By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ophelia’s ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ speech occurs in Act 3 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just after one of Hamlet’s most famous speeches from the play. What inspires Ophelia’s words, and what are we to make of them? They constitute, along with her famous tragic ‘mad’ scene, her best-known moment in all of Hamlet.
As is our wont here at IL, let’s go through Ophelia’s ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ speech section by section, offering a summary of its meaning and an analysis of its language and imagery as we go.
To set Ophelia’s words in context of the play: we have summarised and analysed the play as a whole here, and analysed the speech Hamlet makes just before Ophelia exclaims, ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ That speech is the one in which Hamlet dismisses Ophelia, telling her, ‘Get thee to a nunnery’. We have analysed that significant speech here.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Once Hamlet has finished telling his erstwhile sweetheart to take herself off to a nunnery rather than becoming a ‘breeder of sinners’ (charming), he quits the stage. Ophelia is thus alone when she delivers this passionate speech of lamentation. It is, in many ways, her own soliloquy, because she is on her own and expressing her thoughts and feelings about Hamlet’s behaviour towards her a few moments earlier.
However, she is not quite on her own: her father, Polonius, and the King, Claudius, have concealed themselves behind the arras so that they may observe Hamlet’s behaviour without him knowing they’re spying on him. Ophelia is in on this plan, but she acts as though she is completely alone when she delivers this speech.
Ophelia begins by lamenting how far Hamlet’s noble mind has fallen. He is ‘noble’ in being a prince and being thus something of a ‘Renaissance man’: he has the courtier’s eye (for political intrigue?), the scholar’s tongue (he can talk sweetly and diplomatically when he needs to), and the soldier’s sword (he’s been given military training). Many princes would have received such an all-round education. But it’s all been lost now that Hamlet appears to have lost his mind.
Th’expectation and rose of the fair state,
The phrase ‘expectation and rose’ is an odd one, and takes us to one of the oddest and rarest rhetorical devices in all of literature, but one that is all-too-ubiquitous in Hamlet: hendiadys. This intriguing device is where two things (usually nouns, though sometimes adjectives) which belong to each other are joined by the word ‘and’.
So ‘expectation and rose’ doesn’t describe two separate things, but one thing: expectation, but rosy expectation, i.e., optimistic hope (itself something of a tautology). Some editions adopt the First Folio’s printing of ‘expectancy’ in place of ‘expectation’, but the meaning is the same.
We talk about the future being ‘rosy’ if it’s hopeful or looking promising. Hamlet was the great hope of ‘the fair state’ of Denmark: its future king, indeed – although one of the intriguing questions about the back-story to Hamlet is why, when Hamlet’s father died, he, Hamlet Junior, didn’t automatically inherit the throne, but was instead side-lined in favour of his uncle, Claudius. But we’re going off at a tangent …
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’observed of all observers, quite, quite down,
Not only this, but Hamlet was fashionable: a trend-setter about the court, noted for his graceful style. (‘Glass’ here means ‘mirror’: Hamlet mirrored the fashions of the time through his clothing and elegance.) He was the ‘mould of form’ because he set an example for other men to follow.
He was admired by everyone who observed him: the one everyone watched and followed eagerly. And now he has been quite destroyed, and his mind is ruined.
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
Ophelia turns her thoughts to herself, the one who most enjoyed hearing Hamlet’s sweet music (many princes were also trained to play an instrument), and the one who has been cast down miserably most of all (witness Hamlet’s recent treatment of her). Hamlet’s ‘reason’ or mind is like pleasant-sounding bells that are now out of tune, making a harsh sound. The discordancy is all the harsher because one remembers what a sweet sound they were capable of.
That unmatched form and stature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
Hamlet was the paragon if youth when it’s in its full bloom: his appearance and greatness (‘stature’ is used here, but again, the First Folio has ‘feature’, i.e., aspect) have now been destroyed by his ‘ecstasy’, i.e., his madness.
Ophelia concludes her speech with a rhyming couplet which, once again, laments her own state (and foregrounds her own tragic descent into madness later in the play). But she is far from self-indulgent, and above all her speech is shot through with her generous sympathy for Hamlet’s plight. To have known him when he was of sound mind, so brilliant and noble and talented and graceful, only makes it so much harder now to be faced with what he has become.
A number of aspects of Ophelia’s soliloquy prefigure events later in the play. Ophelia’s sorrow over Hamlet’s (supposed) descent into madness foregrounds her own later plight, while Polonius’ concealment behind the arras will later get him mortally stabbed by Hamlet, who mistakes him for Claudius in a future scene.
But this speech belongs to Ophelia, displaying her kindness towards Hamlet, and only making his treatment of her all the more shocking. She may be privy to the plot hatched by Claudius and her father to listen in on Hamlet, but she is a pawn in their game, unable as her father’s daughter and as the King’s subject to do anything but play along.