Anna Akhmatova, “Reading Hamlet”

Akhmatova’s imagination brings us to a cruel but familiar place. She reads Hamlet, casts herself as Ophelia, and then sets herself to the task of confronting Hamlet’s incredible callousness, rage, and lack of remorse. “All right then, get thee to a nunnery, / or go get married to a fool…”

It’s a task which not only challenges our typical approach to reading Hamlet, but pushes us to challenge our expectations and desires in the name of self-respect.

Reading Hamlet
Anna Akhmatova (tr. Kunitz & Hayward) 

A barren patch to the right of the cemetery,
behind it a river flashing blue.
You said: "All right then, get thee to a nunnery,
or go get married to a fool."

It was the sort of thing that princes always say,
but these are the words that one remembers.
May they flow a hundred centuries in a row
like an ermine mantle from his shoulders.

Akhmatova identifies Hamlet’s toxic masculinity; in doing so, she makes Ophelia’s descent into insanity and suicidal ideation vivid. Yet, despite Hamlet’s causing so much pain, most of us do read the play as his quest for justice for his father. We wonder how deeply corrupt the royal court is, how many are complicit in murder. I feel like it’s easy to pass over the full scope of the injustice done to Ophelia, instead of noting her trauma caused by a man more committed to feigning insanity than treating those to whom he’s obligated with respect.

It is difficult to learn to read in ways which do not automatically dehumanize others. I still crave stories where it’s easy to identify the good guys and they always win. Those, unfortunately, are the stories where the most dehumanization occurs. I’m not speaking so much of the nameless uniformed goons working for a tyrant who get beat up, but the people who are served by the hero, who testify to his good deeds and are heard from in no other way. Toxic masculinity and heroism are terribly hard to separate at times. Quite a few people believe stories should be traditional and morals should be simple so we’re not confused by unintended consequences or the failure of good intentions.

Akhmatova’s sensitivity—a fanfiction writer’s sensitivity—gives us Ophelia’s eyes, which strangely allows us to find ourselves. She begins with a vision: A barren patch to the right of the cemetery, / behind it a river flashing blue. It isn’t merely morbid or dark; it’s all Ophelia sees, just as the only words Ophelia hears are Hamlet’s. I cannot believe it is possible to forget how hard it is to regret loving someone you’ve loved deeply. But it is possible to forget this, just as it is all the more possible to underestimate how much you’ve invested in the thought of a life together. You end up not only questioning your whole life, but the foundation of your whole life, which in Ophelia’s case is the court. Polonius’ “to thine own self be true,” one might say, creates a fatal problem: as a proud daughter of a royal courtier who loves the Prince, to watch him go mad means wondering if you know how to love or how to judge. Wondering if your whole life has been a lie and can never be anything but a lie.

Ophelia mutters not only anger, but lasting resentment. She wants to give the Prince words he must remember: May they flow a hundred centuries in a row / like an ermine mantle from his shoulders. History will remember the Prince’s cruelty toward her, just as the purity of the flowing ermine mantle is mocked by the flowing river of flashing blue in which she will drown. Her resentment, her thought of suicide, is where we as readers begin our response. Perhaps we have not been so callously mocked as she has, but we may wonder how our expectations can betray us, or under what circumstances our judgment proves fatal.

Following Ophelia, we can see that one key issue for us is respect. On the one hand, genuine respect for oneself and others does not demand any particular disposition toward us. Ophelia did love Hamlet, her family, the court. This basis for genuine respect is no guard against insanity, though, because there is another sort of respect we need. In order to function—in order to feel useful in the smallest of ways—we need to be shown respect for who we are and what we can do. Of necessity a more conventional form of respect bleeds together with what I term genuine respect. I do not want to belittle Ophelia’s position in the least: at the very moment I can see her will to suicide, I can see how I’m different and not-so-different. That hollow feeling we get at moments of defeat or failure—”Is this all the world has to offer me?”—entails the feeling that nothing can ever be put back together again, not one’s family, not one’s dreams. One might ask what right we have to dream, but Akhmatova’s imagination, while it brings us to a rather dark place, helps bring forth the sensitivity and tenderness which only dreams can bring to the world.

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