Hamlet – Ophelia’s songs (Act IV Scene 5)

“How should I your true love knowFrom another one?By his cockle hat and staffAnd his sandal shoon.” (IV.5.23-26) – Relates to the ambiguity of appearances, the use of deception and mistaken identity. – It could indicate that Ophelia feels betrayed by Hamlet? – The “cockle hat” imagery could be a reference to Puritanism; it was traditionally worn by pilgrims and could imply a connection to Hamlet, who’s making the journey to England supposedly to atone for his sins.
“He is dead and gone lady,He is dead and gone;At his head a grass-green turf,At his heels a stone.” (IV.5.29-32) – This is nearly always interpreted as specifically referring to Polonius’s death. – It’s pretty morbid in any case – it could indicate an obsession with death connected to madness, possibly foreshadowing her death and maybe subtly linking her to Hamlet.
“Larded all with sweet flowers,Which bewept to the grave did not goWith true-love showers.” (IV.5.38-40) – Flowers were/are traditionally thrown onto graves at funerals. – “Larded” = “cover or fill thickly or excessively” / “embellish (talk or writing) with an excessive number of esoteric or technical expressions”. It could also imply the covering up of something to disguise decay (similarly to how the circumstances of Polonius’s death is implied to have been hushed up by Claudius – you could maybe extend that to include Old Hamlet?)- “Bewept to the grave did not go” refers to the betrayal of an unmourned lover; she could be singing to Gertrude.(This doesn’t really belong here but like, are we given any indications of what the other courtiers think of the Old Hamlet/Gertrude/Claudius thing or are we solely informed by Hamlet’s vocal opposition to it? How would that affect the reading of the play?)
“Tomorrow 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 donned his clothesAnd dupped the chamber door;Let in the maid that out a maid Never departed more.” (IV.5.48-55) – Ophelia’s songs can be connected to the pastoral (“a work of literature portraying an idealised version of country life”, a.k.a bucolic) traditions which date back to Hesiod (circa 8th century BC I think?) and which were often seen in comedies contemporary to Shakespeare (like As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale etc). Sometimes this was associated with innocence (like the flowers she’s carrying later on) and sometimes with sexuality (like the actual content of the songs). – Ophelia singing this song suggests to the audience that she and Hamlet have had sex; as Laertes & Polonius talk a lot about the need to protect her virginity in I.3, this would mean she’d lost her most important social/economic/political asset. Since she’ll be categorised as either a “maid”, a wife or a widow, this could mess with her whole sense of social identity. – At this point, the song’s tone really isn’t one of Do Not Have Sex Because You Will Get Pregnant And Die. – She appears to be addressing this song about seduction to Claudius; it could refer to his being seduced by power.
“By Gis and by Saint Charity,Alack and fie for shame,Young men will do’t if they come to’t – By Cock, they are to blame.Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me,You promised me to wed.’ He answers – So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,And thou hadst not come to my bed.” (IV.5.58-66) – This song could also have autobiographical significance; Ophelia’s internalised all the warnings her father and brother have given her about the danger of being taken advantage of by young men (i.e. Hamlet). “Before you tumbled me / You promised me to wed” could refer to back in 1.3.113-14 when she says that Hamlet “hath given countenance to his speech, my lord / With almost all the holy vows of heaven” – marriage was a bit of a legal grey area in Shakespeare’s time, and technically if a couple exchanged vows and consummated their relationship it could constitute a legally binding union, so if she’s singing about herself it could imply she believed she was engaged to Hamlet.
“They bore him bare-faced on the bierHey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny,And in his grave rained many a tear – ” (IV.5.164-166) – This appears to be about Polonius’s death, but it doesn’t seem comparable to the descriptions we have of his funeral – Claudius says it was rushed, and his death was kept secret. This is a bit conjecturey, but we could imagine this as the kind of funeral Ophelia might’ve preferred her father to have – the corpse isn’t covered up, everyone’s crying. The confused funerals and complicated mourning is also seen with King Hamlet’s death, and later with Ophelia herself. – “Hey nonny nonny” was a popular refrain for Elizabethan songs; like the pastoral imagery, you’d be more likely to find it in a comedy than a tragedy.
“And will a not come again? And will a not come again? No, no, he is dead,Go to thy death-bed,He never will come again,His beard was as white as snow,All flaxen was his poll,He is gone, he is gone,And we cast away moan,God-a-mercy on his soul.” (IV.5.185-194) – This is the most elegiac of Ophelia’s songs; if we compare her with the rest of the court’s subdued and secretive attitude to Polonius’s death we could make a point about the motif of reality being perceived through madness – real or feigned. – To what extent is Hamlet “a play about people who lose their fathers”?- “white as snow” implies innocence, and can also be a reference to ageing and decay.

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