The Coroner Rules on Hamlet’s Ophelia—Accident, Suicide, or Murder?

Before I degenerated into the world of pulp fiction, I studied to become a scholar of Renaissance and Enlightenment literature. My specialty was what today you might call a forensic document examiner, that is, an expert in the origin and authorship of written documents.

Except for the Bible and other sacred works, few documents have been as thoroughly examined as Shakespeare’s works; and few of Shakespeare’s works have been examined as thoroughly as Hamlet. So I shocked myself when recently I reread Hamlet and realized there’s a mystery in it that I had not noticed before.

Sidebar: To refresh your memory, one of the many deaths in the play is that of a girl who drowned named Ophelia. The cause of death is known, but not the manner. (Ophelia’s body was recovered from a river.) Ophelia was Prince Hamlet’s “intended,” whom he rejected and told to “get thee to a nunnery.” This crushing blow drove Ophelia mad; she began to rant in public about Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, even hinting that Gertrude was involved in the death of Hamlet’s father (the former king, Hamlet, Sr.). Gertrude claimed the girl’s death was accidental, so the “crowner” (that is, the coroner) who worked for “the crown” (that is, King Claudius, the usurper of the Danish throne) declared Ophelia’s death accidental. This permitted her body to be buried in the churchyard (a suicide’s body could not have been). However, the common folk widely believed Ophelia committed suicide. Ophelia’s brother (Laertes) apparently believed it was suicide as well, since he accused Hamlet of driving Ophelia mad.

Ophelia’s Manner of Death

I have literally read Hamlet backward and forward many times. Last week I read the scenes in reverse order as a way of analyzing the plot. Reading the play in reverse order put several plot elements into a new context, especially the play’s extensive dialog about the suicide v. accident issue concerning Ophelia.

Scholars have long been divided over whether Ophelia killed herself or not. The interpretation of the play rests largely on the issue, since the salvation of both Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s souls hangs in the balance. In other words, is Hamlet damned or redeemed by his actions?

But there’s another possibility, namely, Ophelia was murdered—pushed into the river. Back in the day, no scholar I had heard of made this suggestion, but a recent search of Goggle Scholar turned up newer scholarly arguments about the possibility of murder. For a brief survey of these ideas see Read the summary of Harmonie Loberg’s 2004 article in Atenea.

By reading the play backwards (in part), I discovered several peculiarities I had previously overlooked:

  1. An unnamed gentleman “tattles” on Ophelia to King Claudius and his wife, Gertrude, and claims Ophelia is rousing the rabble (which would be treasonous if it were true, but there’s no hint in the play of such an accusation).
  2. As a result of the gentleman’s tales, in most editions of the play King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors. (The “document” is unclear about who they really sent to follow Ophelia [see below]).
  3. Gertrude is the one who describes Ophelia’s off-stage drowning, even though Gertrude was not present at the scene of her death.
  4. At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave; but Gertrude is the archetypal doting mother, who probably was glad Ophelia was dead.

Testimony before the Coroner’s Jury

Now, think about this as if you were a juror on a coroner’s jury (which decides the cause and manner of a suspicious death). Listening to Gertrude’s testimony, along with the unnamed Gentleman, King Claudius, and Horatio, wouldn’t you have many, many questions about the involvement of these witnesses in Ophelia’s death?

[Coroner swears in unnamed gentleman X, then asks]: Did you have occasion [using legalese] to pay a call on the king and queen in the throne room?

[X]: Yes, I did. That was right before Ophelia’s body was discovered.

[Coroner]: And what did you tell them at that time?

[X]: I told their majesties that Ophelia was running around saying crazy things that the mob misinterpreted.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did she say that could be misinterpreted as dangerous speech?

[X]: I can’t remember exactly.

[Juror]: And what harm could a crazy girl do by ranting, anyway?

[X looks in the direction of King Claudius]: Well . . . . you know what kinds of rumors are going around.

[Juror]: So you’re saying Ophelia was encouraging the mob to rebellion? Shouldn’t she have been arrested for sedition?

[X]: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. [The Coroner dismisses X and swears in King Claudius.]

[Coroner]: Did you have occasion at some time to entertain the mad Ophelia in the throne room?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I did.

[Coroner]: How did she appear to you? Was she mad in your opinion?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I thought so.

[Coroner]: And as a result, what did you do?

[King Claudius]: I felt it was wise to have someone keep an eye on her. I sent a court gentleman to follow her.

[Coroner]: For what purpose?

[King Claudius]: Well, that’s obvious. I was worried about her safety. [Sounds a bit like George Anthony testifying against his daughter, doesn’t it?]

[Coroner]: Who did you send to follow her?

[King Claudius]: My memory of that is foggy. I may have sent X. I may have sent Horatio.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did you tell the gentleman to do if she starting ranting treasonously?

[King Claudius]: Nothing. [The Coroner dismisses King Claudius and swears in Gertrude.]

[Coroner]: Was Ophelia engaged to marry your son, Hamlet?

[Gertrude]: At one time she was, yes, at least in a manner of speaking.

[Coroner]: Please explain.

[Gertrude]: My son courted Ophelia when she was too young to marry, that is, before she was fourteen. He was twice her age. We all agreed—including her father Polonius—that when she was of age they would marry. That’s why I said at the funeral that I had never expected to put flowers on her grave. I expected to decorate her marriage bed with flowers.

[Coroner]: Were you present at the meeting in the throne room and, if so, how did Ophelia appear to you?

[Gertrude]: Yes, I was present. Ophelia was clearly out of her mind.

[Coroner]: Do you recall who the king sent to follow her?

[Gertrude]: I can’t remember.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Can you remember who told you about the way Ophelia died? I believe you were the one who spoke to the press about it.

[Gertrude]: Now that you mention it, I was, but things were very hectic after her body was found, and I can’t really remember who told me about it.

[Juror]: But you said it was an accident, and someone was supposedly following Ophelia. Is that who
found the body? [Juror looks at Coroner] Why didn’t Mr. X testify about finding the body, if it was him? [A different juror raises a hand.]

[Juror]: I never heard of a mother who looked forward to making up a bed for her son to sleep in with another woman. Are you sure you really wanted your son to get married? Why did he wait until he was thirty to come back to Elsinore Castle and get together with Ophelia?

[Coroner]: That’s enough. The queen is too distraught to continue. You may step down, my lady. [Gertrude steps down and Coroner swears in Horatio.]

[Coroner]: Now, Horatio, were you present at this meeting?

[Horatio]: I might have been, but I think I would remember if the king ordered me to follow her.

[Coroner]: You may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Are you saying that you did not follow Ophelia?

[Horatio]: That’s right. I did not follow Ophelia, and I am not the one who found the body. If I had followed Ophelia, she never would have had a chance to get near that river, let alone climb into a willow tree with branches hanging over the river. And if she had somehow managed to fall into the river—whether on purpose or accidentally—I would have considered it my duty to dive in after her and save her or die in the attempt. Ophelia was my best friend’s girlfriend. And, by the way, it was a willow tree, for gods sake. I never knew a girl who was a good tree-climber, and even if she was she must have had a fairy godmother to fly her into the top of such “willowy” tree.

Sidebar: In other words, because Horatio is the most reliable, honorable character in the play, if Horatio followed Ophelia and saw her die, then we are faced with the suicide/accidental death dilemma. It would mean that Hamlet bears responsibility for the harmless, innocent Ophelia’s death in either case. He would be damned whether or not he revenges his father’s death. Why would Shakespeare waste his time writing such glorious verse about such a worthless person?

Even the most devout Christian in Shakespeare’s audience in 1601 would feel that Ophelia’s manner of death ought not to be held against her in the Highest Court of Heaven. You would have to say that Shakespeare believed there is no real justice in the whole universe—not just a lack of justice in Denmark.

It all depends on whether or not Horatio is the one who followed Ophelia—and I don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points elsewhere.

Evidence from the Document

1) A textual critic would investigate the question of why Shakespeare put an unnamed gentleman in the throne-room scene as a staging problem.

Scholars (including my dissertation advisor) have written extensively about the minimum number of actors required for any given Shakespearean play. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatrical company) had a fixed number of actors who could play male parts and those who could play female parts (usually because their voices hadn’t broken yet). As a result, plays were staged using “doubling” (meaning every actor could play more than one part, as long as enough actors could be assigned to gender roles). In every scene Shakespeare had to be careful to write speaking parts so that actors who were doubling up on parts were not required to appear in the same scene with themselves (! obviously a problem). There also had to be extras available for crowd scenes. Because the company had a fixed, limited number of actors, parts for characters that are required in crowd scenes could not be doubled with supernumerary parts.

So scenes such as Act IV, scene v, in which an unnamed Gentleman appears and delivers only one speech, are rare in Shakespeare.

Nonetheless, most editions of the play indicate that an unnamed Gentleman appears on stage with Gertrude and Horatio. He speaks 12 lines and then disappears from the play.

Sidebar: The edition I am currently reading relies on stage directions from the First Folio edition (1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death), because that edition was prepared by members of the King’s Men and has the most-extensive stage directions. Every literary critic knows that the stage directions in Shakespearean plays (including assigning lines to characters) are iffy.

The Gentleman is a supernumerary. Any actor who played this part would have been doubling, probably taking several roles, one of which would have been a named character, Polonius, for example, who is dead before the Gentleman comes on stage. It seems highly peculiar that Shakespeare—who was careful not to write parts for too many actors—would have wasted such a part on a scene in which Horatio appeared, since Horatio is required in several very crowded scenes, including the final scene which leaves actors bodies all over the stage and then brings in a whole army of Norwegians to take over Denmark.

Conclusion: Given the large cast of Hamlet, Shakespeare would have been careful not to use Horatio in too many scenes with supernumerary characters, such as the “follow her” scene. If he did put Horatio in the scene, then he did so in order to have Horatio be the one to follow Ophelia. In effect, Shakespeare would have thus damned his hero, Hamlet, and his heroine, Ophelia, in the eyes of God. From what I know of Shakespeare, he was not cynical; he would not have intended to do this. Also, Horatio would not have been permitted to survive the final carnage; he, too, would have been damned.

2) King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors.

What evidence is there that the First Folio (1F) stage directions are accurate?

Very little. It looks to me as if 1F may have been mistaken about the presence of Horatio in Act IV, scene v.

Other than Act I, i, and Act IV, vi, the scene is the only scene Horatio appears in without Hamlet being present. (The Horatio character is Hamlet’s foil and alter-ego. There are few scenes in which he is needed if Hamlet isn’t on stage.) The first scene in the play is the famous ghost scene. Horatio—though a religious skeptic—sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father and then later convinces Hamlet to come out onto the castle’s ramparts one night to see the ghost when it reappears.

Coincidentally, a Gentleman is the only other actor on stage with Horatio in Act IV, vi, which, of course, immediately follows the scene in question. This Gentleman is clearly not the same Gentleman as in the preceding scene. The fact that Horatio is still inside the castle in scene vi after having supposedly been directed to follow Ophelia outside the castle, suggests that Horatio ought not to appear in Act IV, scene v.

The First Folio opens Act IV, v with “Enter Horatio, Gertrude, and a Gentleman.” The sequence of names is significant, since named male characters always precede named female characters; unnamed characters come last, precisely because it doesn’t matter who is assigned their part.

Suspicious is the fact that Gertrude first speaks to the Gentleman, not to Horatio, who is clearly his “better.” She says, “I will not speak with her,” as if the Gentleman has previously asked her to speak to Ophelia. (Note that Gertrude isn’t all that loving of a would-be daughter-in-law after all.) If Horatio is present (presumably also a more-likely candidate for peacemaker b
etween Gertrude and Ophelia), why didn’t Shakespeare use Horatio to perform this function? Why clutter the scene with a supernumerary Gentleman?

A highly suggestive typographical error (or what’s presumed to be a typo) is present in the Second Quarto (2Q) version of the play at Act IV, scene v, line 16. The line, “Let her come in,” is assigned in 2Q to Horatio instead of Gertrude. Horatio says to Gertrude: “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures. Let her come in.” This would only make sense if Horatio and not the Gentleman was the one urging Gertrude to see Ophelia. But then no Gentleman would be needed in the scene.

Most editions insert a stage direction right after “Let her come in”: namely, [Exit Gentleman] with brackets to indicate that it is an editorial insertion, not Shakespeare’s stage direction. Presumably the Gentleman exits to call Ophelia on stage. After that, Ophelia enters while Gertrude is uttering an aside, but the Gentleman doesn’t accompany her. He’s gone from the play for good (supposedly).

The fact that F1 breaks off Horatio’s speech before “Let her come in” is interesting. There’s clearly something going on with the staging, which involves Horatio.

It also troubles me that Shakespeare would assign Horatio to serve as King Claudius’s minion who follows Ophelia apparently to her death. Horatio is Hamlet’s ally, and by this time in the plot he knows Claudius is a murderer as well as the usurper of Hamlet’s rightful throne.

Frankly, I  just don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points to the Gentleman as the spy. If he exited the stage and then returned with Ophelia, he would be available on stage for Shakespeare later to send him off stage to follow Ophelia. The Gentleman is toadying up to Gertrude from the beginning of the scene. He’s telling tales on Ophelia. He would be the logical choice to entice her on stage to make a fool of herself in front of Gertrude. He would be the logical candidate to follow Ophelia and make sure she keeps her mouth shut–permanently.

Conclusion: Editorial error places Horatio in Act IV, v. Horatio should not appear in the scene. The reason Shakespeare used a supernumerary Gentleman in this scene is because the character is only needed in this scene.

Literary critics who say the reason Ophelia dies off stage is because it would have been too difficult to stage a river drowning or because the spectacle of Ophelia’s death would be too horrific are wrong, wrong wrong. If Shakespeare could stage a tempest, he could stage a rivulet of water; if Shakespeare could stage a slaughter at the end of Hamlet without horrifying his audience unnecessarily, he could stage a drowning.

Sidebar: This is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, the essence of which was horror. The reason Shakespeare kills Ophelia off stage is so the audience has to wonder about the true manner of death. Ophelia’s death is a mystery.

3) The question of how Gertrude learned about “the accident” cannot be settled by reading the play, nor can it be settled by looking at Shakespeare’s sources (that is older documents, tales of the legend of Hamlet, earlier plays written on the story, etc.), mainly because Ophelia is Shakespeare’s invention. At least one early version of the story had an Ophelia-like character, but she did not die in it.

Given that the Gentleman is likely the one who offed Ophelia, my belief is that Shakespeare intended us to assume the Gentleman reported back to Gertrude, and Gertrude made up the “accident” story to try to convince the mob (who already are suspicious of her and Claudius) that at worst Ophelia killed herself. Gertrude’s pathetic description of the girl’s death is phrased to make Gertrude sound like a loving would-be mother-in-law; but she knows no one will buy it. Everyone will assume Ophelia killed herself. It’s another case “of “methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

4) At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave.

See above. Gertrude is widely assumed to have incestuous thoughts about Hamlet, if not actually having committed incest with him. Besides, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of mother-in-laws who actually like their daughters-in-law.

Verdict of the Coroner’s Jury: Homicide

For Arthur Rimbaud’s take on Ophelia’s death, see my translation of his poem at:

One thought on “The Coroner Rules on Hamlet’s Ophelia—Accident, Suicide, or Murder?”

  1. Any female reenact or who has ever worn Elizabethan clothing will tell you that climbing trees in it is out of the question. An Elizabethan woman of Ophelia’s stature would have been wearing a chemise, at least 1 petticoat, stockings, a farthingale (hooped skirt), a boned corset and a woolen bodice & skirt. Remember, Shakespeare’s audience would have known this.

    Also Ophelia’s drowning is described in some detail. Clearly there was at least 1 eyewitness who did nothing to save her which is suspicious in & of itself. Also there had to be at least 1 other person present at drowning, since an unmarried noble woman would not have been allowed to wander around with a gentleman–there would have to have been a female chaperon present for the sake of propriety.

    I once discussed Ophelia’s death with someone with police ties. His assessment of the situation was that careless local police might let it slide, but that any competent state police department would open a murder investigation.

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