It was one of those nights we wait all year for, the first night where you can go outside without a coat or a sweater. I walked up Lincoln Avenue after an uncommonly good production of Hamlet, and thinking many thoughts about the play.
They’d gotten Hamlet right, which is rare enough that I should note it. Too often they cast Hamlet as a wispy Goth who hides in corners making mournful pronouncements, or as a Very Serious Person played by a Very Serious Actor, and the play drags on forever because all the funny gets sucked out of it. This production knew that Hamlet is a smartass who doesn’t so much cope with situations as avoids them by being funnier and smarter than everyone else. He’s the guy who will sit with you at the edge of the party making wry observations about the other guests, and the play is what happens when Smart & Funny stop working. They’d gotten Ophelia right, too, with the twist of personifying her “madness” as a tall, bandaged specter that only she and the audience could see and hear. The creature swayed back and forth, accompanying her songs on an oboe, putting us in her shoes.
Where they went wrong was Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, getting her wrong in the way that almost every production of Hamlet gets her wrong: by leaving her as a cipher and not a real person, someone who wants things and makes choices.
It comes to a head in Act 4, Scene 7, when Gertrude comes in and informs everyone of Ophelia’s death:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
-Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7
It’s quite an image, Ophelia, crowned in flowers, singing to herself as the current pulls her under the water. It’s especially quite an image when you realize that Gertrude stood there and watched the whole thing.
Did she yell, “Guards! Help her!”?
Did she yell, “Be careful, don’t kill yourself!”?
Why did she follow Ophelia to that remote spot? Maybe she just wanted to talk, away from the castle, away from the dudes in chain mail with swords. Maybe she pushed Ophelia in the water, or startled her, causing her to fall. Maybe her whole description of the event is an elaborately detailed lie. Maybe she just watched, and thought, “She’s better off” or “That should be me.” Maybe she thought, “What could I do anyway?” Maybe she was jealous of Ophelia of achieving an escape that she could not.
Working back from this moment, you have to make a decision about Gertrude. Did she team up with Claudius to murder the king? Is this a love story? Did she “Lady Macbeth” that shit and set the whole sad plot in motion? Is she oblivious? Is she numb from grief and trauma? Is she maintaining plausible deniability to ensure her own survival and maybe bargain for her son’s life? Instigator, victim, canny survivor–the text leaves room for all of these possibilities, but if you’re putting on Hamlet, you have to decide. You have to see her as a human being who had choices available. Otherwise she’s just a well-dressed messenger, delivering the news before we get back to the important stabbing scenes.
So I walked home that night, swinging my bare arms and legs, and giving thanks as I do sometimes that I live here and now, in this place, at this time and no other. I make my own money, and spend it on the theater if I want to. If my boyfriend were to spend years fantasizing about an elaborate revenge scheme against his stepfather, I could just dump his ass and get on with my life. My brothers don’t give me lectures about chastity, as my body belongs to me alone and can’t be sold off to the highest bidder or dishonor my family name if I decide to take it out for a spin. Back when I went mad for a while, there were doctors and medications instead of an icy river. And whenever I felt like it, I could walk home on Lincoln Avenue, so lost in my own thoughts that I didn’t even hear the question at first.
“What are you up to tonight?”
Coming out of my trance, I asked, “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?”
“Yeah, we wanted to know what you were up to tonight.”
“Uh, I went to see Hamlet,” I said, finally registering the pack of gel-haired dudebros who waited with me at the crosswalk. For some reason, that struck them as hilarious, but the leader pressed on. “And what are you up to now?”
“That’s too bad,” he said.
I didn’t answer, so he repeated himself. “I said, that’s too bad.”
“Uh, why?” I made the mistake of asking.
“Because once in a while we all like to get together and fuck a fat girl, and you look like you’d be a good ride.”
They all laughed at that, and some of them made animal noises, and they all loomed much larger and seemed much closer than they had a second ago, with flashing white teeth and stupidly handsome faces and looming shadows flickering behind them. I’m usually quick with a snappy comeback, where “Hey baby, why are you so fat?” gets “Because every time I fuck your mother, she bakes me a pie.” But this was different and instead of “fight” or “flight,” I went with “freeze.”
A cab had been waiting at the intersection, and the driver must have seen or heard something, because he pulled over, up onto the curb, honked his horn, opened his door for me. I got in, and we drove away from the sound of the moos and the oinks.
Inside the car, we stuck to pleasant small talk. “Where are you from? How long have you lived in Chicago?” Then he got a call on his phone and I listened to him speak in Arabic for a while and tried to bring my breathing back to normal. His voice was very tender and hushed, and I could pick out the words “Habibi, habibi” and what sounded like a song. Whatever it was, it was soothing, and I was glad to have it fill the silence. “I was saying good morning to my daughter,” he said, apologizing for the phone call after he hung up. “She and her mother call me every night at this time to say goodnight to me, and I sing her a song before she goes to school.”
Pretty soon we pulled up to my house, and I handed my credit card over for the fare. After I signed the receipt and handed it back, ready to climb out of the car, the driver looked straight at me in the rearview mirror, and for the first time I met his eyes. He said: “Stop, I want to say something to you. Listen, I have a wife, I have daughters, I know what the world can be. People say and do terrible things, and women take it inside themselves. What those men said to you, don’t take it into the house with you. Leave it here with me. Don’t carry it with you. Let me carry it for you. Leave it here.”
So I did. I went into the house, and whenever I thought about those disgusting dudes on the corner, I also thought about my cab driver, and I stopped being ashamed and I stopped being scared.
I suppose I should tie this all back to Hamlet, so it here goes: I want to see a version of Hamlet where Gertrude meets Ophelia in the forest with a fast horse and a bag of gold and a piece of paper with directions to the nearest convent on one side and “don’t look back” on the other. She’ll live out her days writing letters for the Prioress, and what they’ll bury next to poor Yorick is a box of air and rocks. Gertrude’s story will be a believable smokescreen for the men, who are preoccupied with murdering each other–“Crazy female problems, oopsie!” The secret will die with Gertrude in the next act.
I want the Queen to save the mad girl in the story. And I want to tell you about the time someone saved me. I want us to remember that we can save each other, that we save each other all the time.
Jennifer Peepas is a writer & filmmaker who has lived in Chicago since 2000. Her obsession with advice columns led her to start one at CaptainAwkward.com