Like Klein, I have always been dismayed at the weak portrayals of most of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet is one of the foremost offenders, depicting Ophelia as a fragile damsel prone to madness and Gertrude as a dishonest shrew of a queen. Klein has taken it upon herself to re-imagine the story from a woman’s point of view. Young Ophelia grows up in the village of Elsinore with her father Polonius and her brother Laertes. Though girls at the time typically were not educated, she is allowed to sit in on her brother’s lessons with his tutor, and so she is rather educated for a woman.
Ophelia’s lifestyle changes drastically when her father earns employment in the king’s court and the family moves to Elsinore castle. Upon meeting the Prince Hamlet, Ophelia is smitten, but he initially sees her only as Laertes’ goofy little sister. As Ophelia matures, however, Queen Gertrude invites her to join her ladies-in-waiting and provides feminine and educational guidance. She becomes Gertrude’s favorite, and the two form a close bond based on their shared love of books. Prince Hamlet begins to take notice of Ophelia’s developing beauty, and he is even more impressed by her sharp wit. Because she is below him in status, they must keep their relationship secret, and they accomplish this by dressing as peasants and meeting outside of the castle in an abandoned cottage. However, their happiness is only temporary, because of course it is. This is Shakespearean tragedy, after all. A murderous plot is brewing in the court, one that will shape the fate of the star-crossed lovers.
The remainder of the plot more or less falls in line with Shakespeare’s play, but we get Klein’s interpretation of what was going on behind the scenes. Truly, the strongest points of this book are the unexpected twists that Klein manages to add the original play without changing any aspect of the play’s plot. Does Ophelia actually go mad with despair and drown herself, as characters in the play claim? Is Hamlet’s ultimate goal accomplishing revenge, or is there something deeper going on? Let’s just say that things aren’t what they seem on the surface.
Another reason I chose this book is because I’m an avid lover of the historical fiction genre. A successful author in this genre will skillfully bring the characters and lifestyles of a past time period to life, and Klein excels at immersing her readers in the lives of the characters we all know so well (or at least, we think we know). She paints the landscape through her detailed descriptions of the castle and village life, and she really tries to let the reader see through the characters’ eyes. Klein is also successful at presenting Shakespeare in a way that doesn’t require intense study or repeated readings; she directly takes some of the play’s more simple quotes, and the rest of the dialogue is kind of a hybrid of Shakespearean and “normal, conversational” language. This makes the book accessible for teens and adults alike. Some of Klein’s original dialogue is even in iambic pentameter, which was a nice touch.
I appreciated Klein’s take on Hamlet and the opportunity to see such famous characters in a different light. I have much more respect for Klein’s version of Ophelia and Gertrude than I did for Shakespeare’s limited portrayal of the two women. However, this book in no way detracts from my affection for the original play; in fact, I think it has enhanced my understanding of the characters and has expanded the play’s potential depth. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Shakespeare, particularly girls and women who, like me, have often felt slighted by the bard’s seeming disregard for some of his female characters. Since Ophelia, Lisa Klein has published a couple more young adult historical fiction novels, including another Shakespeare-themed title called Lady Macbeth’s Daughter.
Author: Lisa Klein
Publication date: 2006
Number of pages: 336
Time period: Late 1500s to early 1600s