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Book Review

Ophelia by Lisa Klein has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

This story is an author’s rendering of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, told through Ophelia’s eyes. When Ophelia is a young girl, her father is given a lowly position at the palace of King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude. Ophelia and her older brother, Laertes, go to live with their father in the palace.

Gertrude invites Ophelia to join her court. Although Ophelia isn’t anxious to leave her family, her father insists she go and make the family look good. An older woman named Elnora is charged with training Ophelia to become a lady. By this time, Ophelia has met young Hamlet. She is envious that he and Laertes are able to go study in other countries while she struggles with sewing and boredom in her new position.

When Gertrude discovers Ophelia can read other languages, she has Ophelia read “Scripture” to her alone in her chambers. The queen actually instructs her to read from bawdy French novels. Books like these, along with the interactions she sees between men and women in the court, teach Ophelia about the expectations of love and womanhood.

Hamlet returns to Denmark when his father dies. He begins to pursue Ophelia and often meets her in secret in the garden. Gertrude and Claudius marry very quickly after the king’s death, and Claudius becomes the ruler. Hamlet is distraught and suspicious. He professes his undying love to Ophelia, and they are secretly married.

Soon afterward, he tells Ophelia that he plans to murder Claudius. Hamlet’s close confidante, Horatio, and Ophelia are increasingly concerned that Hamlet is insane. He claims his father’s ghost has visited him, and his confusing words and melancholy behavior disturb them.

Hamlet has a troupe of traveling thespians act out a scene that alleges that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Ophelia’s father sneaks into royal chambers to locate the vile of poison that would convict Claudius. Ophelia follows her father and sees the vile, but she cannot reach it before she hears someone enter the chamber.

Ophelia escapes and later learns Hamlet has killed her father by accident. Hamlet urges Ophelia to get to a nunnery. She doesn’t know if he is renouncing their marriage in his madness or if this is his stealthy way of urging her to flee for her safety. With Horatio’s help, Ophelia formulates a plan to escape Denmark.

First, she feigns madness for a time. Then she uses herbs that put her in a state that mirrors death. Horatio oversees her mock funeral and burial, then secretly rushes her to an herbal healer to revive her. Ophelia is now certain she’s carrying Hamlet’s child. She’s also convinced Hamlet is either too mad to love her anymore or that he is fickle and considers their marriage void. As Ophelia is recovering, Gertrude arrives and gives her money to aid in her escape.

Ophelia cuts her hair and dresses like a boy. She travels by ship from Denmark to France. In France, she buys a horse to carry her to St. Emilion, a convent where she hopes to seek refuge. The journey and the effects of her pregnancy have left her very sick.

She passes out on the road and awakens at the convent. The kind nuns clean her up and recognize her as a woman. Her pregnancy is not far enough along for them to recognize the signs. A nun named Sister Isabel becomes her caretaker and friend, but Ophelia reveals little about her past or her former home.

Ophelia now knows Hamlet is dead, along with Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes. She grieves the loss of those she loved and her connection to Denmark. She wrestles with her faith as the sisters urge her to seek God and find comfort in Scripture.

She befriends a servant named Therese, who seems to be mad but has a passion for Christ. At one point, Ophelia decides she wants to join the order of nuns because she doesn’t know what else to do. The head nun urges her not to rush into anything but to listen to God’s call.

Ophelia soon realizes her knowledge of plants and roots will allow her to become a doctor for the nuns. As her time to give birth grows near, Ophelia reveals who she is and whose child she carries. The nuns are supportive and kind in light of her legitimate marriage and the struggles she’s endured.

After giving birth to a boy she calls Hamlet, after his father, she stays with the nuns and works as their medical practitioner. Therese dies, and blood appears on her palms. The sisters deem it a miracle, and Therese gains sainthood. Horatio comes to see Ophelia, and they realize they care for one another.

Christian Beliefs

Ophelia’s father allows her to study with Laertes. He fears the Devil may work in her if she is idle. She and her brother study the Bible. She’s particularly taken with the Psalms and the revelations about angels and beasts in the end times.

When Elnora tells Ophelia she was unable to have children, she indicates it’s better that God’s will than hers was done. Ophelia attends chapel services with Elnora to please her. Elnora encourages her to listen to the preaching against pride and vanity. Elnora also urges her to read books that teach her to be silent, chaste and obedient. Ophelia scoffs at the warnings.

While flirting, Hamlet and Ophelia make reference to Adam and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. When Ophelia is sad to find a dead bird, she and Hamlet talk about Bible passages. They note God cares about sparrows and the hairs on people’s heads. Another time, they share psalms with each other and mention the wonderful way God made each of them.

Hamlet instructs the priest who marries them to read from Song of Solomon. As Hamlet and Ophelia debate whether it is wrong for him to seek vengeance, Hamlet suggests maybe God wants him to commit murder. When Ophelia flees Denmark, she goes to a convent in France. The nuns there encourage her with Scripture and urge her to read the Psalms. A number of verses are quoted in the text.

The nuns fast and live simple, humble lives. They perform a passion play at Easter, and Ophelia is taken by their earnest hope and faith. Ophelia struggles with God and her faith. She desires to feel His presence but does not. She persists in praying and reading Scripture with the nuns. She begins to understand how the nuns’ relationship with Christ is like a bride to her husband.

She decides she wants to become a nun herself. The wise nun who leads the convent urges Ophelia to wait to hear God’s call for her life. She helps Ophelia recognize she can still serve God without joining the convent. When Ophelia realizes she can serve as a nurse to the nuns, the head nun tells her she is finally hearing God’s call.

Other Belief Systems

Mechtild, a mysterious woman who makes medicines, was accused of witchcraft. Her accuser took it back after he was struck with boils. Some said this was proof she was a witch, while others called it God’s punishment for the man’s lies about her. Hamlet’s father is mentioned as a ghost, and other ghosts are mentioned. Ophelia is accused of witchcraft.

Authority Roles

Elnora urges Ophelia to grow into a graceful, chaste woman of honor. The nuns in the convent encourage and support Ophelia, though the priest who oversees the convent is more skeptical and overbearing. Gertrude admits she has made mistakes. She gives Ophelia money to help her escape from Denmark. Ophelia’s father has little concern for his children, other than using them to gain standing with the king. Claudius murders King Hamlet so he can marry Gertrude and rule the kingdom.

Profanity/Violence

Hamlet says he wants to send Claudius’ soul to h---. Women are called whores a few times.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

A boy named Edmond says lewd things to young Ophelia and offers her a coin if she will lift her skirts. He says if she tells her brother, he will say Ophelia thrust herself on him like a harlot. He chases her, pushes himself on her and tries to kiss her as he fumbles to reach inside her skirts.

As Ophelia grows older, her body begins to develop. One day, she runs to Elnora in tears because she’s bleeding and doesn’t know how she’s hurt herself. After Elnora explains Ophelia’s period and childbearing to her, Ophelia feels frightened about the pain that lies in her future. Gertrude has Ophelia read her bawdy French romance novels full of affairs and seductions. Ophelia reads other controversial books by herself, including one called The Art of Love.

One of Gertrude’s ladies flees in disgrace when she’s found to be pregnant with the chief minister’s child. Cristiana flaunts her breasts to impress the men of the court. Ladies and gentlemen of the court drink until their talk becomes trashy, and Ophelia often sees couples kissing, touching or doing other sexual things in the halls.

Elnora urges Ophelia to be moderate in her desires and lock up her chaste treasure to retain her honor. Cristiana and Guildenstern have sex. Claudius makes crude sexual comments when he’s drunk and sees Hamlet with Ophelia in the garden. Hamlet and Ophelia kiss a number of times.

Hamlet tries to get Ophelia to have sex with him in an old church, but she feels they would be desecrating a holy place. The text suggests they have sex shortly before they are married, but the details are not given. Claudius, in public, kisses Gertrude on the curve of her breast. While lying on Ophelia’s lap at the performance of the play, Hamlet makes a lewd joke about lying between a maid’s legs.

When Hamlet starts behaving strangely after their marriage, Ophelia wonders if she damaged their relationship by having sex with him before they married. On her trip to France, a friar thinks Ophelia is a boy and offers to share his bed with her.

A palace guard pulls a servant girl into the shadows. Ophelia doesn’t know whether she was taken against her will. Another nun admits to Ophelia that one of her suitors assaulted her and stole her virtue. After a self-righteous priest dies, they discover he had been afflicted with syphilis for some time.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Treatment of women: Ophelia is urged not to study too much, because no man wants a woman who knows more than him. One of Gertrude’s ladies flees in shame when it’s revealed she is carrying the child of one of the king’s ministers. The minister is actually praised for his willingness to acknowledge his son. Ophelia and Hamlet debate the question of whether beauty of the mind or beauty of the body should be more treasured. Even the nuns are frustrated by the fact that a daughter is her father’s property and that women are considered the property of men in general. The priest overseeing the convent accuses Ophelia of harlotry and witchcraft without giving her a chance to tell her story. A nun tells Ophelia her suitor raped her then accused her of being a whore.

Lies/Deception: Ophelia lies to the queen and others to keep her relationship with Hamlet secret. Hamlet and Ophelia play a trick on Cristiana, making her think Rosencrantz is coming to meet her for a rendezvous when it is actually Guildenstern. Ophelia has to tell a number of lies to carry out her plans. She even deceives Hamlet into thinking she’s dead. Ophelia often ponders whether well-intentioned deceit is sinful, and a nun tells her evil can never be God’s will.

Alcohol: Ophelia drinks a little wine at a party. Claudius is frequently drunk. At a party, he slurs his words as he pinches women and spills his wine on their clothes.

Revenge: Hamlet’s desire for revenge sets off a chain of events that leaves many dead or displaced. Laertes also seeks revenge after Hamlet kills his father.

Catholic saint: A servant named Therese wants to be a nun, but she’s told her visions of Christ are improper. She refuses to eat anything but communion, even though she is slowly killing herself. Her palms bleed, and she says she is suffering for Christ. The skeptical Ophelia is inclined to believe the bleeding is related to the work Therese does.

Theresa also flogs herself to share in the suffering of Christ. Ophelia isn’t sure how to respond to the woman’s deep love for Christ and wonders if this behavior means Therese is mad. In the end, Therese dies. On her death bed, her palms begin to bleed. She is granted sainthood. Ophelia comes to believe God cares for those afflicted with madness, like Hamlet and Therese. Another nun tells Ophelia Therese’s blood is a sign that we are forgiven and saved. This gives Ophelia a feeling of hope.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

14 to 19

Author

Lisa Klein

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books

Released

On Video

Year Published

2006

Awards

Unknown

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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