult in Hamlet, particularly to a modern audience. You have yet to show me a clue that, to a modern ear, would clearly say "Oh, ok, 2 years has passed." Fine, sometimes my "3 days" comments are no way near the mark, but that doesn't change the fact that a colloquial "this many a day" could mean many different things.

    I think you are combing your knowledge of the text for "obvious" details, when I am trying to look at it from the point of view of an audience member, who does not have the text in front of them. Assuming that the Reynaldo scene is left in, and assuming that the text is not liberally edited, there's still nothing in what you've said to substantially change my point. If it is a *long* trip to Paris for Laertes then it will be a *long* trip for Reynaldo, too, and even if he sets off a week after Laertes did, the instructions are still the same – find out where he hangs out, see who his friends are, etc… There's nothing in that advice that says "Ok, he has to be set up in all of his habits first, before I send the spy." I think it probably works better the other way, that Polonius is so distrusting of his son that he sends a spy before Laertes has even had the chance to take up residence and make new friends.

    Meanwhile, in the second half of that scene where Ophelia enters, she tells Polonius "I did as you command". That's an odd thing to say if this is happening months after the advice, isn't it? In the context of this scene it sounds like we're supposed to believe that she dumped him with no explanation and hasn't spoken to him in months, and only now, like a like switch does the madness come over him and Polonius is all "Ah, yes, even though you haven't been speaking to him for months, now he's gone mad."

    Time goes by. Yes, it has to. Some generic, undetermined amount. Look at later in the play, how long is Hamlet gone to England? Do we have any idea, does it matter? Should the gravedigger recognize him?

  14. I never said anything like "2 years". But honestly, I think it's silly to think that anyone would assume that with all the events taking place in between, that only a few days have passed between Polonius' command that Ophelia repel Hamlet's advances, Hamlets declension into "madness", etc., and the nunnery scene. The whole point is that whatever has happened, it has been happening for a length of time–the 'length' long enough for what's been happening to have the effect that it does.

    What's been happening? Ophelia has been repulsing Hamlet's advances. And nowhere in the play does Hamlet "drop", "dump", "call it quits", 'spurn", "repulse", or otherwise "abuse" Ophelia before the scene. In fact, it is quite the other way around.
    We've come full circle with this argument Duane. We're back to what began the discussion in the first place.

    I realize that shortening whatever length of time it may be helps to support a theory that Hamlet's just a jerk and acts the way he does all the time; naturally–that it's merely par for the course; that he maligns Ophelia for no good reason out of some deep personality defect. That he lacks "feelings" and all the other nonsense heedlessly wrung out of his behavior in the nunnery scene. And that Ophelia is totally innocent of any interactive responsibility as per the demise of their relationship. This is the "popular" notion.

    The only support for it is a created one. Or a denial of the events in the play as they occur.

    That she has spurned him without provocation is the point.And for however long it has happened, it most surely has "been happening"–more than once.

    This isn't "buried" info anyone has to dig for. And the only reason an audience member might think otherwise, is in the case of someone that brings their preconceived notions with them to their seat in row three in the theatre.

  15. We know that Claudius is spreading false reports of how Polonius died. (When Laertes shows up in IV.5, he's demanding to know the truth of how his father died. And IV.7 starts with Claudius basically saying, "Okay, now that I've told you what really happened, let's talk about how we're going to deal with Hamlet…")

    My first assumption, therefore, is that Ophelia is referring to these false reports. And, I would argue, she is aware that they're lies. Not merely "he made a good end", but "They say he made a good end…"

    @Duane: To me Ophelia has to have the strength and wit to attract Hamlet in the first place (and also to justify Gertrude's line later in the play that she had hoped she would become his wife). You can see the ravaged, bitter remnants of what would have once been witty by-play between the two in their scenes together.

    Ultimately, I feel Ophelia is destroyed by a tragic flaw: She chooses her father over her husband. (Compare with Hermia from MND or Desdemona from OTHELLO. The latter may die, but she is portrayed as virtuous for her choice.) The destruction of her life is a direct consequence of that weakness.

  16. Justin Alexander wrote: "To me Ophelia has to have the strength and wit to attract Hamlet in the first place…"

    That's an important point. It's also evident earlier in the play when Ophelia sweetly and demurely, but with wit and intelligence exceeding Laertes' "common book" knowledge, gives her brother better than he sends re: his 'ways of the world advice'.

    Whatever can be said about Shakespeare's women, even when in so-called helpless situations, they are surely not helpless AND dumb; misinformed, maybe, but in the case of Hamlet and Ophelia they're both misinformed–Tragically so. And neither can let the other know certain things which would alleviate the the need to remove the masks they both must wear in order to protect themselves from the things they fear. As a result, again SO tragically, they fear each other without the need to do so. They can't help themselves even though they would help each other; continue to "miss" each other because both must hide for reasons neither of them gladly accept, but choose to accept because they feel they must.

    As I've said here before, the theme of "miss"-conception continues to rear its ugly head. And ultimately, the root "fault" lies with neither Hamlet nor Ophelia. Both are manipulated by people and circumstances which are out of their control. Watching them "miss" each other over and over again in the 'nunnery' scene when you know BOTH crave for something quite different–there's real tragedy.

    But it can't be found, or given the weight it deserves, if we're busy trying to 'blame' one or the other. Unfortunately, the play "Hamlet" is more often 'read into' before it's read–or seen, because of what I mentioned in an earlier post. The images and ideas already provided for us by the "experts" and "image-makers" don't help, and constantly reinforce someone else's notion of what's going on in the play.

    Coincidentally Duane, the subject of "Hamlet the Jerk" was a topic on "shakespeareplace" blog a short time before you posted "They say He Made a Good End". Stop by if you're interested.
    PS- Of course you knew I'd choose Branagh's interpretation.:) There are some things I disagree with, but he's certainly brought more of "Shakespeare" to it (what's on the page) than I've seen before. 🙂

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