What literary devices are used in Queen Gertrude's speech about Ophelia's death?

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jlbh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When we see a Shakespeare play, we cannot help but look at it through a modern 'lens'. We seem to require a realistic representation of events, mostly because a modern story, be it on the stage or in a film, let alone a novel and story-telling in general, has at least 100 years of realism behind it.  We also expect a certain realism in the dialogue, and a realistic sense of consistency in a character. In Hamlet, a woman is apparently an eye-witness to a young girl drowning - does she jump in the water to try to save her? Does she call for help? No! She appears to compose poetry instead...

And wonderful poetry it is. After the bluntness of '...your sister's drowned, Laertes' (4,vii,164) and the brother's horrified response (but you will have to look at critics' comments on 'Oh, where?' because this has sounded very clumsy to some) Gertrude delivers what is more or less an aria, answering Laertes's question: 'There is a willow grows askant a brook...' (166).

Shakespeare's plays probably have more in common in some ways with 'opera' than with theatre as we know it now. Think of this speech as an 'aria' - a lovely poignant song in an opera, when the singer delivers a passionate expression of poetic feeling, and - essentially - steps 'out of character' to do it. There is not much to suggest Gertrude's poetic nature, or her interest in flowers, etc, before or after. But many of Shakespeare's characters do the same kind of thing (think of Jaques' 'seven ages of man' speech in As You Like It, or Enobarbus in Antony & Cleopatra, 'The barge she sat in...') These are not speeches that are characteristic of the speaker in any 'realistic' sense; Jaques, a sham moraliser, reveals a depth that has more to do with the play than with his 'character'; Enobarbus is a robust man of reason, rather than a poet...

Gertrude's speech itself, however, is dramatically potent. A lyrical catalogue of trees and flowers gives way to 'cold maids do dead men's fingers call them', with obvious hints at death, and then, back to a highly elegiac idiom with the 'weeping brook'. The mood has become melancholy, but moves on again with the much more Gertrude-like, and much more realistic, 'pulled the poor wretch...to muddy death.'  (She uses this phrase for Hamlet in 2,ii,166.) The changes of tone in this speech are extraordinary and rapid, very characteristic of the play (in which Hamlet has a great many similar 'arias'). Our own perception of Ophelia alters because of it, surely. We have had sane, unhappy Ophelia, and crazy, mad Ophelia, before us on stage; but now we have the reported poetic account of dead, drowned Ophelia, a pathetic,doomed but lovely figure - which gives way to the mourning, the vengeance, and - first - to the Clowns.


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