Is Ophelia Hamlet’s ‘Holy Grail’?
The drowning of Ophelia: its mystical symbolism revealed
“Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.” – Hamlet
It can be said that the cause of all our personal and global ‘heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ is not our inability to see through the eyes of our higher nature, our soul – but our unwillingness to do so. When we use our natural ability to shift paradigms and viewing points, we transcend dilemma, engender empathy, compassion, and understanding, and even resolve many of life’s eternal mysteries such as what and where is the elusive ‘Holy Grail’?
This is never so poignant as in the profound wisdom buried in the scriptures and elucidated by the Bard himself.
Hidden in the symbolism and word-play of Shakespeare’s plays is the most important (forbidden) truth about who we really are and why we’re here on earth. In order to marvel at this subtext story, you may need to make the fundamental paradigm shift I am suggesting here.
Warning: this shift may open your eyes, but won’t necessarily make seeing and understanding his hidden message much easier. For this you need a large portion of ‘suspension of disbelief’ and an open, unprejudiced mind.
The key paradigm shift is to see the characters not as people in the real, historical, or fictional external world, but as characterisations of three pairs of archetypes of our primary internal states of consciousness. Having been a spiritual psychologist, theologian, and executive coach for over 30 years, I thought I was dreaming when I first realised that Shakespeare, to drive the plots of his plays, was using the exact same model of consciousness I have found invaluable to navigate my clients through the labyrinth of the ego into a more soul aware state.
The most confusing element of the subtext – and thus most intriguing – is the plethora of different symbols that refer to what Shakespeare ultimately calls ‘The Tempest’. The Tempest shows up like Alfred Hitchcock, in some guise, in all the plays. Often it’s so subtle it’s almost invisible (as in Measure for Measure).
At the anagogical level, the symbolic story Shakespeare always tells us is ‘How Adam and Eve lost the ‘Holy Grail’ and how mankind got it back’! ‘The Tempest’ turns out to be Shakespeare’s term for what has become mythologised as none other than ‘The Holy Grail’.
Hamlet is one of the most masterful disguises-and-thus-revelations of this never-before-realised analogy. As I said, if you suspend all disbelief and open your mind you may see this for yourself as I simply point out what the symbols say to me.
As you can see from this collage, all these biblical and Shakespearean symbols seem to represent the one same thing, for convenience let’s just call it: ‘The Holy Grail’.
Ophelia’s role in Hamlet seems in part to represent the journey of Hamlet’s soul – independent of Hamlet as a mortal being. The key symbol used for Ophelia’s mystical travels is a variation of the term ‘the waters’.
The waters is first seen in Genesis 1: 2 (And the Sprit of God moved upon the face of the waters.) In multiple forms of water (seas, rivers, brooks, streams, rain, etc) the waters is an ubiquitous symbolic reference throughout the Bible and Shakespeare. (For a fuller explanation please read my book, Shakespeare’s Revelation.)
Using a ‘brook’ to represent ‘the waters’ goes back to the biblical story of David and Goliath. Symbolising the power of ‘the Name of God’ to vanquish ‘evil’, it’s interesting that that the boy-king David, holding a staff (another symbol for name of God), took five smooth stones (again, more symbolic names of God) from a brook before defeating Goliath.
The first major clue as to Ophelia’s hidden (anagogical ) role in the play comes directly after the immortal ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. This final few lines answers the question:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale caste of thought
And enterprise of great pith and moment
With this regard, their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Hue is the ancient mystical sound and name of God, also known as by the mystics as the sound current. This song of the soul, and the blissful awareness of God, is what Shakespeare is telling was ‘the Grail’, lost in the beginning when the mind usurped the soul as the centre of consciousness and the soul was banished from paradise – Adam and Eve, remember?
So what happens immediately following the speech, Ophelia appears. Hamlet refers to her as ‘nymph’ which delineates her role as ‘spirit’ or soul, in the same way Ariel embodies the Spirit of The Tempest – and he banishes her – to a nunnery. Ariel is likewise banished i.e. imprisoned by Sycorax in a tree until, after various trials and tribulations, he is released by Prospero. It’s the same underthought!
No coincidence that Ophelia appeared to drown falling from a willow growing ‘aslant a brook’: symbol of the waters.
Combining these symbols with the images conjured by the poetry is all-important here. We have the image of a wronged-innocent being borne aloft and transported by a stream of water, adorned by (in particular) ‘coronet weeds’…and ‘long purples’. While she is ‘chanting old lauds’ (praises).
This, to me, evokes the images of the crown of thorns and the purple robe worn by Jesus at his trail and execution. If you look, you’ll see elements of this motif also evident in many of the other plays, too. (Macbeth, for example laments that: ‘upon my head they placed a fruitless crown and a barren sceptre in my gripe’.)
In some of the ancient spiritual mystery schools, initiates chant ‘sacred tones’ to attune them to what’s sometimes called the Sound Current, the lifestream, that, it is said, draws the soul home to the Godhead – in the same way it is the haunting music that draws Ferdinand to Miranda in The Tempest.
After all, in Twelfth Night (Epiphany), music is ‘the food of love’ and the principal character, Viola, is named after a musical instrument, and disguised as a boy called Cesario (King).
Before she meets her watery death Ophelia is heard raving ‘madly’ chanting:
How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.
A cockle hat is worn by a pilgrim (one on the journey to God) and sandals are often associated with Jesus
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
Again, alluding to the resurrection of Jesus.
And here’s the wonder of Shakespeare’s layer upon layer of symbolism: while Ophelia is ‘drowning’ in the glassy stream Hamlet is simultaneously travelling upon the waters to England.
It is on this watery voyage that Hamlet foils the plan of Claudius (Satan archetype?) to have the two ‘Jews’, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern murder him. And what is a ‘rosen crantz’? A crown of roses / crown of thorns!
And there’s yet another layer of symbolism inherent here – if you can bear it:
One of the most persistent mythological motifs in most deep drama is ‘symbolic resurrection’. Shakespeare uses this through, say, Desdemona, Juliet, and Cordelia who momentarily revive (or seem to) before their final death. Banquo ‘resurrects’ as a ghost. And here it is again with Hamlet. In surviving his attempted murder, he effectively ‘resurrects’ and when we see his new, upbeat mood in the final act this is corroborated.
Staying with this theme, things get even more delicious. When Hamlet arrives home in Denmark, just before he gets to Elsinore, he comes upon a cemetery. A grave is being prepared for none other than his beloved Ophelia. She is being buried outside the city walls because it is presumed she committed suicide. Why? (Gertrude’s description of her reported death says she fell from an overhanging bough.)
Why indeed? Surely, this is Shakespeare’s device for introducing his clincher symbol. Ophelia has to be buried outside the city walls. What does Hamlet find in the grave being dug for her?
The most iconic scene in all of Shakespeare is no less than an allusion to where Jesus was crucified and buried, outside the city walls at Golgotha, ‘The Place of a Skull’!
And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull…they crucified him.. Matthew 27:33
To enjoy further reading and elucidation please click on these links:
- Twelfth Night: Farce or Satire?
- Titus Andronicus: The Unholy Communion
- Shakespeare’s Revelation: his hidden key to spiritual fulfilment Volume 1.
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