Bizarro Atlanta, Summer of 1996

World Athlete's Monument

Midtown Atlanta, with The World Athletes Monument in the foreground, 4 September 2009.

“The world is coming to Atlanta!”
—Ad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

For seventeen days in the summer of 1996, Atlanta entered the Bizarro World, where the downtown connector was clear, MARTA was packed, and the world stopped by for a visit. Less than a year before, Atlanta had been thrilled when the Braves brought home their first and only World Series pennant since coming to town, so spirits were high as ’96 dawned. Atlanta had worked hard to get the Olympics, under the watchful eye of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG as it was more commonly known. They were responsible for everything from seeing that the city was ready for the influx of international athletes and spectators, to giving the Atlanta Games the worst mascot in the entire history of sports in the form of Whatizit, or Izzy, the blue blob in sneakers which had absolutely nothing to do with the city’s past, present or future. The Paralympics, held a month or so afterward in the same venues, got it right with their mascot, Blaze, which was based on Atlanta’s symbol, the Phoenix.

Whatizit, or Izzy

Whatizit or Izzy, the much-maligned mascot of the ’96 Games. Really, ACOG?

At the time of the Olympics, I was serving as Membership Vice President for the Atlanta Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, to which I had been elected a few months earlier. Like everyone else, our activities were somewhat hampered by events around town so most of us contented ourselves with accomplishing what we could while taking in as much of the Olympics as possible. Apparently, I tried to get a job working concessions at one of the venues, as I have an ID badge from Aramark. I remember going somewhere to get the ID but don’t recall why I didn’t follow through on the job. It’s possible it was a volunteer fundraising opportunity for the Jaycees — where we worked and the organization got paid — that didn’t work out.

GML Olympic concession badge

My ID badge for Olympic concession work which was never used.

Authorities had been warning residents of potential traffic problems for months so the terrifying specter of twenty-four hour gridlock haunted the waking hours of most commuters, sending them to seek out suburban park and ride lots to hook up with public transport while the Games were in progress. This brought about a completely different reality than the one foretold, as suburbanites, frightened into not driving, crowded onto MARTA, leaving the highways far less crammed. I lived in East Point at the time and had to commute through town to North Druid Hills for work. To say I was pleasantly surprised to encounter rush hour traffic in downtown Atlanta that was moving fifty-five to sixty miles an hour is putting it mildly. Driving through town I passed the Olympic Stadium every morning and evening, making it one of the few times I’ve driven in town as an adult where I actually enjoyed the trip.

To finance the building of Centennial Park, ACOG sold bricks where one could have his or her name imprinted. I purchased one in memory of my father, who died in April, 1995. The brick is located in Section 63, making it easier for me to remember where it is, as that’s the year I was born. Right next to my father’s brick is one commemorating Jim Morrison.

Brick at Centennial Olympic Park in memory of my father.

The relationship between city government, ACOG, and the International Olympic Committee was often tense. A number of construction projects were being finished just as Olympic officials started arriving and news reports were full of stories about haughty officials or their families demanding special treatment or otherwise being rude. Other countries’ delegations complained about the rampant patriotism on display at venues, particularly the indoor gymnastics events, where deafening chants of “USA, USA!” made it difficult for athletes to concentrate. Despite all the hiccups, the mood around Atlanta was festive and lighthearted as everyone looked forward to the best Games ever.

All that changed on the evening of 27 July when a bomb went off in Centennial Park, killing or contributing to the deaths of two people and injuring a hundred and eleven. The death toll would have been much higher, had it not been for the actions of a sharp-eyed security guard named Richard Jewell. While 911 operators argued over the address of Centennial Park after receiving an anonymous bomb threat, Jewell spotted a suspicious backpack, notified his superiors and began evacuating the area. His reward for what may have been the most remarkable achievement of his career was to be crucified in the press after an overzealous FBI leaked his name as a suspect. While he won a court case against the news network and was eventually vindicated with the arrest and conviction of Eric Rudolph some years later, it’s doubtful his reputation ever fully recovered. He died on 29 August 2007 at age forty-four.

The morning after the attack, I had a ticket to see Olympic tennis at Stone Mountain. I woke up, dressed, and hopped on MARTA without turning on the television, and did not learn of the details of the bombing until I arrived at Kensington station and saw the front page of the Journal/Constitution. I had been hearing rumblings along the way of beefed up security, due to an incident, but didn’t know the full extent of it until I saw the paper. In addition to that one morning of tennis which stretched into the late afternoon due to several lengthy rain delays, and which featured Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, other events I attended included one night of track and field at Olympic Stadium, and one afternoon when I drove to Athens to see the finals of rhythmic gymnastics. I had been invited by a colleague to see the first match-up of the US versus Cuba in baseball, but we failed to hook up at the venue and since he had the tickets, I couldn’t get in.

Before the Games began, I managed to see the torch relay at three separate locations around town but only specifically recall two of them, once on Roswell Road one evening with some friends, and once on Clifton Road in the afternoon, in front of the CDC, where I was working. Someone who worked on my floor was one of the torch bearers and I was able to have a picture taken with the torch. I believe the third was on Peachtree Street close to the intersection of West Peachtree, near where the Jaycees had their offices. This one was by chance, as I’d gone to the location for another purpose and just happened to find myself in close proximity to the relay.

GML with the Olympic torch

Me, posing with the Olympic torch following the relay; July, 1996. Photographer unknown.

One of the enduring landmarks from the Games is the statue in Midtown entitled The World Athletes Monument but which I’ve always called The Statue of Five Naked Guys Holding Up the Globe that Prince Charles Gave Us During the Olympics. A few years later, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, the statue became the focal point in town for remembrances of her, which is ironic considering she and Charles had been divorced for a number of years by that point. There were numerous other arts projects, part of the Cultural Olympiad which coincided with the Games. Plays were written and performed, statues erected, giant murals were painted, many of which were painted over in the intervening years or demolished when the buildings on which they were painted were torn down to make room for something else. There are, still, a few remnants of the Games around, Centennial Park and Turner Field the most visible, but many of the venues were broken down, packed up and shipped elsewhere once the Paralympics were over.

The Atlanta Jaycees had a membership meet and greet scheduled for Lulu’s Bait Shack in Buckhead for the Tuesday after the Olympics closed and it evolved into our “Farewell to the World” party. I recall that Tuesday evening in Buckhead as being packed like a Friday or Saturday, as residents who’d had to stay home to avoid the traffic and hassles of having the Games in town turned out to let off steam once they were gone. A festive atmosphere was evident as we reveled in the fact that we’d survived it all. It must have been reminiscent of how folks reacted when Sherman packed up and headed off to Savannah in 1864, notwithstanding the fact that for us, most of the city was still intact which was one thing for which we were all grateful.

Not a Love Song: The Tragedy of Juliet

Shakespeare’s best known tragedy is the story of two star-crossed lovers, who, in death, end their families’ conflict. Despite being hailed as a great romance, Romeo and Juliet is, in no way, a love story, but very much about individual responsibility and the consequences of making decisions in the heat of passion. Romeo is very impulsive in his actions, never thinking about the harm he may be causing and bringing about much needless strife for himself and those around him. Juliet emerges as a tragic figure, unwittingly caught up in the increasingly violent tensions between the families which leads to her demise.

I have taken to referring to the play as the comedy of Romeo and the tragedy of Juliet. Most who’ve studied the play will note the humorous tone of the first half of the play, with the forlorn Romeo first pining away for Rosaline, then quickly forgetting her when he spies Juliet at the Capulets’ party. The play initially has the wistful feel of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, all of which is cast aside with the death of Mercutio at Tybalt’s hands, which leads Romeo to avenge Mercutio’s death by taking Tybalt’s life. From that point on, the play becomes darkly tragic as the focus shifts from Romeo to Juliet.

The play is laced with violence, both actual and implied. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt which leads to first Mercutio’s then Tybalt’s death is an example of the overt violence in the play, but there’s also a lot of subtle violence, in how the characters interact with one another. In the scene where Juliet balks at marrying Paris, Lord Capulet’s reaction shows exactly how daughters were regarded in Shakespeare’s time. Capulet implies that she’s his property, and he may dispose of her as he chooses, a sentiment echoed in other works by Shakespeare, including the beginning of the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We’ve already seen a demonstration of Capulet’s temper early in the play, when ordering Tybalt not to take action after finding Romeo has crashed the Capulets’ party. At first, Capulet seems reasonable, lauding the favorable reports he’s heard of Romeo’s behavior, but as Tybalt presses the issue, he provokes the anger of Lord Capulet, who quickly abandons his festive appearance to let his kinsman know who’s in charge. The hot-headed Tybalt can’t let the issue drop, though, leading to his confrontation with Romeo, which Mercutio takes up on Romeo’s behalf when Romeo tries to walk away.

Pretty much every bad thing that happens in the play happens as a consequence of something Romeo does and at each turn, he has alternatives he never takes the time to consider. He pines over Rosaline, so his friends take him to the Capulets’ feast, where he meets Juliet, then immediately forgets Rosaline. He woos Juliet, and hastily marries her, without considering the consequences of secretly marrying into the family of his family’s sworn enemy. When confronted by Tybalt, he chooses to say nothing of his union to Juliet, first allowing the situation to escalate between Tybalt and Mercutio, then coming between them, which allows Tybalt to deliver the fatal wound. Up to this point in the play, Romeo hasn’t done anything, other than hastily marry Juliet, to cause him any lasting problems. He soon changes all that, setting in motion the series of events which leads the play to its devastating finale.

After killing Tybalt, Romeo runs away, declaring, “I am fortune’s fool” but in reality, fortune had nothing to do with it, as Romeo had many options which did not include fighting Tybalt. When Romeo is first provoked and chooses to walk away, and Mercutio takes up the fight on Romeo’s behalf, Romeo’s best option was to do nothing, and just let Mercutio handle it, since, as a kinsman of the Duke, Mercutio is in a better position to deal with the fall out. Once Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo again needs to do nothing. Following the Duke’s decree, anyone guilty of dueling in the streets is automatically sentenced to death, and Tybalt has not only violated this decree, but he’s killed a relative of the Duke in the process. From the moment Mercutio falls, Tybalt has signed his own death warrant. Romeo would best be served to walk away and let Tybalt face his punishment. Even if his family connections are enough to save him from death, Tybalt would, at the very least, be banished, which would also solve Romeo’s problems without getting his hands dirty. Once again Romeo acts impulsively, this time costing Tybalt his life, and Romeo his freedom of movement within Verona and his actions have devastating consequences for the woman Romeo claims to love.

Romeo’s irresponsible actions leave Juliet in a terrible position, first having to reconcile her love for Romeo against her devotion to her cousin Tybalt, then, finding herself offered as a bride to Paris, which puts her at odds with her short tempered father. Her nurse counsels Juliet to simply yield to the will of her father and marry Paris, but Juliet knows that it’s not that simple. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the context of the play, the reality is that once Juliet has spent the night with Romeo, she’s no longer a virgin. Capulet has been promising Paris the hand of his virginal daughter and once Paris has sex with her, he’ll know she’s not and will undoubtedly raise the issue with Capulet. Judging by his response to her reluctance to marry Paris, there is little doubt how Capulet would respond to the embarrassment such a revelation would cause him, and Juliet is well aware of this. Her only real hope is for Romeo to return and claim her hand, and given his situation, that’s not likely to happen. Under these circumstances, suicide or cloister are her only viable options and she has Romeo to thank for that.

Technically, under Shakespeare’s definition of the term, Romeo has committed rape. In Elizabethan England, rape was not defined as a sexual offense against a woman, but as a legal offense against her father or family. While Juliet may have consented to having sex with Romeo, who she viewed as her husband, in Shakespeare’s time, young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent to marriage, which was the only pretense under which sexual activity was considered acceptable, particularly for a woman. In order for the union to be legal in the eyes of their society, Juliet’s father or family would have had to consent to the marriage, and that was never going to happen. From the way the word is used in other plays by Shakespeare, one of the definitions of rape was that of a man who marries a woman simply to have sex with her, which, one could argue, Romeo has done. While he does claim to love Juliet, he also claimed to love Rosaline before meeting Juliet, and hardly a day has passed in between. When he speaks to the friar about performing the marriage, Friar Laurence is skeptical about how much Romeo truly cares for Juliet, but foolishly agrees to perform the union, hoping to end the conflict between the families.

There is a definite pattern to Romeo’s behavior which calls into question how much he truly cares for Juliet. This is evident from the beginning of the play, when it’s revealed that the Rosaline Romeo claims to love is Capulet’s niece. This suggests that Romeo’s trouble with Rosaline isn’t that she’s rejected him but that she is off-limits to him because of her family connections. He’s pining for her because the situation between their families makes it impossible for him to pursue her. In this context, his motives must come under scrutiny, since all accounts are that he’s as much an active participant in his family’s feud with the Capulets as the rest of his kinsmen. Lady Montague expresses relief that Romeo was not party to the fight which starts off the play. Why then would Romeo choose a relative of the Capulets as the object of his affection, knowing full well that it would only lead to more conflict? Meeting Juliet at the party and learning of her parentage presents Romeo with a new opportunity to needle his family’s sworn enemy, and he immediately puts his life at risk to pursue it by sneaking back onto the grounds of the Capulets’ home that night to see Juliet. Romeo shows his true colors when he allows Tybalt to goad him into a fight once Mercutio is dead. Not even his professed love for Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin, is enough to prevent him from striking out at his sworn enemy when provoked.

Every production I’ve seen has cast actresses playing Juliet who are in their late-teens to mid-twenties. However, the text makes it fairly clear that Juliet is thirteen. Lord Capulet, questions whether Juliet is old enough to marry when the subject of her betrothal to Paris comes up. We’re not specifically told Romeo’s age, but given his companions, it’s safe to assume that he, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt are close in age, probably early- to mid-twenties at the oldest. Paris is a count, that is, landed gentry, meaning he was “of age” or no younger than twenty-one to twenty-five. The life expectancy of people in this era was early- to mid-forties, and under English common law, boys of fourteen and girls as young as twelve could act as witnesses to wills and executors of estates. While men tended to forestall marriage until they had some means of subsistence, usually a plot of land on their families’ property or the guarantee of a substantial inheritance, women could be betrothed as soon as they reached sexual maturity so long as their families were in agreement, and given the hazards of childbirth, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for men to marry several times, leading to very young women being wedded to much older men, particularly if there were young children who needed care. While we may find it scandalous that a man in his twenties is pressing for a marriage to a thirteen year old girl, as Paris does in the play, in that day and age, it was fairly commonplace. For one thing, it got the woman out of her father’s house and made her the responsibility of someone else. Daughters in this era weren’t held in very high esteem, and were generally prized more for the powerful men they could attract than for their own personal attributes.

Juliet is the only character in the play who does not have an overt agenda. The Capulets and Montagues are consumed with their feud, which may or may not influence Romeo’s decision to pursue women related to his family’s sworn enemy. Paris wants Juliet as his wife and Capulet wants the prestige that comes with joining his daughter to a kinsman of the Duke. Friar Laurence is largely motivated by his desire to end the bloodshed caused by the feud, agreeing to sanction a union which he should know neither side will accept. Juliet’s nurse at first helps Juliet in her pursuit of Romeo, but shows her reliance on the established order when she counsels Juliet to marry Paris when Romeo is sent away. Juliet finds herself caught between her obedience to her father and her love for her father’s enemy, yet remains focused on what she believes to be the right course of action, remaining faithful to the vow she made to Romeo. In doing so, she becomes the only character who consistently grows throughout the play.

Romeo’s behavior does not change significantly, and in fact he becomes more reckless and impulsive as the action progresses, whereas Juliet becomes more mature and assured of her actions. Romeo’s decision to kill himself after hearing erroneous reports of Juliet’s death is yet another rash and foolish act which could have been avoided if only he had checked in with Friar Laurence when he arrived back in Verona. Juliet, on the other hand, looks for any opportunity to rectify the situation without further bloodshed. When she realizes her family views her as little more than a token to be offered to the influential Paris, she resolves to chart her own course, even if it means ending her life, and while she is fully prepared to die rather than violate her vow to Romeo, she allows Friar Laurence to counsel her and gratefully accepts his remedy for her situation. Once again, she falls victim to Romeo’s impulsiveness, and seeing her last chance at happiness on her own terms taken from her, she exercises the only option she feels she has left and ends her life.

A Streetcar Named Delusion 

Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.

A Streetcar Named Desire is heralded as one of the greatest theatrical works of the twentieth century and is one of the best known and most performed works by Tennessee Williams. It sets up a classic confrontation, the flamboyant yet fragile Blanche DuBois versus the menacing and unpredictable Stanley Kowalski. The tension begins the moment Blanche enters the household and builds to it’s shattering climax with Blanche and Stanley’s final confrontation. The moment Blanche meets her brother-in-law, his fuse is lit, and the question becomes how long it will be before Stanley explodes. Caught between them is the hapless Stella, who tries her best to mediate between two very demanding antagonists without much success. The play also features a decisive shift in power as the first half largely belongs to Blanche, while the second part is clearly dominated by Stanley. While I have seen this play performed recently, this article is not intended as a review of a specific performance, rather an analysis of the play as a whole.

At its heart, Streetcar is a thinly veiled metaphor for the Civil War and Reconstruction. The generation of Southern writers who included Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner were the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, and no doubt grew up hearing horror stories of Northern aggression and the noble Southern gentry who made a valiant but ultimately doomed stand in the face of it. Stanley is the perfect stand-in for the unrefined, egalitarian North with its melting pot willing to assimilate just about anyone, while Blanche represents the genteel and pure-bred South, which existed more in myth than actuality. Everything about Blanche is phony, as was the myth of noble Southern gentry whose fortunes were built on the backs of the slaves and poor whites they exploited. It speaks to Williams’ skill as a playwright that neither character emerges as the hero of the piece. Blanche is portrayed as delusional and elitist, while Stanley is brutish and violent. Stella comes across as the tortured heroine, caught between the empty myth of the “old South” and the harsh reality of the modern industrial North now in control of the South’s destiny. That the play takes place in New Orleans, perhaps the most eclectic of old Southern cities, merely enhances the dichotomy of the two extremes.

In many respects, Stella and Blanche are two sides of the same coin, the only difference being that Stella has made compromises Blanche is unwilling or incapable of making. Stella seems the more realistic of the two sisters, seeing the future as grim but manageable with the right attitude, whereas Blanche is unwilling to accept anything but her version of reality. Ironically, it’s Blanche who has been treated to the harshest dose of reality, early on losing her husband to suicide, then having to care for the aging members of her family while watching the family’s fortunes evaporate due to mismanagement. Blanche’s delusions are rooted in the naive hope that a protector will arise to return her to the gentility she remembers from her youth, whereas Stella’s delusions are rooted in her acceptance of the notion that her fortunes are bound to those of her husband. Everything will be fine as long as she does what Stanley tells her. Until Blanche shows up calling into question the relationship Stella has with Stanley, it never occurs to Stella that anything’s wrong with her marriage. Blanche is the one to see how controlling Stanley can be and perhaps Blanche’s greatest frustration comes from being unable to convince Stella how oppressive this relationship may become.

The challenge of Streetcar is that there’s no one within the context of the story that the audience can champion. Blanche is self-centered and delusional, while Stanley is a narcissist, already showing signs of becoming an abusive spouse. Stella simply floats between the two, not knowing for certain which of the powerful presences she should placate. With the exception of Mitch, none of Stanley’s friends rise above the level of caricature, and the women surrounding Stella do little more than encourage her to stick by her violent and aggressive spouse. For her part, Stella transforms Stanley into her rugged protector, just as Blanche attempts to transform Mitch into the type of gallant Southern gentleman she thinks will save her. Neither is successful, but at least Stella is able to convince herself that Stanley’s failings are more a result of his situation rather than genuine character flaws. The reality is, Stanley needs Stella, and Stella needs Stanley, regardless of how unhealthy their symbiotic relationship may be in the long-run. Stella realizes, though, that as long as she remains within the boundaries set for her by her husband, things will work out for her, while Blanche is determined to push those boundaries, much to her detriment.

In all the productions I’ve seen, Stanley rarely comes across as likable. While he does have humorous moments, there’s a strong sense that the audience is laughing at his oafish ways rather than with him. The turning point comes when he strikes Stella. This is both the point at which Blanche is shown the dark side of Stella’s relationship with Stanley, and when the audience realizes how out of control Stanley can become when his authority is challenged. Obviously, we’re not seeing Stanley at his best, and Blanche certainly brings out the worst in him, but the violence is there to be mined. He didn’t suddenly turn into an arrogant jerk just because his sister-in-law paid a visit. Stella mentions that Stanley does not give her a regular allowance and generally handles all the bills, both classic traits of a spouse who contrives to make his partner totally dependent upon him. It’s clear from his first appearance in the play that he’s firmly in charge in his household. Somehow, though, Stella does not seem to mind, instead relinquishing all her autonomy. Like Blanche, she wants someone strong on whom she can depend to support her and make all the decisions, and Stanley is all too willing to fulfill this role. It’s entirely likely that their life together has been reasonably pleasant before Blanche shows up with the first real challenge to Stanley, and he doesn’t handle it well. Whether or not Blanche’s reemergence in Stella’s life will have any long-term impact is unknown, but given how she reacts to having Blanche around, it’s likely that Stella is ultimately glad her sister leaves at the end, regardless of how that comes about.

Much discussion has centered around Stanley and Blanche’s final showdown near the end of the play, and in many of the productions I’ve seen, it’s strongly implied, if not outright depicted that he rapes her. This seems largely dependent upon how the director and cast choose to interpret the scene, though whether or not Stanley actually forces himself on Blanche, it’s fairly clear that she does not submit to him out of a sense of mutual desire. By this point in the play, most of Blanche’s delusions have been shattered, and one could argue that Mitch’s rejection of her has as much, if not more impact on her mental state than anything Stanley does. The balance of power has shifted, and the last safe harbor Blanche was counting on, being with her sister, has not provided her with the solace she needed. Surrendering to Stanley is the final indignity, and a case could be made that Blanche has already gone off the deep end by this point, so nothing Stanley does can have much more of a detrimental effect on her. Stanley has stripped Blanche of all her pretensions, and thus destroyed the illusion which was the basis of her self image. She submits because she has nothing left to lose.

It is important to note, however, that even though Blanche seems defeated at the end, she does not appear to have completely abandoned the delusions she’s used to bolster her self-esteem throughout. Her final line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” sounds suspiciously like she believes the person to whom it’s said is genuinely doing her a favor. One can imagine Blanche convincing herself that the convalescent home where she’s being taken is some elegant chalet arranged for her by a mysterious benefactor, and once she’s had time to rest and recuperate, she may well be able to fool the staff into thinking she’s safe to release, allowing her to once again return to the belief that she’s in control. I strongly suspect the Kowalskis haven’t heard the last of Blanche DuBois.

Real Bible Studies: Judges, The Levite and his Concubine

The book of Judges concludes with a rather gruesome story about a Levite and his concubine, which appears to have contributed elements to or borrowed elements from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Initially, it starts out as another meandering tale highlighting the overwhelming customs of hospitality exhibited by denizens of the Middle East at that time, but quickly takes a dark turn as the Levite and his entourage take refuge in the city of Gibeah controlled by the Benjamites. It’s here that the story is almost a verbatim retelling of that of Sodom and Gomorrah. It seems appropriate to have parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah, because the incident leads to the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin.

This tale begins with the disclaimer common to Judges that it takes place before Israel had a king. An unnamed Levite living in Ephraim takes a concubine from among the tribe of Judah. The term “concubine” appears to be synonymous with “wife” in this instance, though, in the NIV, she’s always called his concubine and never his wife or bride. Different translations of the Bible refer to her as a “slave woman” or his “mistress” or “second wife” but never his wife. Judges tells us that she was unfaithful to him, though exactly what she did is undisclosed, other than relating that the woman left him and returned to her family. Apparently, he had no hard feelings about it, because after a few months, he went to Judah to persuade her to return. It’s possible that her unfaithfulness was manifested solely in the act of leaving her husband and returning to her parents, which betrothed women weren’t supposed to do.

When the Levite goes to retrieve the concubine, the almost comical traditions of hospitality come into play, as the woman takes the Levite to her father’s house, and the father is so gracious, he pretty much won’t let the man leave. After three days, the father, who is frequently referred to as the Levite’s father-in-law in the NIV, persuades the Levite, referred to as the man’s son-in-law, to stay for breakfast rather than leaving at the first light of dawn, and once the Levite has indulged the father, he then insists the Levite not leave late in the day, but stay for another night. This goes on for a day or so, before the Levite finally insists and heads out with his donkeys, his servant and his concubine in the afternoon.

Since they got a late start due to the graciousness of their host, nightfall approaches just as they’re nearing the town of Jebus, which was the home of the Jebusites. Earlier in Judges, we’re told that the Benjamites were unable to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem, and were still living alongside them. The Levite’s servant suggests they stay there for the evening, but the Levite makes the fateful decision not to visit any town not inhabited by one of the tribes of Israel, so they head on until they come to Gibeah which is part of Benjamin. Judges 19:15 concludes with the Levite and his entourage camped out in the city square for the evening, after no one offered the Levite hospitality.

As evening comes on, an old man who also comes from the hill country of Ephraim finds the Levite and his group camped out and asks them why they’re staying in the square. The Levite explains his situation and the old man invites him and his group back to the old man’s house, and cautions them against staying outdoors. The Levite accepts. While they’re eating, what’s described as the “wicked men of the city” show up and demand that the stranger be brought out, as the wicked men state they want to have sex with him. Here, other translations give slightly differing details as the Living Bible refers to them as “sex perverts,” and the KJV calls them, “certain sons of Belial,” and the International Standard Version lists them as “certain ungodly men”. In all translations, it’s made clear that it isn’t all of Gibeah, just a few bad apples, though one could argue the situation was set up by none of the people of town offering hospitality to the stranger, other than the one person from Ephraim.

Judges 19:22-24 is almost verbatim to what’s in Genesis 19:4-8, including the offer by the homeowner to bring out his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, as opposed to Lot offering his daughters to the wicked men of Sodom. Other parallels include the fact that the old man is not of the tribe inhabiting Gibeah, similar to Lot being a newcomer in Sodom, and his words to the wicked men are also very similar to what Lot says to the men of Sodom in discouraging them from harming his guests. In this instance, however, the Levite sends out his concubine when the wicked men won’t go away, and the translation of Judges in the NIV states she was raped and abused all night. At daybreak, the poor woman crawls back to the door of the house, where she presumably dies, though the only translation of Judges 19 I found which explicitly says that she died was the Living Bible. The NIV doesn’t specifically spell it out, though it’s made more explicit in the next chapter.

The next morning, the Levite awakens, apparently refreshed from all the hospitality he has received, and goes out to find his concubine laying at the doorstep. Without inquiring how she’s doing, or checking to see if she’s even breathing, he tells her to get up because they need to hit the road, but, as one might imagine, she doesn’t respond, having been raped and abused all night by a group of strangers. The Levite puts her on one of his donkeys, and heads back to Ephraim, and for those who don’t believe things can get worse, trust me, they do. Judges tells us that when he arrived home, the Levite took out a knife, cut the woman into twelve parts and sent these parts to all the areas of Israel, where the recipients were justifiably horrified at receiving them. Let that sink in a moment. The man cut the woman, who may or may not have been dead, into twelve pieces, then distributed the pieces throughout Israel.

This is only the first part of the story.

We need to stop right here and examine all that’s happened up to this point in the tale. A man takes a concubine who runs away from him back to her family. He goes to retrieve her, and after enjoying her family’s hospitality for several days, sets out for home with her. That night, he refuses to go to the nearest town, simply because the residents aren’t Israelite, and ends up in a town controlled by the Benjamites. He’s taken in by an old man who comes from his home region, and they’re set upon by the wicked men of town. The old man offers the wicked men his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, and when the wicked men don’t accept the offer, the Levite sends his concubine out to unspeakable horrors at the hands of an unruly crowd of strangers. The next day, the man shows no concern for the woman, who’s lying unresponsive at the door to the house where he’s staying, then loads her onto a donkey, and once he gets home, he carves her up and sends the parts out to people he doesn’t even know. We can only assume she was dead when he started cutting her up, but the translation of Judges 19 in the NIV — not to mention most other translations I’ve read — doesn’t explicitly say she was.

In the next chapter, it’s made clear that the concubine had, in fact, died from the treatment she received in Gibeah. The remaining tribes of Israel are assembled, and the Levite tells the assembled tribes how this came to be. Judges tells us that after receiving parts of the concubine, four hundred thousand armed men gathered in Mizpah, with the exception of the Benjamites, who, the text says, had nonetheless heard of the assembly. Once the tribes have heard the Levite’s story, they resolve to go against Gibeah for the crime, and send word to the Benjamites to surrender the men responsible, so they can be put to death. The Benjamites, however, don’t listen, and instead arm themselves, and head to Gibeah to fight. It’s not stated why the Benjamites would rather go to war than surrender a few lawless citizens, but this is the choice they make. After consulting the Lord, the Israelites decide Judah will lead the attack.

Things don’t go very well for the assembled tribes, because apparently the Benjamites were fierce warriors. In Genesis 49, Benjamin is compared to a ravening wolf, and apparently this translates into being very impressive on the battlefield as well. The first day, Judges says, twenty-two thousand warriors are slain at the hands of the Benjamites. Following this, the Israelite tribes ask the Lord if they should be fighting against their fellow tribe. God tells them to go back and fight some more. Things don’t go much better and the tribes lose another eighteen thousand men in the battle. Once again, they return to the Lord to question whether they should just let bygones be bygones. God tells them to go back and fight some more, promising to deliver the Benjamites to them. This time the Israelite tribes set up an ambush, and using other clever tactics, manage to lure the Benjamites away from Gibeah, where their ambush forces are able to take the town and put it to the sword, before burning everything. A cloud of smoke sent up from Gibeah signals that the Israelites have won the day, and seeing it, the Benjamites flee the battlefield. This time it’s Benjamin who takes the brunt of the battle, losing first eighteen thousand individuals on the battlefield, then another five thousand as they flee toward the wilderness, and finally an additional two thousand. Judges tells us only six hundred men from Benjamin manage to take refuge in the wilderness. The Israelite tribes retaliate by putting all of Benjamin save the six hundred hiding in the woods to the sword, including women and children. They then take an oath to add insult to injury by swearing that they won’t give their daughters in marriage to anyone from Benjamin, not that there are that many left by this point.

As is common in Biblical tales, in Judges 21, once the tribes of Israel have pretty much decimated Benjamin, they begin to feel really bad about wiping out one of their fellow tribes, but given the oath they’ve taken, there’s not much they can do to change things. They assemble at Mizpah and build an altar, and once again take an oath that anyone who fails to show up, other than the remaining Benjamites, who are still in hiding, will be put to death. While grieving for Benjamin, they realize no one from Jabesh Gilead showed up at the assembly, so they immediately dispatch twelve thousand troops to put the entire tribe to death, save for all the unmarried virgin women, which, once the carnage is done, comes to about four hundred. The remaining tribes take these women to Benjamin as a peace offering, but since there are six hundred remaining Benjamites and only four hundred women, the remaining tribes are at a loss as to how to provide women to help replenish Benjamin. They seem to forget that the reason the Benjamites have no women for their wives is because the other tribes put them all to the sword, along with the children, all for the actions of a few wicked individuals in a single town against a single individual. This is not meant to imply the crime wasn’t horrifying, but the punishment was totally out of proportion to the infraction even taking into account Benjamin’s reaction to it. At last, the tribes instruct the Benjamites to go to the festival of the Lord in Shiloh, and when the young women come out to dance, the Benjamites should rush out and kidnap the women for their wives. In doing so, the fathers are let off the hook, because they didn’t break their oaths by giving their daughters to the Benjamites.

Honestly, how any woman can read the Old Testament and feel good about what goes on in much of it is beyond me. For every Deborah and Ruth, there are countless nameless concubines, wives and daughters who are treated like absolute garbage. In most cases, the writers don’t even bother to give them names, such as the case with the Levite’s concubine, or Lot’s wife and daughters in Genesis. It’s rare in the genealogies for the wives names to even be included, except in certain cases like Leah, Rachel, and Tamar. Even Ruth, who’s held up as a paragon of virtue, does little more than make herself available to Boaz, since she has no authority or power of her own, being a Moabite and a woman and a recent follower of the God of Israel. Deborah is one of the few women in the whole of the Old Testament who holds her own among the men, and even she derives part of her authority from her deceased husband, and the fact she’s a prophet.

In this story from Judges, the men have little consideration for any of the women, the Levite sending his concubine out to the wicked men of Gibeah to satisfy them with no concern for the health and well-being of the woman, and the men of Benjamin are instructed to simply go out and grab whichever woman they want from among the maidens of Shiloh, without obtaining consent from the women or their families. When warriors are sent to punish a town or tribe, the women and children are shown no mercy at all, unless they’re virgins, in which case they’re simply stolen away and forced to become wives to complete strangers, to make up for actions committed by the men. More than anything, it highlights the tribal customs common among the people who came to be known as the children of Israel, and many of these customs are still in evidence in the modern world throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, and wherever else the tribal lifestyle is still in practice.

Judges ends pretty much as it began, by informing the readers that Israel was without a king and that the tribes pretty much did as they chose, which is aptly illustrated by the stories in Judges. While Benjamin is left devastated by the attack, the tribe proves to be very resilient, becoming one of the tribes represented as part of Jerusalem in later history, and being the tribe of Saul, the first anointed king of Israel. Aside from Judah, the majority tribe in Jerusalem, and the Levites, who comprised the priestly class, Benjamin was one of the more important tribes in the later history of Israel. One source I read speculated that Benjamin’s identification with wolves may have come from their bearing a tribal standard depicting a wolf. My own ancestors, who adopted the name “Lupo” meaning “wolf” in Italian, were Jews who appear to have identified with Benjamin.

Freedom and Consequence Now Available for Kindle

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Myths and Myth Making in Hamlet

Edwin Booth as Hamlet. By J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. (19th century photograph) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edwin Booth as Hamlet. By J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. (19th century photograph) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.

Laurence Olivier once referred to Hamlet as the story of a man who can’t make up his mind. While there are elements of indecisiveness in Hamlet’s actions, to say he can’t make up his mind is a gross over-simplification of his situation. Hamlet knows what must be done, but doesn’t know if he has the moral fortitude to carry out what needs to happen. Hamlet serves as a redemptive figure in the play, lamenting the “heavy-headed revel” the country has fallen into, and from the end of Act I, Hamlet realizes that to redeem his country, he may have to pay the ultimate price, losing his life in the bargain. “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” These are issues he tackles in his most famous speech, “To be or not to be.”

Contrary to modern interpretations, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is not about suicide. It’s about sacrificing oneself for the greater good. While his “O that this too too solid flesh” speech in Act I does touch on the issue of “self slaughter” by Act III, Hamlet realizes that if he’s to confront the king over the accusations the ghost has made, he’ll be putting himself in harm’s way. Even if he manages to slay Claudius, he may not have justification enough to save his own life afterward. Regicide, the murder of a king, was both a serious accusation to level against another, as well as a difficult crime to defend against. Generally speaking, ghosts of dead kings make lousy witnesses in court, and there may not be enough remaining evidence for Hamlet to challenge the elected ruler, particularly since he stands to gain the throne himself, making his intentions suspect. By whatever means Claudius gained the throne, he made enough of a case before his peers to justify becoming king over his nephew, who may have been viewed as too thoughtful and not decisive enough to rule with the increasing tensions brought about by Old Hamlet’s death.

Early in the play, Claudius puts on a good show of being in charge, dispatching ambassadors to Norway, granting leave for Laertes to return to France, and attempting to get to the bottom of Hamlet’s discontent. He appears to be a man at the height of his powers, and at this point, the momentum definitely rests with him. The play is essentially a balancing act between Hamlet and Claudius. At the beginning, Claudius is confident and in charge, and as the first two acts unfold, Hamlet slowly balances the scales up to the point at which he springs the play within a play. At that point, the scale temporarily tips in his favor, leaving Claudius to scramble to regain the upper hand. Hamlet knows the truth about his uncle, and whether or not Claudius is fully aware that Hamlet knows of the murder, he at least knows Hamlet is a real enough threat that needs to be eliminated. It’s at this point where we finally begin to see cracks in the elaborate facade Claudius has built around himself. He acknowledges, at least to himself in private, that he’s guilty of the murder of Old Hamlet, and regrets not being conciliatory enough to purge himself of the crime through his prayers.

Shakespeare frames the story using the tale of Old Hamlet versus Old Fortinbras thirty years earlier, as related by Horatio in the first scene of the play. Provoked by Old Fortinbras, Old Hamlet defeated him in single combat, thereby securing his kingdom, all of which happened on the day Hamlet was born, as we learn in the scene with the gravedigger in Act V. Now, with Old Hamlet dead, and Hamlet not the successor, the throne is no longer secured, and recent actions by Fortinbras make it seem he’s preparing to test his claim to the kingdom. Thus we have the “warlike” preparations with which we begin the play, as Claudius, anxious to secure his rule, prepares for a threatened attack by Fortinbras. Throughout, Horatio serves as a sort of silent observer and narrator, filling in crucial plot points, and being the one entrusted by Hamlet at the end to convey the story.

It seems appropriate that Polonius spends so much time hiding behind curtains, because so much of the play happens behind the scenes. The murder of the king, the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet’s alleged interactions with Ophelia, Ophelia’s death, and most of what happens with Fortinbras, all happen offstage and are related to the audience through one of the characters. In fact, a large portion of the play is consumed with filling in facts not exhibited onstage. Most of Hamlet’s attentions toward Ophelia happen offstage and are only known via what she says about them, and the audience has a right to be skeptical of the accounts.

The framing device of Fortinbras is often left out of modern adaptations, primarily due to time constraints, and I believe the play loses something in doing so. As written, it provides us with another level of complexity in which to interpret the story, and lends weight to the ghost’s claim that he must walk the earth, “Until the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away” thus suggesting an ulterior motive for Old Hamlet’s demand for revenge. It provides the play with the outer circle of Old Hamlet killing Old Fortinbras in single combat, followed by Claudius killing Old Hamlet and usurping his kingdom, then Hamlet killing Polonius, provoking Laertes’ revenge against Hamlet which leads to Laertes death as well, and finally, Hamlet killing Claudius before dying himself. Hamlet’s only act as successor to the throne is to name Fortinbras as his successor, thereby restoring to Fortinbras the kingdom Old Hamlet took from his father, and bringing the story full-circle.

Mythic Traditions

One reason Hamlet may resonate with audiences is because its basic story echoes some of the oldest mythic traditions in humankind, in particular those of the fertility gods such as Attis and Adonis. Hamlet serves as just this sort of redeeming figure, the sacrificial king who, by his death, purges his land of its corruption. This is a theme as old as civilization itself, as early agrarian societies lived by the ebb and flow of the seasons, growth in the summer, harvest in the Fall, death in the winter, rebirth in the spring. Myths of dying saviors such as Attis feature the same sort of sacrifice, the blood of the dying king rejuvenating the soil, making it fertile again. Early succession rituals celebrated the dead king reborn in the person of the son. It’s no surprise that Hamlet is said to be thirty years old, the same age Jesus is reported to be in the Gospels, as both serve a similarly redemptive role in his respective story.

The main source for Shakespeare’s Hamlet appears to have been Gesta Danorum, a collection of myths and histories set in Denmark and written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century. Shakespeare most likely used the French translation by Francois Belleforest, which came out in 1570 and is said to have more direct parallels to Shakespeare’s story. The story told by Shakespeare was further altered to fit into the conventions of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. The parallels between Saxo Grammaticus’ story to Shakespeare’s include the murder of an eavesdropping courtier, and a visit to England meant to dispose of the prince. In the original Danish story, Amleth, as he’s known, makes it to England, raises an army and successfully opposes his uncle for the throne. Saxo’s Amleth is fully a man of action, though he, too, feigns madness to avoid detection by his uncle.

The story of a usurped king and his avenging son, with a murdering uncle and fickle queen, seems to also echo the myths surrounding Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, which are, themselves, echoes of the Egyptian myths of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Orestes, the avenging son in this tale, is a descendant of the cursed House of Atreus, which arose from the grandsons of Tantalus. Part of the story of Agamemnon parallels that of Jephthah in Judges 11:34-39, which Hamlet alludes to while talking to Polonius about Ophelia. Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in part for the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan war. Clytemnestra also has an affair with Agamemnon’s adopted brother Aegisthus, who takes part in the murder. In the stories surrounding Orestes, he takes revenge by killing both his mother and his uncle and in some dramatizations, Orestes is driven mad by his actions, which finds it’s parallel in Hamlet’s feigned madness in both Saxo’s and Shakespeare’s work. Whereas the god Apollo instructs Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, with Hamlet, the ghost explicitly tells him the opposite in regards to his mother, “Leave her to heaven.”

Play within a play within a play?

The play we know as Hamlet may have been revised from an infamous earlier attempt by Shakespeare or another playwright, which had met with considerable derision from critics of his time. The existing play makes a number of references to this earlier attempt throughout, in particular while Hamlet is instructing the actors, though there are other subtle references to it elsewhere in the play. From the references in Shakespeare’s play, we can surmise it must have been badly over-written and over-acted. “The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge,” Hamlet says during the play within a play, which sounds suspiciously like something a critic might say, and may have been lifted from an actual review of the original work. Other scenes feature lines which also seem to be recalling an earlier failed attempt, such as Act III, Scene II, where Hamlet tells the players:

“…O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.”

The language again suggests the words of a critic, and may have been taken verbatim from what people were saying about the original.

After dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with Hamlet, Claudius makes a speech in which, on the surface, he seems to be asking England to rid him of his problematic nephew. One can imagine, however, the playwright himself standing before the audience speaking the lines, asking them to kill the memory of the previous play:

“…thou mayst not coldly set
Our sovereign process; which imports at full,
By letters congruing to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me…”

If Hamlet does originate with an earlier attempt by Shakespeare, perhaps the parallels to Greek mythology place the original closer to the time Titus Andronicus was written, as it, too, contains passages which seem to reference the myths surrounding the House of Atreus. In particular, the manner in which Atreus takes revenge on his brother Thyestes finds itself recreated in how Titus avenges himself against Tamora and Saturninus. Niobe, the aunt of Atreus and Thyestes, who’s turned to stone and weeps continuously over the loss of her children as punishment for insulting Demeter, is mentioned by Hamlet in his “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy at the end of Act II. At the conclusion of Orestes’ story, he atones for the sins of his family and lifts the curse from the House of Atreus. Hamlet is not so lucky, as evidenced by one of his last speeches where he implores Horatio to tell his story (Act V, Scene II):

“…what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!”

Despite Hamlet’s redemptive function within the play, Shakespeare does not make it part of Hamlet’s destiny to become king himself. To this end, the murder of Polonius, Hamlet’s one impulsive act within the play, serves its function, sullying Hamlet, and garnering the vengeance of Laertes. In the end, though, Hamlet completes his mission, and in his sole act as king, by conveying the election lights on Fortinbras, he turns the kingdom over to someone who can restore order to the land. The dying king takes upon himself the sins of his people, thereby clearing the slate and allowing them to start anew. The cycle of death and renewal continues on.


Online resource for Saxo Grammaticus.

The Golden Bough at Bartleby. Resource for mythic savior/kings.

Sources of Hamlet, at Wikipedia.

Full text of Hamlet at MIT.

Ophelia and Hamlet

Ophelia, painting by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ophelia, painting by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.

Modern stage interpretations of Hamlet place a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, more so, perhaps, than Shakespeare himself intended. Some go so far as to place the pair in the same category as other great tragic couplings in Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello and Desdemona, to name a few. Many cite Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia, his murder of Polonius, and his exile to England as the leading causes of Ophelia’s madness in Act IV, but I submit that while these are important factors in Ophelia’s breakdown, there’s a more definitive cause that has been overlooked by most who comment on it, though it is spelled out quite plainly within the text of the play. Equally so, I believe that Shakespeare never intended for these characters to be paired, at least not in the same way other couples in the dramas and comedies have been portrayed.

Judging by Shakespeare’s other works, if there was any sort of relationship intended between Hamlet and Ophelia, Shakespeare would have gotten to the point more quickly and left no doubt as to how they related to each other. With other famous couples, their affection or antagonism toward one another is established fairly quickly in the play, onstage and in full view of the audience. Beatrice and Benedick from the comedy Much Ado About Nothing, encounter one another in the first scene of the first act. Romeo and Juliet, perhaps Shakespeare’s most tragic couple, meet by Act I, Scene IV and interact extensively onstage after meeting. Hamlet and Ophelia, by contrast, only have two direct onstage encounters in the entire play and the first isn’t until the beginning of Act III, engineered by Polonius and Claudius, not the characters themselves. Neither meeting is particularly affectionate, certainly not the stuff of great romances. Hamlet’s first encounter with Ophelia starts out somewhat playful, but quickly turns hostile once he realizes they’re being overheard by Polonius and Claudius. At no point in the play do Hamlet and Ophelia meet onstage at his or her specific instigation. Hamlet sits with her at the play within a play, but their conversation does not imply an intimate relationship between them, despite the number of crude jokes Hamlet makes at Ophelia’s expense.

While Ophelia speaks of Hamlet’s attentions toward her, we see no direct evidence of it onstage, with the exception of Hamlet’s behavior at her grave, and the grave scene has numerous other inconsistencies to it. Her description of Hamlet’s behavior when he comes to her chambers makes his actions sound very odd, but the only onstage source we have for this account is Ophelia herself. In the chronology of the play, the scene Ophelia describes falls just after Hamlet has encountered the ghost, learned that his uncle most likely killed the King and usurped the kingdom, and sworn his friends to secrecy about it. It seems highly unlikely that after encountering his dead father’s ghost and being told to avenge his father’s murder, that Hamlet’s first thought would be to drop in on Ophelia to pursue a meaningless dalliance.

Most important, Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s actions sounds completely at odds with the brooding and melancholy prince Shakespeare has presented up to this point, who so far has done little more onstage than lament his father’s death and his mother’s marriage, and react to seeing his father’s ghost. When Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude of Hamlet’s attentions toward Ophelia, Gertrude is skeptical that this is the actual cause of Hamlet’s distress, though she acknowledges it as a possibility. The two times we witness Hamlet with Ophelia, he either keeps her at arm’s length or taunts her for supposed sexual improprieties. Any attention he shows her is mainly for the benefit of others in the room, who already suspect him of admiring Ophelia, and seems designed to reinforce their belief in his odd behavior. He does seem to imply she’s either in a relationship with or being pursued by someone, just not him.

My theory is that it’s not Hamlet who’s been showering Ophelia with attention, but Claudius. He’s already committed murder to gain the throne and win the hand of Gertrude, his sister-in-law, which was considered an incestuous act at that point in history, so adultery and assault certainly wouldn’t be a problem for him. While most will point out that Ophelia specifically says it’s Hamlet, and has a letter signed by him, this doesn’t mean Claudius isn’t the actual culprit. One question to ask is whether or not Hamlet is the given name of the character and his father, or the family name, since both father and son bear that name. We have a parallel instance with old and young Fortinbras. It was common in Shakespeare’s time for nobles to be known by their title or family names rather than their given names, and “Claudius” could either be the throne name Hamlet’s uncle adopted to distinguish himself from his brother, or his given name. If this is true, then Claudius would also be Hamlet, since he’s the brother of the king and the uncle of the prince by that name. I believe there are numerous clues within the context of the play to support the idea that Claudius and not Hamlet has his eyes on Ophelia.

In their first face to face encounter in Act III, Scene I, when Ophelia tries to return Hamlet’s letters and trinkets, Hamlet acts like he doesn’t know what she’s talking about and denies giving them to her. He then berates her and implores her to go to a nunnery. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners.” This scene echoes a theme Hamlet started in his conversation with Polonius in Act II, Scene II, where Hamlet calls him a fishmonger. After asking Polonius if he has a daughter, Hamlet counsels Polonius:

“Let her not walk i’ the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.”

Polonius misses the significance of the speech, believing it to be a lovelorn rant, but these instances mark two notable times in the play where Hamlet expresses concern over Ophelia’s chastity, first while talking to her father, and then while talking to her directly. His use of the word “sun” is significant in helping to sort out what Hamlet means. In his first appearance in Act I, Scene II, Hamlet utilizes a pun on the word “sun” to indicate the king. “Not so my lord, I am too much i’ the sun.” It seems that Hamlet is warning Polonius not to let his daughter catch the attention of Claudius.

Later in Act II, Scene II, before the players enter, Hamlet refers to Polonius as Jephthah, the biblical judge of Israel, who sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a promise to God in exchange for victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11:34-39). Hamlet seems to imply Polonius may also be unwittingly sacrificing his only daughter in exchange for favor at court. The account in Judges states that Jephthah’s daughter willingly submits to her fate, but requests that she be allowed to wander in the hills for several days to lament that she’ll never become a bride. In his scene with Ophelia at the start of Act III, Hamlet implores her to go to a nunnery, and curses her, stating that if she decides to marry, she should be sure she’s “chaste as ice, as pure as snow” — another warning to guard her chastity. In Act IV, Scene V, when Ophelia enters in a distracted state, in some of the songs she sings she laments the loss of her maidenhood, and seems to be singing to a suitor who took advantage of her.

Before Ophelia enters in her mad state, Gertrude refuses to see her. Horatio insists that Gertrude talk to her, claiming Ophelia’s rantings have set off scandalous rumors throughout the kingdom. In the brief interlude before Ophelia enters, Gertrude herself alludes to what Ophelia’s been saying:

“To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss:
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”

When Ophelia enters, her opening line is dripping with sarcasm, “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” After Gertrude speaks to her, she immediately launches into a song for Gertrude:

“How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.”

From there her lyrics begin to allude to her father’s death, invoking images of a headstone, shrouds, and a grave. However, once Claudius enters and addresses her, all Ophelia’s songs change their tone and theme, switching from a lost loved one, to a lost lover, and are directed at Claudius, prompting him to make several attempts to plead with her. Her most explicit song is:

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”

Why would Ophelia be singing about the loss of her maidenhood simply because her father died? There’s been no suggestion of an incestuous relationship between them, and while Polonius did not always act warmly toward her, his treatment of her was not outside the bounds of a typical father/daughter relationship as depicted elsewhere in Shakespeare. Also, there’s no suggestion that she and Hamlet had a sexual relationship, though Polonius, and possibly Laertes, suspected it was possible.

After Claudius pleads further with her, she concludes:

“Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.”

Ophelia’s (and, perhaps, Shakespeare’s) use of “sun” is telling here, since use of the term by Hamlet has already established it as a metaphor for Claudius.

Once Ophelia leaves, Claudius is quick to relate what she’s said to grief over her father, but, as Polonius said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” Much of Ophelia’s behavior seems to be that of someone who’s suffering from severe psychological trauma. Her father’s death must surely have been traumatic for her, particularly with the implied cover up of what happened, but Ophelia’s brother was still alive and would undoubtedly come to join her if she needed him, and she probably had every reason to expect she’d be able to count on the support of others at court to help her deal with the loss. So, while it was traumatic, Polonius’ death in and of itself is probably not what pushed Ophelia over the edge. Her behavior, however, combined with the lyrics of the songs she directs at Claudius, strongly implies she’s been sexually assaulted, and she also makes it very clear who she’s accusing.

In Shakespeare’s time, the term “rape” did not have the same connotations it does today. Often times, it meant a man who contracts marriage with a woman simply to have sex with her, and in other cases, it means a man who’s seduced a woman into having sex without her father or family’s consent to their relationship. Each time it’s mentioned in Shakespeare, the offense is not against the woman, but the woman’s father or her family, since young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent on their own. While it’s not discussed at length in Hamlet, in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet objects to marrying Paris, Lord Capulet spells out in rather violent terms, that Juliet is his property for him to dispose of as he so chooses, and if she’s not happy with the arrangement her choices are cloister or death. When Polonius confronts Ophelia about Hamlet in Act I, his concern is mostly for how badly it reflects on him, than on Ophelia, and a number of her mad songs allude to losing her maidenhood outside of a marriage which would have required her father or brother’s consent. It would have been entirely in character for Ophelia to turn to the King for comfort after her father’s death, and it would have been totally in character for Claudius to take advantage of her already fragile state. Loss of her father followed by the loss of her innocence would have been more than enough to bring about the mental state she exhibits in Act IV.

If Claudius is the one who’s been sending Ophelia trifles early in the play, he may have signed off as Hamlet, to confuse her or anyone else who intercepted the gifts. A king would be in the ideal position to create or authorize the spread of rumors to cover his own misdeeds. Polonius implies that rumors are circulating of Ophelia entertaining Hamlet in private, but Ophelia does not confirm this. From her discussion with Polonius in Act I, it sounds like most of the entreaties from Hamlet have been in writing, or through trinkets delivered by messengers. When he presents his case to Claudius and Gertrude, he reads a letter signed by Hamlet, but does not present evidence of face to face encounters between Hamlet and Ophelia. There is the scene where Ophelia claims Hamlet appeared before her in a distracted state, but this happened out of view of the audience, and the description of Hamlet’s behavior seems inconsistent with the character we’ve gotten to know in the play. Since Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, it’s possible they bear enough of a resemblance to one another to confuse Ophelia in the dim light of her chambers, particularly if Claudius is trying to deceive her, possibly by wearing clothes similar to Hamlet’s. Given this, it’s entirely possible Ophelia herself may not realize who’s actually been wooing her, as seems implied from the play. By the time of her “mad scenes” however, she’s learned the truth, undoubtedly in the worst possible way.

This casts a new light on Ophelia’s death, which also happens offstage. The only account we have comes from Gertrude and it’s not clear whether she witnessed the death personally or was relating what someone told her. According to her account, Ophelia fell into a brook while trying to hang a flower garland, and didn’t have the presence of mind to save herself before her soaked clothing pulled her under the water. Given how vivid her description is, it’s implied that Gertrude witnessed the drowning, which begs the question of why no one on shore attempted to save Ophelia. If Gertrude was present, she no doubt had the typical entourage a Queen would have surrounding her, so it seems someone would have been able to get to Ophelia before she went under. Gertrude makes no mention of any rescue attempts at all, other than stating that Ophelia didn’t try to save herself. In general, people who make accusations about a king, even in a distracted state, don’t last very long. During the scene at her grave, the priest expresses doubts that Ophelia’s death was accidental as was claimed, though he suggests she killed herself. At the very least, his suspicions suggest that Gertrude’s account was not accepted as the undisputed truth.

At the graveside, Gertrude says she had hoped Ophelia would be Hamlet’s wife. This seems curious given how much emphasis was placed in the first three acts on telling Ophelia that she could not pursue a relationship with Hamlet due to his royal status. Gertrude, queen to two kings and mother to a prince, should have known the rules as well as anyone. She also was party to the discussion Polonius had with Claudius regarding Hamlet’s attentions toward Ophelia in Act II where it was stated that Polonius told Ophelia Hamlet was “out of thy star” so Gertrude should have realized that marriage wasn’t part of the plan.

The graveyard scene in Act V, Scene I also raises a number of other inconsistencies with what has gone on before. First, Hamlet doesn’t seem to recall that he killed Laertes’ father, which was a factor in the mental state that led to death of Laertes’ sister, and can’t understand why Laertes might have some issues with Hamlet popping up at Ophelia’s funeral to profess his love for her. Second, after spending most of Act III keeping Ophelia at arm’s length, and, at one point, outwardly accusing her of using her beauty to drive men mad, Hamlet suddenly decides she’s the love of his life, to the extent that he’s willing to make a spectacle of himself at her funeral. In the next scene, Hamlet exhibits guilt over his treatment of Laertes, but once again seems to forget how much in love he was with Ophelia, as she’s never again mentioned by him.

It’s highly likely that many of the inconsistencies come from the way the plays were assembled for publication. In some cases, an actor may have been recalling snatches of dialogue from memory, with the character he played getting more dialogue or scenes than others, or the printers may have been working from a draft in progress, not the final version. It’s also possible that the play we know today was assembled from bits and pieces of several staged versions of the play, cobbled together by members of Shakespeare’s troupe without the playwright himself there to guide their work. Thus the ambiguity of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship which allows actors and directors to reinvent the nature of it for each new generation. For all that happens to her, the reality is that Ophelia is largely known by the reactions she invokes in other characters than for her own direct effect on the actions of the play. She remains the archetypal loving sister and obedient daughter broken by the tragedies of her life, which is a tragedy in and of itself.


For quick online reference to the play, I used the resources at the Shakespeare server at MIT.

For footnotes on the various archaic phrases and references, I used The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare volume of Hamlet.