Fear of Becoming Ophelia

By Anita W. Harris

Lately, it’s been hard to get out of bed in the mornings. Forced isolation during this pandemic has taken a toll on my motivation. Nothing seems worth doing. So on a recent Saturday, I stayed in bed. There was nowhere to go, no Zoom meetings to attend. It seemed the most sensible thing to do.

Or was it? I couldn’t help but wonder, how would I know if I were losing my ability to reason? Most things don’t make sense now, like avoiding my neighbors as if they carry the plague and scouring the city for toilet paper like a rat sniffing out cheese. And some things that should be routine – like getting out of bed, taking a shower – don’t make sense anymore.

It’s like Ophelia. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, Ophelia is a hapless victim of the political machinations and psychological disturbances around her. She lives in Prince Hamlet’s castle with her father Polonius – the chief of staff – and brother Laertes, friend of Hamlet.

But soon enough, Laertes is off to college. Hamlet, who has wooed Ophelia hard, later seems to suddenly turn. Then there’s news that Hamlet has killed Polonius, stabbing him through a curtain in his mother’s chambers, believing him to be his uncle, who married his mother after killing Hamlet’s father.

That’s quite a story, but where does it leave Ophelia? After her father’s burial, she feels utterly alone. She wanders through the castle passing around picked wildflowers, singing ditties.

Not all that different from a typical day at home for me, only I’m carrying my smartphone and reading aloud the latest COVID-19 updates. I now gloss over the death statistics. I can no longer process the escalating volume of those infected.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember,” Ophelia intones with her bouquets. “And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”

That’s me saying to my family, “There’s a mask, that’s for protection. Pray you, love, wear it. And there is hand sanitizer, that’s for viruses.”

By this point, Laertes’s return from school doesn’t make any difference to Ophelia. Her sense of self is consumed by the loss of her father: “And will he not come again? / And will he not come again? / No, no, he is dead; / Go to thy deathbed; / He never will come again.”

Loss of security, loss of certainty, loss of a sense of time, even remembering what day it is—will those ever come back again? Though I email and teleconference with work colleagues, their disembodied voices and screen images (should they choose to share) don’t feel the same. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to know where to look on video calls, but I am left drained by such communication rather than connected, even more alone.

Next time we hear about Ophelia, she is dead. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude describes to Laertes how Ophelia was found garlanded with all those flowers she had picked, among them purple “dead men’s fingers,” as she slowly drowned in a “weeping brook.”

And she was singing songs until the end, Gertrude says, “As one incapable of her own distress.”

Are we now capably aware of our own distress? Or is this new normal slowly eating away at our faculties so we don’t even realize how hopelessly lost we really are?

That’s what I wondered Saturday morning, trying to get out of bed—but not really trying. Like Ophelia letting the waters rise around her, saturating her garments until they pull her down into the mud.

Lying in bed, I wondered if that would soon be my fate. Existentially isolated until I have lost all sense of connection with the outside word. I am human, after all. I somehow did get up, eventually, perhaps because I am human. But how many more times will I bother to do so?

I can only take to heart what Ophelia laments after her father’s death. “I hope all will be well,” she says in her madness. “We must be patient.”

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