Modern Adaptations of Shakespeare’s character "Ophelia"

Essay, 2019

8 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Modern Adaptations of Ophelia

‘I wondered how the play would be different if Ophelia were not so weak and passive’ (Klein 2010, 20) – modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s character Ophelia

Not even three years ago, April 2016, people all around the world celebrated Shakespeare’s works on the 400th anniversary of his death, as his reach is still extensive. Shakespeare’s most cited work have been well received, especially the play Hamlet. The result of his success culminated into countless reinterpretations and adaptations of the play itself and in particular its characters. Hamlet is not only staged in theatres, but the figures of the Danish court also appear in cinemas, novels, paintings and even pop songs. Although the tragic prince may be the protagonist of the play, creators and artists are also particularly fascinated by a minor character, Ophelia, who became the most represented figure in the 19th century and is still reinterpreted today (cf. Ochsner 2014, 465). The graceful beauty perishes at the helm of the power struggles within the Danish court. Ophelia has been immortalized by countless painters and poets, and was analyzed from different angles in films and novels. But is that still Shakespeare’s Ophelia ? Because her character has been adapted again and again, is the original source still visible? If someone adapts Ophelia’s story today, are they really talking about Shakespeare’s character or are they just quoting an image of her?

Because of Shakespeare’s often praised relevance, the characters run the risk of being adapted too superficially. Although their characteristics have to be constantly adapted to the specific situation, many people tend to overlook Shakespeare and only remember the well- known picture of the pretty water-corpse.

This essay will therefore explore the question of how Ophelia was adapted in two different adaptations: Lisa Klein’s novel Ophelia and the 1990 drama film Hamlet directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

The essay examines the question of whether and particularly how Ophelia was adapted differently and if Shakespeare’s original work can still be found in the adaptations. The underlying concept of adaptation is taken over throughout Linda Hutcheon’s work. She defines the ‘adaptation’ through the meaning of the word itself: ‘According to its dictionary meaning, “to adapt” is to adjust, to alter, to make suitable’ (Hutcheon 2006, 7). Furthermore, she explains that an adaptation is ‘an announced and extensive transposition of a particular work’ (Hutcheon 2006, 7). That can be the transposition to a different medium or genre or a change of context. This essay will address all three of these phenomenons. Lisa Klein’s adaptations not only changes the medium but also the frame (the story is told from Ophelia’s point of view) and Franco Zeffirelli uses a shift of medium and genre. Hutcheons describes this “transformation” as a process of creation, which, according to her, ‘involves both (re)interpretation and (re-)creation’ (Hutcheon 2006, 8) and a process of reception, which refers to the audience who is interacting with the new product and its predecessors when watching, reading or listening to the adaptation. The audience remembers what it already knows and is influenced by that when dealing with the new product: ‘[W]e experience adaptations (as adaptations) as palimpsests through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition with variation [...] With adaptations, we seem to desire the repetition as much as the change’ (Hutcheon 2006, p.8f). By that she means that the recipient can like an adaptation just as much as the version it is based on or was adapted from and that the recipient is influenced by his memory and knowledge of other versions of the story. Therefore, the recipient experiences a new version differently compared to others. Hutcheons therefore refrains from considering adaptations as inferior to their originals and does not want to subject them to an examination of fidelity or to look for the spirit of the template. It is far more interesting for her to recognize an adaptation as an independent work and to examine how the original source was changed by the new medium and its nature (cf. Hutcheon 2006, 9ff).

To recognize Klein’s and Zeffirelli’s versions as adaptations, their versions will be compared to the adapted text (Shakespeare’s Hamlet). To do so, the characteristics of Ophelia are to be worked out briefly – on the basis of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. This is interesting because a change of genre or the nature of a particular medium requires an adaptation of the figure. Only if one has recognized the peculiarities of the adaptation and has associated this with the occurring character of Ophelia, one can explain whether Shakespeare’s character was adapted or whether the authors – in our case Lisa Klein and Franco Zeffirelli – have only used the image of Ophelia.

In the course of Hamlets five acts, Ophelia only appears in five scenes; in three more scenes she is spoken about but not physically present. She is a character with limited speaking time and is very passive. Yet, during the play, she transforms from the virtuous daughter to a madwoman who wants to be heard. At the same time, it becomes clear that Ophelia is clever and quietly observes her surroundings and even condemns others for their immoral actions. At the end of the play she dies, and it remains unclear if her death is an accident or if she committed suicide.

In the first three acts, Ophelia is portrayed as a virtuous daughter who knows how to behave at Court. As daughter of the King’s Chief Chamberlain, she is part of the Queen’s Court Ladies. For this reason, she also knows about the habits of the court and always strives to suit them. At the beginning, she even wards off Hamlet’s declarations of love at the request of her father. As the play progresses, Hamlet’s love for her becomes part of an intrigue.

Despite the fact that Ophelia only appears a few times during the play, she still undergoes an enormous transformation. Through her grief she develops from the virtuous and obedient daughter to a madwoman who dies under dubious circumstances. In her death, she becomes one with nature, a bond that has already expressed itself several times during the play. When she appears, she is mostly passive: she only speaks when she is addressed and acts the way you tell her to. She lets her father use her as a puppet. Nevertheless, she is a smart woman and a silent observer of Court society. She also understood that power struggles exist at Court, but that the other characters would rather keep silent. In Shakespeare's time, the characteristics of female insanity were clearly defined and recognized in Ophelia for a contemporary audience: she performs "distracted" (4.5.20), usually wearing white on stage, showing her virginity, in contrast with Hamlet's black robe, and died while being covered by a shower of flowers. Another feature is "her haire downe" (Q1, 4.5.20) an offence against decorum and indicating lost decency and sensuality.

In her madness it becomes clear that she longs for a better world: she sings folk songs and distributes flowers. For the first time, she asks to be heard by the other characters and addresses them. She acts like herself, although she acts confused. To this end, she uses her madness as an outbreak from her previous role.

In the end she fails because the other characters do not listen to her and do not take her seriously. Her subsequent death is ambivalent: while the characters close to her are convinced of her innocence, the minor characters doubt the circumstances of her death. Combined with her madness, the impression is given that Ophelia has killed herself.

On the basis of this description, Lisa Klein’s adaptation can now be explored in more detail. Lisa Klein, a former literature teacher from America, was dissatisfied with Ophelia’s story in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To find answers to her questions about the character, she wrote the novel Ophelia (cf. Klein, About me). The Young Adult novel tells the story of the Shakespearean character from Ophelia’s perspective and lets her survive in the end – a result of her own clever plan. The story itself is divided into three parts, starting with the childhood of Ophelia. The second part begins with the death of the rightful King of Denmark, marking the part that includes Shakespeare’s plot. Lisa Klein rewrites the scenes in which Ophelia appears in the play, takes over some of the wordings and adds her own, unique statements. The third part of the book is spent by Ophelia in her self-chosen exile, a monastery in France. The prologue of Ophelia begins with a letter sent by Horatio to Ophelia, which informs her about the outcome of Hamlets revenge mission. Sad about the loss of her friends and family, Ophelia makes the decision to write down her own story (cf. Klein 2008, 3):

‘I, Ophelia, played a part in this tragedy. I served the queen. I sought to steer the prince’s course. I discovered dangerous secrets and fell afoul of the tyrant Claudius. [...] Guilt consumes me, that I should live while all are lost. That I could not divert the fated course.’ (Klein 2008, 3)

Ophelia is by no means the silent spectator in this adaptation: she herself states that she intervened in the plot and tried to change the course of the drama. She was an active figure, but she failed and had to save herself. Driven by guilt, she now begins to tell the story to the reader. She starts with her childhood, telling the reader how she grew up without a mother and behaved like a boy. She explains, that her clothes and face were often dirty after playing in the garden with her brother (cf. Klein 2008, 3). It becomes evident, how much she loves nature, which later also becomes a recurring theme throughout the novel and at the same time marks a similarity to Shakespeare’s character.

Unlike in Hamlet however, Klein’s Ophelia is unwilling to be a marionette. Instead, she makes her own plans behind the back of everyone else. By no means is she an obedient daughter in this adaptation, for she opposes and even laughs at her father. She ridicules his constant efforts to please the king and believes that it is better and more important to be true to oneself instead of constantly trying to please others (cf. Klein 2008, 136f). Even after becoming the victim of an intrigue of Claudius, she does not give up: ‘I have seen a hunted deer run from the open field and take cover in a shadowed bower [...]. I knew I must likewise hide myself and deceive the hunter’ (Klein 2008, 176). She also explains her further plan, which is to act mad to explore possible escape routes from the castle. She even decides to confront the queen herself. Here she proves her anger and disappointment towards Queen Gertrude, in addition to her rebellious streak as she deliberately violates the etiquette of the court by appealing to the Queen for her bad behaviour and condemning her for it (cf. Klein 2008, 181-183). Ophelia also rebels against her husband: Horatio tells her about a letter that Hamlet sent him. Since her husband does not mention her, Ophelia does not want to join Horatio's escape. She realizes, however, that she cannot keep her disguise as a madman forever and decides to flee alone but divulges her plan to fake her death to Horatio (by taking a self-brewed poison and letting herself fall into a river, so that it would look like she drowned) (cf. Klein, 2008, 205-207). She leaves Denmark, flees to France and is admitted to a nunnery. Three years later she suddenly receives a visit from Horatio. He describes his long search for her, and Ophelia realizes how glad she is to have him with her. With his sudden presence she realizes that she loves Horatio and the two kiss. The novel ends (cf. Klein 2008, 323-328). The book itself corresponds to the model of a youth novel: The teenager gets into a conflict with the adults and tries to find himself. This complex process is described through a subjective narrative. Although youth novels, on the one hand, thematise the search for meaning of adolescents, they also appeal to adults as well. ‘[The Young Adult novel] is a place where what youth wants to read and what are adults want to read collides’ (Wilson 2017, 157).

At the end of the book, Lisa Klein’s Ophelia receives a happy ending with her own house, son and new lover (Horatio). She is not content to be the passive and silent victim and breaks out of this role by facing her problems. Although Klein’s Ophelia is highly rebellious, she also has something in common with Shakespeare's template: Both are very connected to nature and use their madness as a final debate. In addition, both are initially very eager for the farm etiquette. Klein’s Ophelia has her problems with it, but usually sticks to it. She always acts according to her own code of ethics and strives for everyone, but at the end of Klein’s story she puts herself before others and thus escapes her death.

Lisa Klein's novel Ophelia is therefore an attempt to make Shakespeare's Hamlet accessible to young (female) readers. Instead of a silent and passive character, readers are presented with the image of strong heroine, who indeed always behaves virtuous, but rebels against oppression. Klein puts a focus on the love story between Ophelia and Hamlet, but gives Ophelia a happy ending with a different man. Her feminist approach – Ophelia taking her life into her own hands – serves as a lesson for young women not to be content with oppression. Thus, it connects the interest of the adolescents (a love story) with an adult topic and a lesson/moral, which could also be discussed in the context of school lessons. Although Klein had to transform Ophelia’s character, she has still dealt with the template strongly. Therefore, it can be said that Shakespeare's character was adapted by Lisa Klein to fit the requirements of a youth novel. From a feminist point of view, it can be said Ophelia's madness can be seen as protest and rebellion. Ophelia stands then for a heroine who rebels against gender stereotypes and the social order.


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Modern Adaptations of Shakespeare’s character "Ophelia"
University of Iceland
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Adaptations, movies, filmwissenschaft, ophelia, shakespeare, Hamlet
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Anonymous, 2019, Modern Adaptations of Shakespeare’s character "Ophelia", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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