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Curse of Cassandra: Ophelia and the Moon in the Water

Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the streets and no man regards it.

— Shakespeare’s, Henry IV part 1

When the Seeress speaks, the future is present in the instant. If ears receive her words, those minds can twist speech, making it mean whatever they please. A glimpse of the future can thwart present power, upend the status quo. Even when the future glares back with a tell-tale darkening of the sky, the ones who doubted the Seeress will still call the sky fair. Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo to see the future and nobody would believe her, the same god who sought her favors and was scorned, hence, the curse. As brief as the core of that myth seems, a whole world of meaning lies in it. Apollo wanted what he wanted and when Cassandra denied him, through her own expression of free will, he punished her through a life of mockery, one where she saw the doom of her family, her people, in what would unfold in the Trojan War. To speak and be misunderstand is painful enough. To speak from the heart, from a place of wisdom and to be mocked, that’s high tragedy.

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,

And therefore I forbid my tears.

— Ophelia’s brother, Laertes

Water and the Moon have often been attributed to females in literature, a pair of powerful signifiers that were perverted into euphemisms such as, ‘false as water’ and ‘ever-changing moon.’ Much like Cassandra, madness is bestowed upon Ophelia, even if what’s really haunting her is something beyond the loss of her blowhard father (To thine own self be true, Polonius? C’mon!). Hamlet mocks Ophelia and her words are never taken for what she means, only as words from the mouth of neither princess nor pauper, certainly not as a man’s word, only as pretty trifles, while truisms are thrust upon her as surely as her floral-bedecked cries for help are met with embarrassed replies, on the lines of: ‘Poor Ophelia, must have been your watery nature. Nothing to be done.’ When her body is laid to rest, Hamlet leaps into the grave after Ophelia’s brother does the same, where a contest of self-serving lamentations unfold. Even the sight of the crown-prince spouting mellifluous nothings — seemingly on behalf of Ophelia — results in the King calling Hamlet mad. All of this, considering the gravity of the circumstance, is artifice. Mad or not, a distraught brother or not, never mind the Machiavellian king, these characters are doing all of this over the corpse of Ophelia. If Ophelia was the Moon, in all of her mystery and beauty, these characters only saw her reflection in the water that took her. As soon as they leaped into that metaphorical water, her grave, the reflection of the Moon was gone. Splashing and curses followed, nothing more.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.

— Ophelia

If a scene in literature screamed of truth ahead of its time — before the modern recognition of mental illness — it was the perceived nonsense of Ophelia’s ‘mad’ songs. Not only is she singing since she’s beyond speaking — those song-less words that were always considered trifles before — she’s using actual herbs and flowers to evoke some kind of response from the witnesses. She hands out rosemary and pansies for remembrance and thoughts, but is only met with selfish lamentations from those present, no different than over her corpse. If her brother or the Queen had stopped and literally smelled the rosemary, they might have remembered that something far grimmer was in her words, a ‘madness’ quite unlike Hamlet’s, but a state of mind indicative of the court at large, of herself as a victim, absolutely. Much has been written of the play within the play of Hamlet, The Mousetrap, how it creates a dizzying effect and makes the play at large seem more ‘real’, among countless other devices. But the dizzying effect of a tragic device far beyond a father’s death, both Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s fathers — is hidden in plain sight in the Tragedy of Hamlet, yet another Cassandra, only of a far subtler cut. Ophelia was a cipher of the greater circumstance, the circumstance of being a watery ‘woman’, a tragedy within the Tragedy.

A document in madness. Thoughts and remembrance fitted.

— Ophelia’s brother

Thoughts and remembrance fitted, a document in her truth unheard, again…

Hayden Moore

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