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Ophelia Teaching Guide 11/17/06 11:10 AM Page 1

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TEACHING GUIDE FOR

O phelia ij
Novel by Lisa Klein

Guide prepared by Elizabeth Poe, PhD


Children’s and Young Adult Literature Consultant

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Synopsis
Prologue
St. Emilion, France, November 1601
Ophelia is in a convent in St. Emilion, France, when she receives
a letter from Horatio, who writes of the ruin of the royal court of
Denmark: Hamlet has killed King Claudius with a sword
poisoned by the king himself; Queen Gertrude drank the poison
intended for Hamlet by the king and is also dead; Ophelia’s
brother, Laertes, and Prince Hamlet have slain each other with
poisoned swords; and Fortinbras of Norway now rules Denmark.
Horatio’s letter stuns Ophelia, sending her into dazed dreams of
Elsinore Castle, where she served Queen Gertrude. To assuage
her pain and sorrow, Ophelia vows to write the truth about her
sixteen years of life and the story that has brought her from
Denmark to France.

Part One
Elsinore, Denmark, 1585-1601
Ophelia’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her with her father,
Polonius, and her brother, Laertes. They live in a fine house in the
village of Elsinore. When Polonius gains a position as minister to
King Hamlet, the family moves to the Castle Elsinore.
Ophelia gains the queen’s favor and becomes a member of
her household. Elnora, Lady Valdemar, is entrusted with the
continuation of Ophelia’s education, which includes teaching her

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courtly behavior. She also shares her knowledge of medicines and


herbs. Because Ophelia knows Latin and French, the queen asks
her to read devotional books for her and her ladies as they
embroider. At night Ophelia reads tales of love and desire
secretly to the queen, who trusts her not to reveal her passion
for romance. Ophelia learns the ways of the world by observing
the behavior of the men and women at court, and much of their
behavior resembles what she reads in books. Ophelia loves the
queen and keeps her secrets, even from her father, who expects
her to be his spy.
While Ophelia, now sixteen, learns of love and the world through
books, Hamlet, now twenty-two, is learning about the world by
studying at the German University of Wittenberg and by
traveling to England and France with Horatio. One afternoon
Hamlet and Horatio enter the room where Ophelia and Cristiana
are sitting. Hamlet is impressed by Ophelia’s wit as she enters
into a debate on the nature of love with him and Horatio. When
Hamlet leaves, Ophelia longs to see him again. They meet in the
garden, where Ophelia feels she is smitten by Cupid’s dart.
Ophelia and Hamlet continue to meet in secret. The queen
begins to suspect that Ophelia is in love; when Ophelia does not
confide in Gertrude, she falls out of her favor. Hamlet returns to
Wittenberg and everything changes suddenly, when King Hamlet
is found dead in the orchard.

Part Two
Elsinore, Denmark, May 1601-November 1601
The death of King Hamlet shakes the state of Denmark to its

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very foundations. Queen Gertrude also leaves the throne and


secludes herself in her grief. Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother, is
elected king. Less than two months after King Hamlet’s funeral,
Gertrude marries Claudius. At the wedding festivities, Hamlet
and Ophelia steal away to a far tower, where, after vowing their
love for each other, Ophelia and Hamlet make love. Ophelia and
Hamlet are shriven by the village priest, then secretly married,
with Horatio as their only witness. That night Hamlet sees the
ghost of his dead father. It tells him he has been murdered by
Claudius, who poured poison into his ears. Hamlet swears to
avenge his father. Heartsick, Ophelia vows to keep the secret of
Hamlet’s plan and to aid him, as a wife is bound to do.
In an attempt to distract Hamlet from his sworn revenge, Ophelia
suggests they hide their marriage by pretending to court, so she
can show herself a virtuous daughter by denying Hamlet. Hamlet
offers to appear mad with love for her, or just generally mad, in
order to perplex Polonius and Claudius. Polonius takes the bait
when Ophelia tells him of Hamlet’s amorous behavior toward her.
He suggests he and Claudius spy on a meeting between Hamlet
and Ophelia. Ophelia is unable to warn Hamlet, and the meeting
does not go as the lovers had planned. Ophelia turns out to be
the one who is now completely perplexed by Hamlet’s erratic
behavior. Revenge, not love, is his main concern. He seems truly
mad, not only to her, but to Claudius as well.
Hamlet arranges for a troupe of actors to act out the murder of a
king by pouring poison into his ears. Hamlet considers Claudius’s
outrage upon seeing this scene to be proof of his guilt. Ophelia
and Horatio realize Hamlet’s play has put them, as those who

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have consorted with Hamlet, in mortal danger. Later that evening,


Hamlet thinks he sees a spy hiding behind an arras in his
mother’s room and stabs it with his sword, killing Polonius. Thus,
Ophelia’s husband has killed her father. Hamlet is ordered to
leave Denmark for England without Horatio and without
knowing that Ophelia is pregnant with his child. Now Ophelia
takes refuge in feigned madness, which feeds into the plan she
devises for her escape from Denmark, a plan to which Horatio
pledges his assistance.
In her madwoman guise, Ophelia distributes meaning-laden
flowers and herbs to Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius; runs from
the castle; drinks a potion that makes her appear dead; and
throws herself from the willow tree into the brook. Horatio
unearths her body at nightfall and, fearing that she may be truly
dead, takes her to Mechtild. The wise woman administers an
antidote for Ophelia’s deathlike slumber. Having deciphered the
language of flowers Ophelia used at the castle, Gertrude has
guessed Ophelia’s game and comes to Mechtild’s cottage,
seeking the truth. When she finds Ophelia there, Gertrude tells
her that Hamlet loved her and gives her a bag of gold to help her
start her new life. Ophelia cuts her hair and, posing as a boy,
journeys to France, where she is taken in by the nuns in the
convent at St. Emilion. Only Horatio knows who she really is and
where she now resides.

Part Three
St. Emilion, France, 1601-1602
Grateful to be safe at the convent, she tells no one her true

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identity or that she is with child. She reveals only that her name
is Ophelia. She follows the rules of the convent, trying to pray
constantly as the nuns do, but her mind remains troubled.
Ophelia grieves deeply over the news from Horatio that Hamlet,
Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius are all dead. Mother Ermentrude
appoints Sister Isabel as Ophelia’s guide as she tries to regain her
strength and discover God’s purpose for her. Ophelia is
concerned that Therese, a servant with a twisted leg, refuses to
eat. Therese is given to having visions of God and claims the
blood on her palms is a miracle sent from God. Ophelia wonders
if these visions arise from religious conviction or madness.
Ophelia grapples with feelings of guilt over her past actions. After
much thought, Ophelia suggests she might use her knowledge of
plants and herbs to help ease the nuns’ physical pains. Thus
Ophelia becomes the nuns’ physician, gaining the sisterhood she
has always been denied. The nuns vote to continue providing
Ophelia refuge. But Count Durufle, the convent’s patron, and
Bishop Garamond visit the convent to question Ophelia. Against
the count’s will, the bishop allows Ophelia to remain in the con-
vent. When the child is born, Ophelia realizes that the baby is a
gift of life, not a punishment. She names the baby Hamlet and
reveals he is a prince of Denmark.
Ophelia attends to Therese at her deathbed. When Therese
despairs, Ophelia offers her Hamlet. Therese takes the child,
declaring him her salvation, and dies with him in her arms. Bright
beads of blood form on her palms. Sister Marguerite vows to
write the story of Therese’s miraculous death. Marguerite reveals
to Ophelia that she is the daughter of a prince of Sweden whose

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reputation was ruined by Fortinbras, prince of Norway, who now


rules Denmark. Ophelia tells Marguerite that she has no intention
of returning to Denmark, where Hamlet’s life would be in danger.

Epilogue
St. Emilion, May 1605
Ophelia and three-year-old Hamlet now live in the stone cottage
near the convent gate. Ophelia is both steward and physician
for the convent. Mother Ermentrude used Gertrude’s money to
set up an apothecary for Ophelia, who is paid for her services
and saves her earnings should she and Hamlet want to leave
St. Emilion. One day Horatio surprises her as she works in the
garden. He tells Ophelia that Hamlet and Laertes forgave each
other before they died, and the traitors Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are dead. The Danes are now seeking to overthrow
Fortinbras. Horatio kisses her and is relieved to learn Ophelia has
not taken vows. The three of them stand together in silence,
looking ahead to a future full of hope.

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Commentary
Shakespearean Connections
Lisa Klein plucks Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and
breathes life into a literary character who has intrigued readers of
Hamlet for hundreds of years. Klein gives Ophelia a past, a
present, and a future—extending her story with her thoughts and
feelings. In Ophelia, we learn that Ophelia is not dead after all,
that she was secretly married to Hamlet soon after the wedding
of Gertrude and Claudius, that she bore Hamlet’s child while in
a nunnery in France, and that she eventually unites with Horatio.
It is unnecessary to have read Hamlet in order to understand and
have an engaging reading experience with Ophelia. The novel can
certainly stand on its own — although it is so delightfully imbued
with Shakespearean characteristics, references, and echoes that it
may lead readers to Shakespeare quite naturally.
Ophelia is steeped in Shakespeare in ways that are readily
accessible to teens. It contains just enough complexity of plot —
replete with the twists and contrivances that make Shakespeare’s
plays intriguing — to make it challenging but not enigmatic
reading. The novel echoes Shakespeare’s plays when Ophelia
and Horatio orchestrate her feigned suicide á la Romeo and Juliet;
when Ophelia and Hamlet devise a plot to embarrass her enemy
Cristiana and her suitors, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which is
reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and when Ophelia
disguises herself as a boy, as do heroines in comedies such as

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All’s Well That Ends Well. But because these ploys are somewhat
pared down in the novel, they are easier to follow than the
highly intricate plot devices found in Shakespeare’s plays.
The language in Ophelia also captures the essence of Shakespeare,
without being overwhelming. Words such as arras, phrases like
“How now,” and sentences with syntax such as “He has no love
for his uncle” provide the flavor of Shakespearean language, but
much of the wording is subtly modernized (“Go to a nunnery.
Go!” rather than “Get thee to a nunnery”) and expertly trimmed
of what contemporary teens may view as the Bard’s linguistic
excesses. Witty exchanges and clever wordplay figure prominently,
and famous passages such as Hamlet’s “What a Piece of Work Is
Man” soliloquy are expertly woven into the dialogue. The result
is a highly enjoyable language experience that will appropriately
challenge many teen readers and ready them for the reading of
Shakespeare himself in due time.

Not for Teens Only


Although it is accessible to teens, Ophelia will appeal to adult
readers as well. English teachers may want to use it for teacher
book discussion groups in which they probe the novel’s
multileveled connections with Hamlet and other Shakespearean
plays. Mother/daughter reading groups might find the
relationships between Ophelia and her various substitute
mothers to be of particular interest. It could provide fascinating
discussion for book clubs that have read adult novels, such as
Gregory McGuire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch
of the West, that expand the story of literary characters.

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A Cautionary Note
Because Ophelia offers such a rich literary experience, teachers
may be tempted to try to do too much with it and thereby
diminish the pleasure their students derive from reading it. The
following suggestions are offered to help the students appreciate
the novel more fully. Teachers will want to take cues from
their students and select suggestions that will engage but not
overwhelm them. It is not advisable to try to explore every
literary aspect of the novel, as this may decrease students’
enjoyment not only of Ophelia and but of literature in general.

Teaching Suggestions
Introducing the Novel
Ophelia is a novel that can stand on its own apart from Hamlet,
so there is no need to introduce it in the context of Hamlet.
Instead, grab students’ attention by reading the prologue aloud.
Then ask them to free write in their journals, expressing their
thoughts about the story to be told.

Reading the Novel


As students read, have them record their responses to each of the
book’s three parts in their journals. Urge them to express their
personal reaction to what is happening in that section, their
impressions of the characters, and what they expect to happen.
They may also want to write about personal associations or

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emotional connections that arise as they read. Encourage them to


discuss their thoughts, feelings, and questions related to each
section with other students in small-group literature circles.

Exploring the Novel


After students have read the entire novel, help them deepen their
experience with it by exploring it via a variety of literary activities.
Literary Themes, Motifs, and Imagery
Ophelia is rich in literary themes, motifs, and imagery that can
provide material for interesting discussions, formal literary analysis
essays, and creative projects. Here are some literary considerations
you might want to suggest and ways to explore them:
Devoted Friends
Throughout the novel, Horatio is kind to and protective of
Ophelia. When they are children and Hamlet fails to
attend to the pansies she gives him when he passes by in
a procession on horseback, Horatio tells her, “Do not
waste your tears, little girl. . . . We boys are ever careless of
flowers.” He then seeks to comfort her further by taking
her hand and pointing out that hers was not the only gift
the prince neglected and explaining that Hamlet is unable
to carry any of the many presents people bestowed on
him as he passed. Beginning with this scene, explore the
complex relationships among Ophelia, Hamlet, and
Horatio and discuss how the theme of devoted friendship
contributes to the novel’s satisfying ending.

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The Garden of Eden


In the prologue, Ophelia laments, “Alas my Hamlet is
dead! And with him all of Elsinore ruined, like Eden after
man’s fall.” Klein deftly threads the Garden of Eden motif
throughout Ophelia. Interested students might want to
trace references to the Garden of Eden and the fabled
serpent and develop a dramatic reading based on these
references.
Appearance versus Reality
When Hamlet and Ophelia meet alone in the garden, he
tells her he wears a mask for all the world except her.
Later, Horatio says, “You know, Ophelia, that nothing is
as it seems at Elsinore.” Suggest students work in pairs to
discern how many ways Klein addresses questions related
to the theme of appearance versus reality. Have each pair
present some aspect of this theme to the rest of the class.
They might do this by visually portraying the contradiction,
by acting it out, or by explaining how it advances the
plot in Ophelia.
The Nature of Madness
As she writes her story, Ophelia frequently contemplates
the nature of madness. Ask for a student to pretend to be
Ophelia and deliver a treatise on madness in which she
discusses how madness can be caused by love, the lust
for revenge, or religious fervor. Ophelia might use her
own attempt to play the role of a madwoman as part of her
discourse.

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Ill-fated Love
Because Hamlet is prince of Denmark and Ophelia is not
nobly born, their courtship is ill fated. The topic of
marriages arranged for political and familial benefit recurs
throughout the novel, as it does in much of literature.
Ask students to think of other pieces of literature where
marriage is ruled by custom in a way that dooms the
prospects of young lovers.
Freedom
Early in their relationship, Ophelia tells Hamlet she feels
like a caged bird at Elsinore. Later she realizes Elsinore is
also a gilded cage for Hamlet, because he is not free to
love and marry as he chooses. Mother Ermentrude tells
Ophelia that the truth will set her free. She also says
that with obedience comes perfect freedom. Students
interested in the concept of freedom may want to create a
scrapbook that features Ophelia’s thoughts on freedom
and illustrate them with collages fashioned from magazine
images.
Courtly Love
When Queen Gertrude says, “No, they will never marry.
It is the nature of love not to be satisfied so easily,” she is
espousing the philosophy of courtly love. Because the queen
laughs in response to her brother-in-law Claudius’s overtures,
Ophelia wonders if perhaps Gertrude imagines herself
like a lady in the sonnet who is desired by a man who
cannot have her. Suggest students explore the literary motif
of courtly love and prepare a list of Rules for Courtly Love.

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Women as Inferior Beings


Ophelia sighs “to think of the insecure state of women,
who must always abide the earthly authority of men.” The
inferior status of woman is a topic frequently addressed in
the novel. Students interested in women’s issues may want
to hold a forum to compare the state of women in the early
seventeenth century, as depicted in the novel, and their
own perceptions of the status of contemporary women.
Darkness and Light
From Hamlet’s black clothing to the nuns’ white veils, dark
and light imagery occurs frequently throughout Ophelia.
Students interested in this concept may want to chart the
imagery relating to darkness and light in the novel.

Celebrating Language Arts


Language
Unusual Words and Terms
Have students create a glossary for the unusual words and
terms they encounter while reading Ophelia. Stomacher, limn,
chatelaine, arras, posset, and oblate are examples of possible
glossary entries. Suggest they supply drawings to augment
the glossary entries whenever possible.
The Maxims of Polonius
Ophelia’s father tries to get her to memorize wise sayings
for her own edification. The first of these she mentions is
“Do not gaze at the sun, lest you go blind, but stand in its
light and let it warm you.” Compile a handbook of
Polonius’s maxims gleaned from the novel. Students may

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want to add words of wisdom espoused by their own


fathers — or mothers, teachers, and religious leaders.
Wordplay
The following scene, which takes place in the labyrinth, is
an example of the wordplay that abounds in Ophelia
and gives the novel a Shakespearean flavor. Hamlet and
Ophelia are talking:
“You amaze me, Ophelia,” he said.
“I did lead you into this maze, that is true. And now
I am lost here.”
....
“No, I am lost, and you are found. For at the center of
this twisting path, I have discovered . . . you.”
Encourage students to find other examples of wordplay
and analyze their meanings and the wit of those who
engage in this verbal repartee. Have them read these
passages aloud for their classmates’ enjoyment.
The Language of Flowers
Ophelia frequently uses flowers to express her thoughts or
make a point. She first does this when she tries to give
Hamlet a bouquet of pansies, saying, “Thoughts for the
prince. Pansies for you, my lord. Think of me.” Queen
Gertrude understands the metaphoric messages Ophelia
conveys when she distributes rue and daisies, fennel
and columbines to Claudius and herself. Using the
explanations given throughout the novel for the meanings

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associated with flowers and herbs, create a glossary called


“The Language of Flowers”.
Composition
The Importance of Writing
When she begins to write the story of her life, Ophelia
comments, “Writing is like applying leeches to the mind,
to cure its grief and draw out humors that cloud the
understanding.” Ask students to consider this passage and
suggest they free write about times when writing may have
been cathartic or clarifying for them.
Becoming a Lady
When Elnora takes over Ophelia’s education, she must
transform her from a tomboy into a lady. She tells Ophelia
that “What you must learn of proper decorum would fill
volumes.” As she tells her own story, Ophelia records
Elnora’s instructions and rules for courtly conduct.
Suggest a group of students pretend they are Elnora, and
using her teachings and expectations, create a small
volume entitled “The Art of Being a Lady, by Elnora,
Lady Valdemar”.
Healing with Herbs and Plants
At the end of her story, Ophelia says she would like to
write a compendium containing the knowledge she has
gained about healing with herbs and plants. She has
included much of this information already. Paying special
attention to the attributes she ascribes to particular herbs
and plants, sort through her story and pick out the cures

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and remedies she describes. Then compile the medicinal


compendium Ophelia would like to write.
Reading
Ophelia’s Education
Ophelia is quite well educated for a female who was not
from a noble family. She is tutored at home with Laertes,
in the castle by Gertrude and Elnora, and at the convent
by Mother Ermentrude and the sisters. She is given the
freedom to read widely in both Queen Gertrude’s
library, which contains both devotional books and bawdy
French tales about courtly love, and the convent library,
which holds classic as well as religious literature. Paying
particular attention to what she has read, have students
trace the development of Ophelia’s education.
Mythology
Ophelia understands mythological references such as
Diana the Huntress; Janus, the god of beginnings; and
Hyperion, the god of the sun. Suggest students further
their own knowledge of mythology by reading some
original stories from Greek mythology.
Performance
Drama
Several types of drama occur throughout the novel.
Students interested in the theater may want to compare
and contrast the play given at the castle with the pageant
presented at the convent or examine the dramas Hamlet
and Ophelia devise for themselves and their acquaintances.

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Encourage students to perform the plays or dramatic


renderings described in the novel.
Dancing
Ophelia refers to several dances as she relates her story.
Suggest students interested in dance conduct research on
the Morris dance, the bransle, and the pavane, and then
perform them for the rest of the class.
Readers Theater
Encourage students to work in groups of four to prepare
readers theater scripts and performances for the rest of the
class. To do this, they will need to select scenes that are
particularly engaging because they are highly emotional,
intensely dramatic, or notably amusing. Have them perform
them in chronological order for their classmates.

Cross-Disciplinary Considerations
Art
Portraits of the Characters
Klein provides vivid descriptions of almost all the characters
in Ophelia. Using her descriptions, create a portrait gallery
for display within the classroom. Attach the passage(s)
from the novel that inspired each image.
Social Studies
Seventeenth-Century Sensibilities
Ophelia takes place during the early seventeenth century
and incorporates thinking prevalent to the time concerning
a variety of topics such as bodily humors, the wheel of

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fortune, puritan morals and behaviors, and religious


beliefs. As questions about these concepts arise during
reading and discussion of the novel, suggest students
conduct research on them and report their findings to the class.
Life in a Covent
Ophelia’s descriptions of St. Emilion’s provide insights
into life in a religious order during the early 1600s.
Interested students may want to piece together reasons for
becoming nuns, the daily routine, the religious hierarchy
involved, the importance of patrons, and the politics of
religious life. Charts may be helpful for explaining the
relationships between the sister, the prioress, the bishop,
and the convent’s chief patron. Another chart of the
hierarchy at court may help identify the similarities
between these medieval institutions.

Related Readings
Literature Mentioned in Ophelia
From the Queen’s Library
The Mirror of the Sinful Soul; Heptameron by Margaret, the
Queen of Navarre in France
The Art of Love; Metamorphoses by Ovid
Book of the Courtier by Castiglione
Love sonnets that are said to be the latest fashion in England

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From the Convent Library


The Legend of Good Women; Troius and Criseyde by Chaucer
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius the Roman
From Hamlet
Anatomy by Vesalius

Other Literary Characters Whose Lives Are Imagined in


Their Own Books
Young Adult Recommendations:
Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
Breath by Donna Jo Napoli
Bound by Donna Jo Napoli
Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by
Robin McKinley
Witch Child by Celia Rees
Ariel by Grace Tiffany
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
Ophelia Speaks by Sara Shandler
Adult Titles of Interest:
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
My Father Had a Daughter by Grace Tiffany

Wise Women/Healers in Literature


Gathering Blue by Lois Lowery (young adult)
The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman (middle grade)

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Interview with
Lisa Klein
When reading Ophelia, it is clear that you, as the book’s
author, have a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s plays
and the Elizabethan world. How did you come by this
expertise?
I wrote my doctoral dissertation and my first book on
Elizabethan poetry (Sir Philip Sidney and the sonnet craze) and
taught Renaissance literature to college students for several years.
So while I wasn’t trained as a Shakespearean scholar, Shakespeare
goes with the territory. I’ve taught most of his plays, Hamlet more
times than I can count. Then I became interested in the lives and
works of Renaissance women and wrote articles about the
needleworks of Queen Elizabeth and not-so-famous women of
the period. I read (and taught) women’s journals, letters, and
poetry. I studied so-called “nonliterary” works such as conduct
books, religious tracts, and satirical works about women. So
while Shakespeare’s works are a wonderful window into the
Renaissance, there are many other sources for understanding how
sixteenth century people experienced their world.
Why did you choose Ophelia as the character from
Shakespeare whose story you wanted to tell?
Whenever I taught Hamlet I found that students shared my
disappointment that Shakespeare’s Ophelia is such a passive

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character. To be fair, he was writing a revenge tragedy, a popular


genre at the time, not a love tragedy like Romeo and Juliet. Still,
I think he missed an opportunity to deepen Hamlet’s conflict
by enhancing his relationship to Ophelia. The film versions of the
play, which many readers have seen, focus on her naiveté and
madness. Well, if Ophelia was so dim, what on earth made
Hamlet fall in love with her? How would the play have been
different if she had not drowned? If Ophelia could tell her own
story, how would it differ from Shakespeare’s version? These
were the kinds of questions that started me thinking. They just
wouldn’t let go, so I began writing.
How did you decide to tell Ophelia’s story in novel rather
than play format (as Tom Stoppard did in Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead?)
It never occurred to me to write a play. Maybe I didn’t want to
take on Shakespeare (or Stoppard, for that matter) on their own
turf. I know that I doubted my ability to write good dialog, and
a play is all dialog. I enjoyed and admired Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead, and like Stoppard, I wanted to write
“between the lines” of Hamlet, weaving Ophelia’s story into the
existing time frame of Hamlet. The novel format seemed the
natural choice, because I find it easier to become deeply engaged
in reading a novel than in reading a play.
Are there other Shakespearean characters whose story
you would like to tell?
I’ve been thinking about that. Ophelia was such an obvious
choice. So far no other character has grabbed me, like the Ancient
Mariner grabbed Coleridge’s narrator, and said “Hear my tale.”

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But I am rereading some of the plays that interest me most.


Right now I’m intrigued by Twelfth Night because I know a
certain group of high school students who are acting out its
complicated love relationships unawares! Who knows, I might
combine characters or plots from more than one play and build
my own Shakespeare-inspired novel. Or I might visit a different
literary period altogether.
What joys and challenges did writing Ophelia bring?
As I said, writing dialog was a challenge for me. But as my sense
of the characters developed, their words came more naturally.
Imitating Elizabethan language without falling into stilted syntax
and flowery diction was also tricky. I kept rewriting to make the
language plainer, while keeping it literary. I love doing the
research for historical novels. I did lengthy word searches in my
gigantic Oxford English Dictionary, in order to use words that were
current in Shakespeare’s time. I read sixteenth century herbals
and books about convent life. The writing process itself was
exciting. When I would get stuck on a scene or write myself into
a corner, I would go for a walk to clear my head, and sometimes
the perfect piece of dialog or a solution to a problem would pop
into my head, and I would virtually run home to get it down.
Sometimes it would take my story in an unexpected direction,
and everything else would have to adjust.
This is your first novel. Would you like to share anything
about the process of getting it published?
I shared a very early draft of Ophelia with my reading group and
my dad, and the response I got encouraged me to keep working
at it. About a year later I felt it was finished, and another friend

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advised me to get an agent. I researched literary agents, wrote


about thirty letters, and stacked up as many rejections. Finally
an agent I had handpicked, full of hope, took an interest. She
recommended changing an important plot element, and after I
did so, she agreed to represent the manuscript. In just over a
month she had offers from two publishers. Of course, I was
stunned, then elated. I had expected it to take several months to
get a reply. Even after Ophelia was accepted, it underwent
several more revisions. Like I used to tell my students: No piece
of writing is ever perfect. It can always be improved. But I feel
tremendously lucky that Ophelia found a home so quickly,
guided by a good agent and a dedicated editor.
What would you like your readers to come away with
after reading Ophelia?
I would tell my readers this: enjoy Ophelia. Then go and reread
Hamlet with a fresh eye, or read it for the first time without being
intimidated by Shakespeare. Read more of Shakespeare’s works.
His plays belong to all of us, and we don’t want to miss what they
have to say about the human condition that we all share.
How do you see the play Hamlet differently after writing
this novel?
In the course of writing Ophelia, I studied the play so intently
I noticed details I had missed in all my prior readings. For one
thing, I realized how compressed the action is and how indefinite
the passage of time, as I tried to fit my story into the framework
of Hamlet. I admire the play tremendously. There is no other work
of literature that can stand up to all the literary criticism, movies,
books, poetry, and plays that have been created in response to it.

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What do you think Shakespeare would think of your


interpretation of his play and characters?
That question occurred to me frequently while I was writing.
I would like to think that Shakespeare would approve of my
Ophelia. After all, he freely adapted his sources when he wrote
plays. And what Ophelia does is not out of the realm of possibility
for an intelligent and resourceful young woman of Shakespeare’s
day. I would like to hear him say “ ‘Tis a fine piece of work, a
tragi-comedy; would that I had thought of it myself!"

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