In Defense of the Queen: Hamlet and Ophelia in the Work of Marina Tsvetaeva

Jessica Brandt, Montclair State University

Few characters from Western literature have achieved the level of recognition and importance in Russia that Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ophelia have. In his 1860 essay “Hamlet and Don Quixote” Turgenev established a definition of Hamlet as above all egoism and analysis, constantly occupied with his condition and brimming with contemplative knowledge, so much so that he is unable to act. Hamlet has since been variously interpreted in Russian literature as social commentator, anti-humanist, and fellow poet, while Ophelia has largely been depicted as love object, tragic suicide, and Muse.

Marina Tsvetaeva tackled the Hamlet-Ophelia theme in a cycle of poems written in 1923 and published individually in her 1925 volume Posle Rossii. The three poems to be examined are «Ofelia – Gamletu», «Ofelia – v zashchitu korolevy», and «Dialog Gamleta s sovest’iu». This paper will examine Tsvetaeva’s treatment of the Hamlet-Ophelia theme as a response to those of her contemporaries, such as Akhmatova, Blok and Pasternak, with a focus on her recognition of the original text as a dramatic work. In her Hamlet poems, Tsvetaeva places the play in a modernist context, where communication transcends space and time, and non-words (punctuation) and neologisms combine with complex syntax to question established meanings and relationships. Where previous Russian authors typically adopted the stance of sympathy for, and identification with, Hamlet, Tsvetaeva erects a barrier between him and her own poetic persona, leaving her impervious to the charm with which he has apparently captivated the others. Similarly, her treatment of Ophelia, particularly Ophelia’s death scene, is innovative in its reworking of standard evocative symbols, giving a powerful voice to the tragic heroine.

In addition to a close reading of the poems involved, the paper will draw upon the work of Ellen Rowe, Barbara Heldt, and Olga Peters Hasty, among others, to establish Tsvetaeva’s unique contribution to the development of the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship in Russian literature.