Law and Culture: Co-existing Competitors

Ophelia – In Defense of the Queen*

Prince Hamlet! Enough to dig out worm-eaten
Deposit… Look at the roses!
Think about her who counts each day
As priceless as her last day.

Prince Hamlet! Enough of defiling the flesh
Of the queen… It is not for virgins
To judge passion. Phaedra is guiltier
But people still sing her hymns.

And will be! But you with your paleness and decay –
Better go gossip with bones,
Prince Hamlet! It is not for your reasoning
To judge inflamed blood.

But if… Be on guard!… Through the stone plates –
I’ll come to your bed-chamber and
I’ll rise to defend my queen to all pleasure –
I, your immortal passion.

Feb. 28, 1923

* (Transl. by V. Enyutin)

As culture is not identical with civilization, aesthetic discourse is not supposed to be identical with legalistic or commonsensical frames of reference. At least in democratic speech this dis-identification between the normative or the common sense on the one hand, and a paradox on the other is a norm, while in totalitarian systems free word will be always felt as a transgression (a dangerous alternative to the accepted norms and “normalized” sensibility). The logic of transcendence of the common semantic sensibility is Tsvetaeva’s favorite poetic operation. Again and again she challenges the philistine commonality of standard la parole, and you can be sure that in her “Ophelia – in Defense of the Queen” she prepared for our timid taste surpassing and suppressive surprises.

The semantic structure of this poem is based on two competing (and at the same time supporting one another) leitmotifs – of life that is occupied with death, and of death that is occupied with life. In the first stanza Ophelia mentions that Hamlet is occupied with the “old story” of his father being or not being killed by his step-father. In the second stanza she is talking about the womb/flesh of the queen being verbally defiled by the prince. In the third stanza she refers to Hamlet’s philosophizing over Yorick-the jester’s skull. And in the last stanza she warns Hamlet that if he’ll continue animosity towards the queen, she, Ophelia, will herself come right out of her grave to his bedroom to defend his mother. The sub-motif of the underground, under-earth, under-bottom, graveyard and decay seems, at the first glance, a bit obsessive in the poem. Death and decay are considered either wrongly cathected or triumphantly overcame.

In agreement with leitmotifs of life obsessed with death and of death engaged with life, Tsvetaeva puts the two groups of nouns in opposition to each other: the first group – worm-eaten deposit, paleness, virgins (who dare to judge passion), decay, bones, stone-plate; the second group – roses, passion (two times – passion and immortal passion), flesh/womb, (inflamed) blood, defense, delight. The same with verbs – the first group: to dig out, to defile, to judge (two times), to gossip; the second group – to count each day, to sing songs, to come to the bedroom, to defend.

Occupation with death Tsvetaeva describes as a morbid fixation she tries to stop with Ophelia’s “enough to” (two times) and with verbs in imperative – “look” and “go gossip”, before she comes to direct insults (“it is not for the virgins“, “with your paleness and decay“, “It is not for your reasoning to judge“). Finally Ophelia gives Hamlet a warning that “she’ll take drastic action” – will rise out of her grave and from the graveyard come straight to Hamlet’s bedroom.

It is here we come to the most daring, the most overwhelming and the “impossible”, the most Tsvetaevanesque part of the poem. Ophelia is menacing to come to Hamlet’s… bedroom. But how does she intend to defend the queen there? By using Hamlet’s weapon – his sharp and enlightened verbality, his refined speech and resourceful arguments which Shakespeare seals with his genius? Only here we approach the mystery at the bottom of Tsvetaeva’s poem. Is the poetess taking here a stance against Shakespeare, with his minor identification with Gertrude’s and Ophelia vs. his major identification with Hamlet? By her defense of Hamlet’s mother, Tsvetaeva deconstructs the conventional (masculinist) streak in Shakespeare’s narrative and discovers the possibility for an alternative, paradoxical reading.

The semantic motif of life occupied with death is personified by Hamlet. When instead of being occupied with life and love Hamlet became fixated on the problem of truth – was his father killed by Claudius or not, Ophelia, who went mad and committed suicide announces in Tsvetaeva’s poem her paradoxical (“not reasonable”) position from her grave – from ontologically negative space. Instead of crawling to post-death immortality (ontological trick) as a foggy version of being, she accepts the non-being and by this heroic feat acquires an incredible poetic power (with Tsvetaeva’s help) to treat Hamlet as an anemic cowardly boy who hides from life and the passion of living into Ghost‘s detective story. While Hamlet was sacrificing living, Ophelia from a semi-mute and naïve girl is transformed into a mature person with a poetic power to assert her feminist existential paradox in front of Hamlet’s obsession with Sherlock Holmes banality. Hamlet’s dedication to “truth“became debunked as ontologically timid and too conventional choice of a narrative.

Ophelia’s truth, on the other hand, is that of a virgin/woman. This positive truth is of living, loving, making love, giving birth, nurturing physically and spiritually, and it includes her ability to give a lesson to Hamlet for his existential ineptitude in order to awaken him and, may be, if Shakespeare could write Tsvetaeva’s poem as a part of his play, save Hamet from killing, being killed and by this destroying the “kingdom of Denmark” as a potential place for real wisdom.

In this not feminist-conformist perspective when woman imitates man (repeats man’s kind of enslavement) but a feminist-creative perspective in which the woman stops to be a slave of traditional femininity without falling into another trap of sharing men’s social enslavement, she is able to open the way out. Ophelia’s virginity in her situation with Hamlet is a waste while Gertrude’s crime of passion is a result of feeling that there is not enough living given to us all, that we are always unfulfilled in our living, and that we, Hamlets and Ophelias of the world have to find a way to live more intensely, more profoundly, more actively and creatively.

In this sense, Shakespeare’s play is about a double impossibility of living, on the masculine as much as on the feminine side. And by the same reason Tsvetaeva’s poem is about the double overcoming of this impossibility through post-mortal heroic act of her Ophelia. If Ophelia‘s “warning” to Hamlet to make love to him “in defense of the queen” could realize itself in real life – that would be existential transfiguration of human love and existence. But understanding always comes too late, even when Tsvetaeva offers her mediation between Shakespeare and us.

Tsvetaeva reads Ophelia’s heart – defending the queen, her sexual body, her amorous yearnings, her femininity – means making love to/with Hamlet! That’s what it means to go to Hamlet’s bedroom to defend the queen if you died unjustly early, if you are premature corpse trying to reverse your destiny in Tsvetaeva’s poem. In real life which Shakespeare took as his frame of reference – there is no chance for realization of love between Gertrude and Claudius and, therefore, between Ophelia and Hamlet (there is no way to peacefully “divorce” King Hamlet: without hurting megalomaniacal ambitions, without rivalry, betrayal and murder, where passion must accept/incorporate murder to be itself). But Tsvetaeva in her four-stanza poem reverses the factual universe of Shakespeare’s play with her poetic overcoming of the reality, not in an easy, utopian, imaginary, painless and artificial way, but by making us understand the power of the factual world with tragic and criminal reality of the very universe of human life.

Tsvetaeva reads Ophelia’s unconscious that mutely accuses Hamlet for wasting her youthful body, for neglecting her soul and her life, but without this torment there would be no this Ophelia’s miraculous attempt to save Hamlet from wasting his intelligence and his life. The dead virgin returns to life to make love as a corpse to the corps-like Hamlet! For Tsvetaeva the power of metaphor is stronger than reality or (one-dimensional) utopian imagination, and making love as a corpse is more real than men’s occupation with formal Justice, Law, law-suits and fight for power, wealth and glory. This scene, if visualized, is expressionistically surreal as to emphasize and to overcome the monstrous nature of human life in a “fallen“world. This image of overcoming monstrosity is monstrously anti-monstrous.

The feminine/feminist existential alliance between Tsvetaeva and Ophelia overrides the philosophical alliance between Shakespeare and Hamlet. Tsvetaeva’s poem is a feminine/feminist correction of Shakespeare’s tragedy but it is based on a secret alliance between Shakespeare (with his “minor” identification with Gertrude and Ophelia) and Tsvetaeva.