Daisy Ridley could easily rest on her Star Wars laurels and continue playing ass-kicking heroines, but her next career move is seemingly in the opposite direction. Ridley will play Ophelia, Hamlet’s downtrodden girlfriend, who succumbs to a watery grave when she can’t take all the mixed-messages from men (Polonius: “Be yourself! But don’t be a slut!” Hamlet: “You’re a giant slut!”). Yes, those quotes are lifted from the original Shakespearean text. What’s a girl to do besides drown herself?
The role is not as much of a pivot for Ridley as it seems, because this film will be a re-imagined version based on Lisa Klein’s YA novel of the same name in which Ophelia survives, sanity intact, to get herself to a nunnery and live happily ever after with Horacio. Ridley’s casting makes perfect sense, then, as the filmmakers are clearly envisioning this Ophelia as a Strong Female Character.
If you’re sensing there’s a “but” coming, you’re right. But. The whole point of Ophelia is to portray a female character who is destroyed by the misguided men around her. Her father, brother, and boyfriend all use her in conflicting ways: Polonius lectures her, Hamlet gives her whiplash with his mixed messages, Laertes offers his support too late.
Even her death is used as grounds for absurd male posturing — Hamlet and Laertes have an argument over who loved her more. Hamlet says,
I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?
His words are absurd and ironic, considering how he’s treated her. As evidence of this supposed “love,” we only see him bait her with cruel taunts. We’re not supposed to look on his treatment of her favorably.
In Shakespeare, what isn’t said is just as important as what’s on the surface. It’s the statement between the lines, the uneasy undercurrent, that carries the real message. Ophelia’s death packs a punch precisely because she puts too much stock in the men around her, one of whom is a blowhard and the other of whom is a nutjob. From the famous “get thee to a nunnery,” speech:
If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry. Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go. Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.
When Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s literally calling her a whore. Spinning a new version of story where Ophelia has more agency is a noble idea in theory — but to pull these ideas to the surface is to lose them in translation. With her death, the original play indicted Hamlet’s musings on women. If Ophelia survives and actually goes to a nunnery, it seems more progressive on the surface, but the story is then letting his words stick.
Shakespeare fan fiction is never not awesome and should be encouraged. That being said, to bring Shakespeare into the future, you don’t need to follow the original material to the letter — but to demonstrate a basic grasp of its ideas would be nice.