Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I'm a big fan of Shakespeare. I've studied his work, I've taken multiple Shakespearean acting classes - I'll watch any play, I've been to Stratford. I've been to the Globe. I love it when people do interesting things with his plays, like set them in various time periods, play around with costumes, with gender roles - whatever - I love it all - because his work is so transcendent - his themes are timeless.

So, when I saw Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, I thought - why not? The back of the book told how it was a "reimagining" of Hamlet and read blah blah blah In desperation, Ophelia devises a treacherous plan to escape from Elsinore forever... with one very dangerous secret. That could only mean one thing - that somehow Ophelia does not drown, but rather skips town, pregnant with Hamlet's baby.

Spoiler alert: that's exactly what happens.

Hamlet, the play, is like the perfect story - it begins and ends at the perfect time. It begins: Hamlet's dad is dead, everything's in turmoil - it begins with a question: Who's there? It ends with one hell of curtain drop: everybody's dead. One of the big problems with Ophelia is that it starts way before the perfect beginning, and it ends way after the proper ending. It's unfortunate that Ophelia, like most of the women in Shakespeare's plays, has little character development. It's natural to want to tell more of her story, but I think where Klein goes wrong is trying to hard to match her novel to the play (there are some really lame bits, where, for example, Ophelia might wander by someone and overhear them saying something like, "The play's the thing!") whereby it's necessary for Hamlet and Ophelia to merely pretend that they are "mad." It felt as if she were fighting too hard against the play instead of just moving ahead with her own narrative.

In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he works with the play, not struggling to explain or work around the difficult sections, but embracing them for all their absurdity.

About half way through, it occurred to me that maybe Ophelia was meant to be a YA book, which, it turns out, it is. I don't necessarily think that a book that's meant for younger people is or should be inherently more simple or readable, and it irks me that this simple book is meant for teens. A dumbed-down version of Shakespeare benefits no one. I wouldn't recommend it to either young or older readers, simply because it's not intellectually satisfying. It doesn't elaborate on the themes of Hamlet, it doesn't offer new ideas, and the plot's beyond dumb.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I soooooo love Shakespeare as well; read him voluntarily over a couple of summers after being introduced to Hamlet (I think) my sophomore year in HS.

I learned early that his work is best appreciated when spoken aloud so I've always read his work to myself or someone else; in fact, Haley and I recently read Hamlet with one another---so much fun! I don't suppose I'll be very enthusiastic for much of the derivative stuff prior to reading the real deal...