by Lisa M. Klein
Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2007
At first glance, it’s a fantastic idea: the untold story of Ophelia’s Hamlet. Behind-the-scenes stories of wives and sisters, both modern and historical, are a popular trend, and they’re hard to resist. What kind of woman would love the melancholy (and possibly mad) Hamlet?
At second glance, challenges arise. Number one: Ophelia kills herself in Shakespeare’s play, mad with grief at Hamlet’s rejection. Number two: Hamlet is commonly taught during senior year of high school. Given that Young Adult literature is aimed at readers aged 14-25, Ophelia’s story may not appeal to the youngest third of this readership. This is particularly true because (number three) Shakespeare’s characters spoke Shakespearean English. Challenging stuff.
Lisa M. Klein tackles the challenge head-on in her debut YA novel Ophelia. She dispatches issue #1 in the prologue, implying that Ophelia only fakes her death and piquing our interest to learn how and why. As for #2 Klein deftly walks the middle road, writing Ophelia’s story in a language that feels fitting with the time period but clear to readers. When the conversation does become more elevated, as in scenes that align with scenes in the play, Klein is careful to clarify the motive and meaning of each line of dialogue in modern English.
Ophelia is a witty and well-educated modern young woman, able to match Hamlet toe-to-toe and devise her own plans when things in Denmark start to go rotten. Ophelia’s neglectful father allowed her to study alongside her brother Laertes as he was tutored as a child. As a lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude, Ophelia adds to her education in the realm of love, through the bawdy stories Queen Gertrude secretly admires. She also discovers a love of plants, and her knowledge of their medicinal properties make her a useful addition to the queen’s court. (Readers familiar with Romeo and Juliet will quickly be able to guess how her knowledge of plant-lore comes in handy in order to avert a tragic end.)
Ophelia is a book that revels in wit but leaves plenty of room for the pleasures and uncertainties of new love. Disguised as a shepherd and shepherdess from one of Gertrude’s stories, Ophelia and Hamlet meet and carry out their love away from the constantly prying eyes of the palace. The castle Elsinor is a dark place, filled with watchers and schemers—Ophelia’s father being key among them—replete with nooks and crannies in which young lovers can meet. It’s interesting to watch Ophelia work her way behind-the-scenes, first to forward her courtship with the alluring young Hamlet, and then to preserve her own life.
Lisa Klein explains on the book jacket that she was never content with traditional readings of Ophelia and, since Shakespeare is no longer around to write stronger female characters, she has taken up the task. A former English professor, her scholarship shows. As a fellow English instructor and writer of historical fiction, I loved the way she tucked in historical details: the name of an article of clothing or piece of architecture, the description of a book that would have been around at the time, a clever double-meaning in Shakespeare’s work. Such details ground the story but are not so overwhelming as to lose the attention of younger readers.
The pacing dragged a bit in the middle of the book, as Ophelia operates increasingly behind-the-scenes of Hamlet’s play. The habit of explaining meaning and motive after each line of Ophelia’s trickier dialogue grew tedious to this reader, but a teen reader might find it helpful. (Editorial direction, rather than the author’s ability, may have guided this writing style.) Still, the desire to see how Ophelia saves herself and directs her one life in a society that allows her few options is enough to keep us reading onward. And the final third of the book, which follows Ophelia after her faked suicide, is inventive and memorable, making the book worth a read.
Ms. Klein has since gone on to write Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, Two Girls of Gettysburg, and, most recently, Cate of the Lost Colony.