Ecocriticism in Hamlet

Written March 26, 2020

Shakespeare is known for placing ecocritical and ecofeminist concepts in his plays and Hamlet is no exception to this pattern. Even though Hamlet doesn’t have obvious ecocritical elements such as Much Ado About Nothing or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s still there mostly through the character named Ophelia. While the foundation of ecocriticism concerns the natural environment, some suggest that “ecocriticism is no longer confined to only the natural as critics expand the field through examinations of built environments and urban interactions with the natural” (LaFave, 1). Shakespeare’s Hamlet creates a space within scenes and dialogue to develop a unique ecocritical statement through his characters and their actions.

            One of the initial surprising things that Shakespeare does in Hamlet is how he almost normalizes the idea of the supernatural, specifically regarding the ghost of King Hamlet himself. Ghosts can be viewed as not part of the natural world and can sometimes be called a crime against nature. A different reading of the specter suggests that the ghost of King Hamlet is a “spectral disturbance of historical, political, and indeed human boundaries” (Stevens, 2011). This specter also reveals a different idea which is the idea of decay.

            Since King Hamlet is obviously a ghost, his body is quite literally rotting in a cemetery, which is the introduction to this idea of decay. Decay can be seen through “Hamlet’s own physical body, the meta-physical state of Denmark, and the abstract ‘corruption’ of the court” (LaFave, 7). The male characters specifically have “unnatural relationships” with the spaces they inhabit throughout the play and serve to spread this idea of decay further. To back up this idea, Marcellus is the first male character to claim that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” fairly early in the play (Hamlet, 1.4.90). Hamlet also alludes to the human disorder in environmental terms when he says “an unweeded garden/ The grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely” (Hamlet, 1.2.135-137). Hamlet himself discusses rot in order to “connect to his felt displacement from physicality” and how “the court is rot” (LaFave, 15).

            Hamlet, in regards to the court system, focuses “on the non-natural and the non-liminal interacting with the court” and how the court seems to be as out of place as Hamlet’s mind (LaFave, 7). The relationship between Hamlet and the court system introduces the idea about how Hamlet sees nature as being a “waste of built environments, nation-states, and intellectual pursuits” (LaFave, 16). Hamlet not only welcomes but actually insists on controlling every character that exists within the court system to further show that he would rather be in a constructed place rather than anywhere deemed natural. This is where ecophobia starts to play out, since “Estock argues that this fear stems from a fear of loss of control” (LaFave, 4). On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Ophelia, who “rejects ecophobia, Hamlet’s sense of control, and the environment of the court” (LaFave, 26).

            By act 1 scene 3, the audience finally gets to meet Ophelia who embodies a lot of ecofeminist ideas. She is seen as this vision of beauty but is treated lower than dirt. In this scene, she is insulted by her father, Polonius, for being tempted by Hamlet and her brother, Laertes, insists that she stays away from Hamlet. Laertes tells his sister “Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain/ If with too credent ear you list his songs,/ Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open/ To his unmastered importunity” which shows that her worth lies in her purity (Hamlet, 1.3.29-32).  This scene shows what Ophelia is to the male characters around her and that is a pawn, specifically “a pawn to her father’s will” (Brown, 38). She is simply something they can control in any way they see fit.

            Rather than giving Ophelia free will to choose her own path, Laertes and Polonius dig out her path for her. Her voice and independence are swiftly taken from her and she put in her place by Polonius as tells her to “think yourself a baby” and that she may “tender [him] a fool” (Hamlet, 1.3.105-109). Polonius makes it painfully clear of how much love he does not have for Ophelia by saying “Affection? Puh! You speak like a green girl” (Hamlet, 1.3.101). This may also be an idea for why Ophelia was so taken by Hamlet after such a brief meeting; Ophelia had not had any real guidance or love from her own father and was essentially walking alone in the dark.

            Ophelia falls for the prince Hamlet and even defends Hamlet to her father but explaining that “he hath importuned me with love/ In an honorable fashion” (Hamlet, 1.3.110-111). Polonius is set in how he views Hamlet and claims that his vows of love are like “springes to catch woodcocks” and implores his daughter so “be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence” (Hamlet, 1.3.115, 121). Polonius’ warnings of Hamlet can be interpreted in two ways, one way is that he is protective of his daughter and doesn’t want her to be hurt by the promises of young love. However, his protection could be seen has him being stubborn or too overbearing. The second way that Polonius sees the theme of decay within Hamlet and doesn’t want his daughter subjected to it.

            Ophelia listens to her father, of course, and this only further enrages Hamlet and adding to his already growing list of “external causes” for his melancholy (Brown, 11). Combined with the death of his father and his mother marrying Claudius (his step-father and uncle), the rejection from Ophelia only fuels him to continue on a negative path. This rejection also tells more about Ophelia’s character since it shows that Ophelia is unnervingly obedient to her father and is utterly dependent on Polonius. Her sense of agency seems to be removed in these scenes as she unnervingly listens to her father’s request.

            Hamlet descends into madness once he is rejected by Ophelia and in turn, Polonius becomes stricter with Ophelia and further restricts her sense of agency. Hamlet actually went as far as to take her “by the wrist and held [her] hard” (Hamlet, 2.1.87). Hamlet becomes this terrible, misogynistic entity and Ophelia is left with these three terrible men in her life restricting her and Hamlet verbally abusing her. Hamlet warns Polonius about his own daughter stating that he should “let her not walk I’th’sun. Conception is a blessing, / but, as your daughter may conceive—Friend, look to ‘t,” which is perceived as Hamlet entering madness rather than an insult or threat (Hamlet, 2.2.183-184). In a later scene involving Ophelia and Hamlet, Hamlet actually admits to how rotten he truly is when he tells Ophelia “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot/ so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it” once Hamlet states he no longer loves her (Hamlet, 3.1.116-117). His abuse even goes as far as to curse her for her “dowry” if she were to ever marry because “wise men know/ well enough what monsters you make of them” (Hamlet, 3.1.135, 137-138).

            The death of Polonius in act 3 scene 4 is the most important thing to have occurred in regards to Ophelia, as it resulted into her madness and showed what love she had for her father. This is where the audience begins to see how nature plays a part in Ophelia’s character. In act four scene five, Ophelia enters the scene with Gertrude and Horatio with flowers. In her darkest moments, Ophelia has turned to nature as her solace. This, in turn, introduces the idea that she and Hamlet are essentially opposites in the grand scheme of things.

            Hamlet as a character is rotting from the inside out. Wherever he goes, he inflicts that rotting onto others both human and non-human. Like previously mentioned, Hamlet embraces places that are not nature but rather manmade. Meanwhile, Ophelia seems to embrace the idea of nature as a way to strengthen herself. Her use of flower specifically could also be argued that it brings back her femininity since flowers are seen as a more feminine part of nature.

            On the other hand, the flowers can be seen as a way for Ophelia “to express feelings that she could not otherwise say out loud” (Hewett). The first flower Ophelia mentions is “rosemary, that’s for remembrance” (Hamlet, 4.5.174). Rosemary is a plant that can hold its “scent for an impressively long time” and, considering Ophelia’s rosemary was given to her brother Laertes, it is her way of asking her brother to remember her after the madness kills her (Hewett). The second flower she mentions is the “pansies, that’s for/ thoughts,” which is a symbol for sad thoughts (Hamlet, 4.5.175-176). The third flower is a fennel, which “stands for flattery” (Hewett), is then given away which could symbolize her flattery for Hamlet. Next is a rue which the Beford defines as a flower “for sorrow and repentance” (2015).

            Something particularly striking about the rue specifically is that it is also a symbol for “adultery and faithlessness” (Grabau, 2015). She gives some to Gertrude, since she married her dead husband’s brother and that was seen as unnatural, as well as keeping some for herself due to her brief relationship with Hamlet. She mentions a daisy and violets but the violets had “withered all when my father died” (Hamlet, 4.5.183). Grabau describes the daisies as being “the symbol of innocence” but didn’t give a daisy to anyone because she “thought there was no place for innocence in the Danish court anymore.” All of these flowers serve a higher purpose than just Ophelia’s insanity but it is rather a way for Ophelia to express her thoughts in a way that uses nature. It is also her way of insulting the king and queen without being obvious enough to face consequences from them.

Another part to note about this scene of madness is her song that she sings and how the grief she has for her father’s death is taken differently than Hamlet’s grief for his father. Jumping back to act one scene two, Claudius explains to Hamlet:

 That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound/ In filial obligation for some term/ To do obsequious sorrow; but to persever/ In obstinate condolement is a course/ Of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief,/ It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,/ A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,/ An understanding simple and unschooled. (Hamlet, 1.2.90-97)

What Claudius is essentially telling Hamlet here is that Hamlet has every right to grieve for his father but grieving for too long is inappropriate and stubborn. It shows weakness and impatience and urges him to stop his grieving as quickly as possible.

            Meanwhile, Ophelia doesn’t just openly grieve for her murdered father but sings of her grief. The characters around her believe she has gone insane but in reality, she is grieving with no strings attached and shows that “her entire being aligns with the underlying natural world” (LaFave, 20). It shows the divide between not just the characters but masculine and feminine roles. Ophelia faces no real social responsibilities like Hamlet had in regards to quickly moving past the grief. It also gives the audience a peak into the vast differences between how Ophelia sees and is seen in the court system versus the natural world.

            In act four scene five during Ophelia’s insanity, she sings of her fathers’ death in a natural way. She uses phrases such as “At his head a grass-green turf,” “white his shroud as mountain snow,” and “larded all with sweet flowers.” As LaFave interprets, it is apparent that “beyond the stone walls of Elsinore lies, presumably, a natural world” which is the only world Ophelia seems to really connect with (21). This is another clue as to the relationship she shares with the natural world outside of the court. It also shows the divide between the natural world and the unnatural space the characters have created within the court. Her father never truly knew nature until his untimely demise.

            In the same scene, Ophelia brings the imagery of the sun into her song of insanity. On line 65 she states “so would I ha’ done, by yonder sun” which hints at the power the sun has in the natural world. It also seems to be a jab back at Hamlet who, as previously mentioned, compared the sun as something that was “polluting Ophelia and womanhood just as much as it pollutes dead animals” (LaFave, 19). This portion of her song is her way of “[blaming] men” and explaining that “the man of her song would have treated her correctly if it were ‘by yonder sun’” (LaFave, 22). There is the understood “reproductive power” and the “common trop that things done properly are done in the daylight” all within one song sung by Ophelia (LaFave, 22).

            By act five scene seven, Ophelia succumbs to her grief and apparent insanity by committing suicide while surrounded by flowers. This moment is an important one in the play because of how it affects the people around her but most importantly how her suicide is perceived. Her suicide has a few ideas to it. The first is how Ophelia died in the natural world in a natural setting. Everything about Ophelia was romanticized from the moment she was introduced and even into her own “suicide is romanticized” by the use of descriptions such as “the flowers in her hair” and “her dress spreading like a mermaid” (LaFave, 13). She started being adorned with flowers during insanity then died with garlands of them.

            There is also an unnatural aspect to Ophelia’s death. Going back to Hamlet when he only acted to be insane, he spoke about death and suicide for quite some time. Hamlet ultimately decided against suicide due to Christian morals that state that a soul will be damned eternally if one were to take their own life. The “fixation on the act of suicide” was seen as “the ultimate disconnect between man and the natural” (Brown, 45). Ophelia’s life was taken in a very unnatural way, “at least to the built, intellectual, masculine order” (LaFave, 27). In accordance with the Christian faith, which was assumed the predominate religion at the time given the context from the Clown in ace 5 scene one who asks if it were to be a “Christian burial,” “suicide would be considered an unnatural death” (LaFave, 28). Despite it being “an unnatural death,” it was expressed “in incredibly natural descriptors” (LaFave, 26). Ophelia combined this taboo idea with beautiful imagery forces the audience to question the binary of tragic and beautiful, masculine and feminine.

            In terms of binaries, LaFave goes into detail about how there is the theme of “rottenness versus beauty, male versus female, [and] built versus natural” (12). The binary between the built and the natural seems like one of the greater themes since the play starts and ends with scenes combining the two. The graveyard itself is a place “where the built and the natural interact” since “the landscape is natural” yet the graveyard as an actual place is built (26-27). It introduces the idea of “blending… the divide between masculinity and femininity” as well (27). There’s also the idea of what suicide actually symbolizes in terms of this graveyard, too.

            Hamlet viewed suicide and death as this terrible and tragic event. He saw it for what the Christian beliefs said it was. Ophelia used death as a way “of escape from the court” she was placed into (LaFave, 12). Ophelia used death as a way to “return to nature” that she was kept from for so long (LaFave, 12). Hamlet and the other cast of characters that are deep in the court only focus on the court they have constructed.

            Another important thing to note is how Gertrude describes Ophelia’s off-stage suicide. Gertrude describes Ophelia’s clothes in the water as being “mermaid-like” and states that her drowning was “like a creature native and indued/ Unto that element” (Hamlet, 4. 7. 176,178). Her clothes being compared to that of a mermaid is “a romantic, pastoral description” with which “femininity is associated with” (LaFave, 23). Gertrude described Ophelia as though she “[belonged] to the water, or [belonged] to nature” (LaFave, 24). It provides further context as to just how much of an outsider Ophelia was in the court system and how she had always truly belonged to the natural world outside of the built world. Now she could stay with nature forever in her final resting place.

            In a play that is relatively devoid of the natural world, Ophelia brings the natural world into the play. Ophelia was the “black sheep” of the play who was unapologetically herself. Her agency may have been taken but it also started to get regained in her last moments. Ophelia isn’t the typical feminine character in Shakespeare’s plays; the most feminine aspect about her was her beauty and connection with nature. Ophelia, unlike the other characters, ended up free from any social chains through her unnatural death. She is a character that grows through the use of nature and her final actions helped to inevitably shift the emotions of the still living characters.

Grade received: 100%


Works Cited

Brown, Angela. “Earthbound Humors: An Ecocritical Approach to Melancholy in As You Like It and Hamlet.”  ScholarWorks@UNO,  14 May 2010, scholarworks.uno.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2152%context=td.

Foulke, Lucinda. “The Law in Hamlet: Death, Property, and the Pursuit of Justice.” Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, 2 Nov. 2019, shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/law-hamlet-death-property-pursuit-justice/.

Hewett, Chase. “Use of Flowers in Hamlet.” Symbolic Meaning of Flowers, symbolicmeaningofflowers.weeble.com/ use-of-flowers-in-hamlet.html.

LaFave, Mikaela. “Something Rotten: Space, Place, and the Nation in Hamlet and As You Like It.” Georgia College Knowledge Box, 28 June 2018, kb.gcsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article= 1002&context=english.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Bedford Shakespeare: Based on the New Cambridge Shakespeare Edition. Bedford/St Martins, 2015.

Grabau, Lydia. “Ophelia’s Flowers.” Hamlet Dramaturgy, 18 Apr. 2013, hamletdramaturgy.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/ophelias-flowers/.

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