The Hamlet-Ophelia Subplot

   Analysis of the Hamlet-Ophelia subplot
    and the Herbert-Fitton affair

 Hamlet and Ophelia

Appendix 3: Hamlet-Ophelia Subplot

   This treatment is premised upon the theory
that the Hamlet-Ophelia subplot, in Hamlet, is founded upon the William Herbert and Mary Fitton affair (which took place shortly before the play was written). This theory was first put forth by Ben Alexander, in his book The Darling Buds of Maie. This discussion also assumes that Mary Sidney Herbert (mother of William Herbert) wrote Hamlet in 1601-02, during the time that William Herbert was banished to Wilton House (for having gotten Mary Fitton pregnant and then refusing to marry her, even after being commanded to do so by the Queen). (Hamlet was registered on 26 July 1602).

Hamlet-Ophelia subplot

    A cursory study of Hamlet will immediately reveal that most of the interactions between Hamlet and Ophelia are incidental to the plot; and large portions of the verse are obscure and nonsensical (especially Ophelia's songs).  The whole subplot is somewhat orphaned from the rest of the play and appears to be a pure invention of the author.  The original text upon which Hamlet is based, a story about a Danish prince named Amleth (Amleth becomes Hamlet when transposing the last letter of the name, ‘h,’ to the beginning) does not contain this subplot.

The Herbert-Fitton scandal took place in 1600-01 and involved two young lovers in Queen Elizabeth’s court.  A young courtier, William Herbert, had impregnated Mary Fitton, one of the Queen’s maidens.  He admitted to the deed but refused to marry her—even after much pleading on both sides (by his family and hers) and then being commanded to do so by the Queen.  [In a letter to George Crew, Robert Cecil wrote that Mary Fitton is “proved with child, and the earl of Pembroke being examined confesseth as fact, but utterly renounced all marriage.  I fear they will both dwell in the Tower a while, for the Queen hath vowed to send them thither.”]  In March 1601 Mary Fitton’s child died in childbirth.  In that same month Herbert was imprisoned in Fleet Prison and then banished to Wilton House (in August 1601). Wilton House was the site of the greatest literary circle of the age, headed by William Herbert’s mother, Mary Sidney Herbertyet Herbert found this rich literary environment to be like a prison (for he longed to be in the epicenter of power, the Queens's court in London).  It was during the time of his banishment to Wilton House that Hamlet was written.

    Below is an account of some likenesses between the Hamlet-Ophelia subtext and the Herbert-Fitton scandal (as well as some direct likenesses between William Herbert and Hamlet, and Mary Fitton and Ophelia).

References to Herbert and Fitton

A few references to Hamlet can be applied to Herbert and one reference to Ophelia seems to match Fitton.  It is well-known that Mary Sidney was very close to her oldest son, William.  Some scholars speculate the relationship was emotionally incestuous as Mary Sidney relied upon her oldest son, William, for emotional support during the long periods when her husband was away, and more so after his death.  In 1604, shortly after Hamlet was written, Herbert and his mother had a mysterious falling out (and, as stated earlier, one factor in this estrangement could have been Mary Sidney’s inclusion of personal details about the Fitton scandal—that anyone in the know could recognize—in her play, Hamlet).  In a letter, Mary Sidney writes, “a monster hath divided mine own from me, he that was held [as the] dearest part of me.”

In a conversation with Laertes (4.7) the King makes this statement about Hamlet: “The Queen, his mother | Lives almost by his looks.”  This line seems to indicate the very close relationship had between William Herbert and his mother.  (Mary Sidney has placed herself in the position of the Queen; thus, through these words she is expressing her real life feelings for her own son).  A few lines later, Laertes, recalls the virtues of Ophelia.  His description of her—which is not supported by anything found in the text—seems to be a clear and identifiable reference to Mary Fitton, who was a known favorite in the Queen’s court.  He states, “A sister driven into desperate terms | Whose worth, if praises may go back again, | Stood challenger on mount of all the age | For her perfection.”

is a prison I have not yet been a day in the country, and I am as weary of it as it I had been prisoner there seven years. . . . I cannot forbear telling of that yet I endure a very grievous imprisonment. . .  For do you account him a free man that is restrained from coming where he most desires to be, and debarred from enjoying that comfort in respect of which all earthly joys seems miseries, though he would have a whole world else to work in?   (William Herbert to Cecil, 1602)

Hamlet, Q1, 2.2

: Let me question more in particular. What have
     you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune
     that she sends you to prison hither?
Guildenstern: Prison, my lord?
Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines,
     wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing
     either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it
     is a prison.
Rosencrantz: Why, then your ambition makes it one; ‘tis
     too narrow for your mind.


Rosencrantz surmises that Hamlet feels that Denmark is like a prison because it is too small for his ambition.  This ambition refers to William Herbert’s ambition: his ambition to advance in the court was well-known and his banishment to the country, away from the center of power, was ill-suited for the young and ambitious Earl.  (Just before the scandal hit, Herbert’s father was very ill and the young man resented having to spend time with his dying father, at Wilton House, away from the court and the center of power in London).

     Clearly it was Herbert’s ambition which gave him the sense that Wilton House was a prison; and it was also his sense of ambition which caused him to feel isolated and imprisoned there.  As mentioned, Wilton House was a large estate and the center of a literary culture.  (As it turns out, Herbert’s famous uncle, Philip Sidney, was also banished to Wilton House; and it was there that he wrote some of his most famous works and where he and his sister, Mary Sidney, began the famous literary guild, called Wilton Circle.)  It was also Herbert’s ambition, and his seeking of advancement in both wealth and power, which was the primary reason why he would not marry Mary Fitton (whose family was of a lesser class).  His refusal to marry Fitton, however, ruined all his chance of advancement in the court. Had the Queen not died so soon afterwards, in 1603, all of Herbert’s chances of advancement would have been dashed.  (After the Queen died, Herbert immediately returned to court).  As it turned out, Herbert married Mary Talbot, in 1604, who came from a wealthy and prestigious family.  The ill-suited match was arranged by Herbert himself (without his mother’s consent) and, by all accounts, it was an arrangement which advanced Herbert in wealth and power but not in love or happiness.  


After being banished to Wilton House, which was an estate as spacious as Elsinore Castle, William Herbert made a request, to Robert Cecil, a primary member of the Queen’s Privy Counsel, that the Queen grant him permission to travel; his request was denied.

I see I shall never turn good Justice of the Peace.  Therefore, I pray, if the Queen determine to continue my banishment and prefer sweet Sir Edward [Fitton] before me, that you will assist me with your best means to go into some other land, that the change of climate may purge me of melancholy; for else I shall never be fit for any civil society . . .  if the Queen continue her displeasure a little longer, undoubtedly I shall turn clown, for Justice of Peace I can by no means frame unto, and one of the two a man that lives in the country must needs be.

During the time of his banishment to Wilton House, Herbert was in a state of melancholy. He may have moped around the estate in this sad state just as Hamlet, taken over by melancholy and introspection, moped around Elsinore Castle. 

: Love!  His affection to not that way tend
    Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,

    Was not like madness.  There’s something in his soul

    O’er which his melancholy sits on brood. . .

Why Hamlet will not marry Ophelia

Hamlet will not marry Ophelia due to the difference in wealth and status between his family and hers.  The same was true with William Herbert: his primary reason for not marrying Fitton, even though she was beautiful, intelligent, a favorite in the Queen’s court, and carrying his child—and being commanded by the Queen to do so—was because of a difference in wealth and status between the two families, and Herbert’s ambition for more power and influence.
In a similar situation, Laertes tells Ophelia why Hamlet will not marry her.   

(Q2) 1.3
: For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion, and a toy in blood;
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent- sweet, not lasting;

The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more.

:No more but so?
: Think it no more.
For nature crescent does not grow alone
In thews [physical features] and bulk; but as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal.  [The young Prince
is now driven by the passion].
                              Perhaps he loves you now,

And now no soil nor cautel* [deception] doth besmirch
The virtue of his will; but you must fear,
His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscrib’d
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head. Then if he says he loves you,
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed; which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.
Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmast’red importunity.  [Youthful lust]
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.
Virtue itself scopes not calumnious strokes.
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclos’d,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments [sudden strikes or injuries] are most imminent.
Be wary then; best safety lies in fear.
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.

     * This rarely-used word is also found in A Lover’s Complaint, 44 

Is Ophelia Pregnant?

The first time we learn that Ophelia might be pregnant—or taking actions (with Hamlet) that might lead her to become pregnant—is in 2.2.  In his conversation with Polonius, Hamlet invokes the most gruesome image by comparing Ophelia’s conception (or pregnancy) with that of a dead dog, rotting in the sun, giving birth to maggots.  He then bids Polonius not to let his daughter go out in the sun:

:  Let her not walk i’th’sun.  Conception [understanding] is a blessing,
but [not] as [in the way] your daughter may conceive—friend, look to’t.  (2.2)

Hamlet is warning Polonius (Ophelia’s father) to “look to’t,” which means be careful, or attend to the matter with great care.  One might think that Hamlet is advising Polonius that he should protect her daughter and insure that she does not get pregnant; this, however, would be an ill-suited request since Hamlet is the one who is sleeping with her.  More probable is that Hamlet has already gotten Ophelia pregnant, and he is advising Polonius to make sure that she does not conceive an illegitimate child.  The preferred method would be for her to feign illness and ask for leave to go to the country; then she would go to a country estate (or a nunnery) and give birth to the child without anyone ever knowing about it.  Another method would be for her to use abortifacient herbs to end the pregnancy, though Hamlet is not advocating this course of action.

Hamlet Grows Unkind

The abrupt change in Hamlet’s demeanor toward Ophelia takes place in 3.1.  This may relate to the time when Hamlet learns that his sinful behavior has borne fruit, and that Ophelia is pregnant.  Hamlet’s appearance in this scene opens with his contemplation of life and death, and his concern for the afterlife (which may not be so pleasant due to the sins he has committed in this life).  When he comes upon Ophelia, she reminds him of all the sins he has committed with her; he says, “Lady in thy orisons [prayers] | Be all my sins remembered.”  [Q1]

Below is the famous “get thee to a nunnery” scene (which has been constructed by an amalgam of Q1 and Q2):

  My Lord, I have sought opportunity, which now                    [Q1]
 I have, to redeliver to your worthy hands, a small remem-
brance, such tokens which I have received of you. . .                          [Q1]

I pray you now receive them.                                                            [Q2]

: No, not I                                                                             [Q2]
I never gave you aught.                                                                     [Q2]

My Lord, you know right will you did,                                    [Q1]
And with them such earnest vows of love,                                          [Q1]

As would have mov’d the stoniest breast alive,                                    [Q1]

But now too true I find,                                                                     [Q1]

Rich gifts wax poor, when givers grow unkind.                                      [Q1]

    And with them words of so sweet breath composed,                          [Q2]

    As made the things more rich.  Their perfume lost,                            [Q2]
    Take these again; for to the noble mind                                             [Q2]
Rich gifts wax poor, when givers prove unkind.                                 [Q2]

In Q1 Hamlet moved Ophelia with ‘earnest vows of love,’ whereas in Q2, he offered ‘words of so sweet breath composed.’  More significant, when Q1 was written—during the time when Herbert was in the midst of the scandal, and at Wilton House—he would “grow unkind”; two years later, when Q2 was written, he would “prove unkind.”  Ophelia’s reference to ‘rich gifts’ growing poor can be seen as a metaphor: her pregnancy, and the child she would soon bare—which was a rich gift from Hamlet—and would be a blessing and a source of richness had Hamlet chosen to marry her—has waxed poor, and has become a curse, now that Hamlet has grown unkind.

: I never loved you                          [I loved you once. Q2] 
: You made me believe you did.         [Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so. Q2] 
: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.                                                                            [Q2]

: I was the more deceived.
O thou shouldst not a believed me!                                            [Q1]
:   Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a                        [Q2]
breeder of sinners? [having a child, publicly, out of wedlock].  I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We [lustful youths] are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father?

: At home, my lord.
: Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in one’s own house. Farewell.
: O, help him, you sweet heavens!
: 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. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.
: O heavenly powers, restore him!

That not a heart which in his level came
Could ‘scape the hail of his all-hurting aim,
Showing fair nature is both kind and tame;
And, veil’d in them, did win whom he would maim:
Against the thing he sought he would exclaim;
When he most burn’d in heart-wish’d luxury,
He preach’d pure maid, and praised cold chastity.   (A Lover’s Complaint, 45)

William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke

William Herbert’s tutor described him as someone who was “courteous and affable to his friend but Cannot bear Injury or Cross in his reputation.”  Clarendon, a chronicler of the age, “distinguished Pembroke from the bulk of Stuart nobles and statesmen in that he had fame and reputation with all men, being the most universally beloved and esteemed of any of that age.”  He also wrote that Pembroke had his own vices, such as his indulgence in all kinds of pleasure and being “immoderately given up to woman.”  In other words, he was a royal womanizer.  He was also a great literary patron of the age; most famously, he and his brother were the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio; if was William Herbert who covered the vast publication costs.  Quite unrelated to this, but giving some sense of the complexity of the man, he was one of the early Grand Masters of the Freemasons, serving from 1618 to 1625.

All indications suggest that Herbert, especially in his early days, was eager to raise his standing in court and very concerned with his reputation.  When a maiden of the Queen’s court becomes pregnant, there are two options: First, the maiden can make some excuse about her poor health, go off to the country, and have her child in secret, preserving both her reputation and that of the father’s child.  Second, she could publicly announce that she was pregnant and marry the one who impregnated her—with the Queen’s permission.  (That later course of action was taken by Sir Walter Raleigh when he impregnated a maid in the Queen’s court; however, the couple got married without the Queen’s permission and both were imprisoned for a few months.)  In the Fitton-Herbert case, we can surmise that when Herbert learned that Fitton was “with child” he opted for the first option, that she leave the court upon some excuse and have the child without anyone knowing about it.  However, it appears that Fitton, in love with Herbert (and also able to increase her family’s social standing) wanted to marry him.  Thus, given what we know, a likely scenario would be as follows: Herbert was told, privately, by Fitton that she was pregnant.  Fitton, of course, wanted to be the mother of his child and felt that the couple should get married.  Herbert wanted her to “go to the country” and have her child without incident—and then give the child away.  She wanted otherwise and much debate followed. After it became clear that Herbert would not marry her, under any circumstance, Fitton played her gambit and announced to the Queen that she was pregnant—hoping that the Queen’s demand of Herbert, that he marry Fitton, would finally sway the man.  However, despite the Queen’s command he still refused.  Thus he was thrown in jail and banished from court. 

We can see how Herbert’s position, and rattled state, give some sense to Hamlet’s rather harsh words and his command, “get ye to a nunnery.”  Without understanding the context for this scene—and not knowing Herbert’s angered state that Fitton will not go to the country to have her child—the scene might appear orphaned and misplaced.  Hamlet’s cry that Ophelia go to a nunnery, as that may help wash away her sins, reflects Herbert’s position that Fitton go to the country to have her child.  His previous vows of love, and his promises to wed Fitton—if she gave into him—are now retracted.  Hamlet tells Ophelia that he does not love her, and that if she thought he did, she was mistaken.

Ophelia: O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
    [He did not live up to the noble manner, as expected, of his uncle, Phillip, who was a great courtier, scholar, and soldier of his age.  He who had the privilege to observe, and learn from, his noble uncle, has fallen quite low.]

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
[And I, of all the ladies in the court, am most deject and shamed]
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
    [I drank up the sweetness—and believed—his sweet-sounding vows]
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
    [Now see how his mind and manner is discordant and out of tune with the truth of love he professed—and see how his sweetness as turned harsh]

That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy [Overtaken by craziness]: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

[O woe is me to have seen, and fallen for, the sweetness of his eyes—and fallen for his charms; no woe is me now to see how harsh he has become.]

Q1 offers a more condensed version of Hamlet’s fall from noble reason.  In Q1, the reference to Herbert’s famous uncle, Philip Sidney, is more clearly stated and  Herbert’s fall is likened to the death of his uncle who was “all dashed and splintered” by a musket wound to his thigh, which eventually led to his death.

Great God of heaven, what a quick change is this? The Courtier, Scholler, Souldier, all in him, All dasht and splinterd thence, O woe is me, To a seen what I have seen, see what I see.   In A Lover’s Complaint, the woman (Fitton) tells of her seduction (by Herbert). 

But, woe is me! too early I attended
A youthful suit; it was to gain my grace;
Of one by nature’s outwards so commended,
That maidens’ eyes stuck over all his face:
Love lack’d a dwelling, and made him her place;
And when in his fair parts she did abide,
She was new lodged and newly deified.  12 

His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden-tongued he was, and thereof free;
Yet, if men moved him, was he such a storm
As oft ‘twixt May and April is to see,
When winds breathe sweet, untidy though they be.
His rudeness so with his authorized youth
Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.  15

So many have, that never touch’d his hand,
Sweetly supposed them mistress of his heart.
My woeful self, that did in freedom stand,
And was my own fee-simple, not in part,
What with his art in youth, and youth in art,
Threw my affections in his charmed power,
Reserved the stalk and gave him all my flower.  21

Yet did I not, as some my equals did,
Demand of him, nor being desired yielded;
Finding myself in honour so forbid,
With safest distance I mine honour shielded:
Experience for me many bulwarks builded
Of proofs new-bleeding, which remain’d the foil
Of this false jewel, and his amorous spoil.  22

But, ah, who ever shunn’d by precedent
The destined ill she must herself assay?
Or forced examples, ‘gainst her own content,
To put the by-past perils in her way?
Counsel may stop awhile what will not stay;
For when we rage, advice is often seen
By blunting us to make our wits more keen.  23

At the opening of the poem, when the woman realizes there is no hope, she throws out all her beloved’s gifts. This may relate to Ophelia’s giving back her gifts to Hamlet in the “nunnery” scene, (though the reason for doing this, as stated in the play, is quite different):

A thousand favours from a maund [basket] she drew
Of amber, crystal, and of beaded jet,
Which one by one she in a river threw. . . 6

Of folded schedules [love notes, with places to rendezvous] had she many a one
Which she perused, sigh’d, tore, and gave the flood [threw into the water] 
Crack’d many a ring of posied [with inscriptions] gold and bone 
Bidding them find their sepulches in mud. . .  7

These often bathed she in her fluxive eyes,
And often kiss’d, and often gan to tear:
Cried, ‘O false blood, thou register of lies,
What unapproved witness dost thou bear! . . .  8

The Earl Grows Unkind

Letter from Sir Edward Fitton to Sir Robert Cecil (16 May 1601):

I can say nothing of the Earl [or Pembroke, William Herbert], but my daughter is confident in her chance before God and wisheth my Lord and she might but meet before in different scenes [that circumstances will change and that they will eventually be married]. But for myself I expect no good from him that in all this time hath not shewed any kindness.  I count my daughter as good as a gentlewoman as my Lord is though the dignity of honour (be greater only in him) which hath beguiled her I fear, except my lord’s honesty be the greater “vertuoes.”            

Affection is False

A letter from Rowland White to Robert Sidney (Mary Sidney’s brother; William Herbert’s uncle), dated 14 June 1600, about a well-known incidence in court, may relate to Polonius’s words to her daughter.  (This insight was provided by Ben Alexander).

"After supper the masque came in as I writ in my last; and delicate it was to see 8 ladies so prettily and richly attired.  Mrs  Fitton led, & after they had done all their own ceremonies, these 8 lady masquers chose 8 ladies more to dance the measures. Mrs  Fitton went to the Queen & wooed her to dance; her Majesty asked what she was [what quality her character was portraying]; “Affection,” she said.  “Affection!” said the Queen; “Affection is false.”  Yet her Majesty rose and danced. . .

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.
Affection! Puh!  You speak like a green girl
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.

Ophelia’s Distress

When Ophelia enters the later part of the play (4.5), she is somewhat delirious and incoherent.  This relates to Mary Fitton’s state during the time she is pregnant, when Herbert refuses to marry her.  Ophelia is collecting flowers in somewhat of a daze, which suggest her happy recollection of the time when she had been given flowers (and love) by Hamlet.

    The Queen states that she wished Hamlet married Ophelia—even though the couple represented such a mis-match in terms of social standing.  What would have prompted the Queen to make such a statement?  Why was the issue of marriage even mentioned?  This, of course, represents Mary Sidney Herbert’s opinion of the matter: she felt that her son William should have “done the right thing,” and married Mary Fitton (even though she was of a lower social standing).  Moreover, it seems that he loved her, and Mary Sidney wanted her son to marry out of love, and not for social gain (which he did later, to his own misery).  Mary Sidney Herbert was a champion of love (and this is seen in the works of “Shakespeare” as well).  She bucked social convention with her long-standing relationship with Lister, whom was far below her in age and social standing.

And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That you good beauties be the happy cause

Of Hamlet’s wildness; so shall I hope your virtues

Will bring him to his wonted [normal] way again,

To both your honors.  (3.1)

[At Ophelia’s funeral]

[scattering flowers]
Sweets to the sweet. Farewell,

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife:

I thought thy bride-bed to have decked [with flowers], sweet maid,

And not have strewed thy grave.   (5.1)

Garland of Herbs

By all indications, many of the flowers and herbs that Ophelia is collecting are those used to induce an abortion:

"Nearly 1,500 years later, similar recipes were still being used throughout Europe. In fact, Peter of Spain, who later went on to become Pope John XXI in 1276, published Hippocrates’ recipes and instructions in Thesaurus Pauperam (“Treasure of the Poor”), which detailed the pre- and post-coital contraceptive properties of commonly known plants such as hawthorn, penny royal, Queen Anne’s Lace, and willow. The audience would have recognized the pun on “pansies” and “thoughts.” “Pansies” were “pensées,” or “thoughts,” in French, a language much enmeshed with the English language of Elizabethan times. Pansies were also called “heartsease” and were reputed to cure romantic ills. In Ophelia’s case, they were too little and too late.

"Daisy, to the Renaissance audience, wasn’t just a pretty face. Even this common flower was a medicine, its potency indicated by its original name, “day’s eye” (you can reference Chaucer for that). The flowers when boiled made an infusion well known as a remedy for wounds and fevers. Daisy was also called bruisewort or brainwort, and Shakespeare’s mention of it would have been a broad hint about Ophelia’s mental state and impending suicide.

"Elizabethan play-goers [specifically the informed and literary audience for whom the play was written] would also have known that rue, with its bitter taste, symbolized regret, and that it could be used as an abortifacient.  The obvious implication was that Ophelia had been having it off with the Prince and a Princelet was on the way. Ophelia tells Hamlet’s mother Gertrude that she must wear her rue “with a difference,” a reference to the queen being past her child-bearing years, and regretful, perhaps, of her incestuous alliance with her dead husband’s brother.

"Rue, called the “herb of grace” because sprigs of it were used for sprinkling holy water, is of the same family as poison oak and can be toxic in large doses. Columbine seed was also said to hasten labor, an insinuation that would not have been lost on Will’s fans. Fennel was a general cure-all and wild, or hog’s fennel, was prescribed for dizziness and headaches, an appropriate anodyne to the sorry state into which Ophelia is sinking. The Bard’s audience would have connected all the dots when Ophelia floated up the river drowned under the weight of her garments, possibly after trying to abort her unwanted royal offspring by overdosing on rue, an action she would have had cause to regret at the last. Her garland of violets was a last sad symbol of (lost) virginity. And doubtless rosemary would have fulfilled its traditional role at Ophelia’s funeral, tucked into the coffin to mask the odor of decay." (Barbara Bamberger Scott)

Hamlet, Q2
 4.5.48 - 75

: Pray you, let’s have no words of this; but when they
ask you what it means, say you this:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then [the next morning] up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d
[opened] the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

: Pretty Ophelia!
: Indeed, without an oath, I’ll make an end on’t:
[Her child came into the world as a result of the oath, to marry her, that Hamlet made to her; now she will ‘make and end on it”—she’ll end the results of that oath, by putting and end to her child—without an oath.]

By Gis [Jesus] and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
By God, they are to blame.
Quoth she: before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, [he said]
An [If] thou hadst not come to my bed.

From A Lover’s Complaint:

For further I could say “this man’s untrue,”
And knew the patterns of his foul beguiling;
Heard where his plants in others’ orchards grew;
Saw how deceits were gilded in his smiling;
Knew vows were ever brokers to defiling;
Thought characters and words merely but art,
And bastards of his foul adulterate heart.  25

And long upon these terms I held my city,
Till thus he ‘gan besiege me: “Gentle maid,
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity,
And be not of my holy vows afraid.
That’s to ye sworn to none was ever said;
For feasts of love I have been call’d unto,
Till now did ne’er invite nor never woo.  26

All my offences that abroad you see
Are errors of the blood, none of the mind;
Love made them not; with acture [action] they may be,
Where neither party is nor true nor kind.
They sought their shame that so their shame did find;
And so much less of shame in me remains
By how much of me their reproach contains.   27

When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou wilt inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth,
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love’s arms are peace, ‘gainst rule, ‘gainst sense, ‘gainst shame.
And sweetens, in the suff’ring pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks and fears.   39

Now all these hearts that do on mine depend,
Feeling it break, with bleeding groans they pine,
And supplicant their sighs to your extend,
To leave the batt’ry that you make ‘gainst mine,
Lending soft audience to my sweet design,
And credent soul to that strong-bonded oath,
That shall prefer and undertake my troth. 40

This said, his wat’ry eyes he did dismount,
Whose sights till then were levelled on my face;
Each cheek a river running from a fount
With brinish current downward flowed apace.
O, how the channel to the stream gave grace!
Who glazed with crystal gate the glowing roses
That flame through water which their hue encloses.  41

For lo, his passion, but an art of craft,
Even there resolved my reason into tears;
There my white stole of chastity I daffed,
Shook off my sober guards and civil fears;
Appear to him as he to me appears,
All melting; though our drops this diff’rence bore:
His poisoned me, and mine did him restore.   43

In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to cautels, all strange forms receives,
Of burning blushes or of weeping water,

Or swooning paleness; and he takes and leaves,
In either's aptness, as it best deceives,
To blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes,
Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows;   44

O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy lungs bestowed,
O, all that borrowed motion, seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid.  47

Ophelia’s Death

The death of both Polonius (by Hamlet’s sword) and the death of Ophelia (by accidental drowning) may symbolize the way that Herbert “killed” or ruined the reputation and standing of Fitton and her father.  After the scandal, Herbert wrote to the Queen and tried to make amends by obtaining land rights for Edward Fitton, but was refused.  Margaret Hannay, a foremost Sidney scholar, writes: “He was oblivious to the impropriety of asking the queen for a grant to pacify the Fittons, thereby requesting that she pay for his irresponsibility, and he never considered paying Fitton out of his own vast wealth.”  Ophelia’s death may symbolize the death of Fitton, in terms of her reputation, social standing, but could also relate to the death of Fitton’s child. 

    In the play Ophelia’s death, as described by the Queen, is clearly accidental, though it may have resulted from Ophelia’s deranged state and, thus, her carelessness.  In the play she is collecting flowers (which symbolizes her accepting the sweet words of Hamlet) and climbs up upon a branch (perhaps symbolizing her reaching too high in social standing or her risky and somewhat precarious actions with respect to making love with Hamlet) and accidentally falls into a river.  These symbols also reflect the particulars of the Herbert-Fitton affair.

    Ophelia did not throw herself into the river, nor take her own life—however, this is what many people are led to believe. The playwright could have mentioned that she had drowned, but no one knew the circumstance; such a scenario could then be interpreted as suicide or an accidental drowning.

    In terms of the real life scandal, Fitton did not bring great amounts of shame upon herself (besides the shame related to having had pre-marital sex) because she was ready and willing to marry Herbert, as the Queen had commanded.  Many letters and poems were written in her defense.  Ophelia’s non-ceremonial burial (which her brother, Laertes complains about)—and which was one notch above the burial of one who takes her own life—may represents that some people blamed Fitton for the scandal, for having given in to Herbert’s overtures.  With respect to the symbolism of Ophelia’s death, as stated, it could refer to the death of Fitton’s reputation or the death of her child.  By all indications—as will be discussed in the next section—Fitton willfully ended her pregnancy by taking abortifacient herbs.  (Taking these herbs was a desperate course of action and often posed a risk to the health, or life, of the mother). Thus, the lack of clarity surrounding Ophelia’s death (not certain of whether or not it was natural or brought about by her own hand) relates to the loss of Fitton’s child, and whether the child was lost naturally (through all the negative emotions related to the scandal) or willfully aborted.

, Q2, 4.5.170

    They bore him barefaced on the bier;
     And in his grave rain’d many a tear

Fare you well, my dove.
     [Though she was talking about the death of her father in the previous section, this reference, “my dove,” is intimate and endearing: it may be directed to her lost Hamlet (as he will not marry her) or her unborn child, who is soon to be lost].
: Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge,
It could not move thus.

: You must sing a-down a-down, an you call him a-down-a.
[A reference to Hamlet, who is a-down, and fallen from the nobility of his high position, or, a reference to her unborn child, soon to be a-down]
O, how the wheel becomes it!
    [How the wheel of fate has delivered this to me—as I brought his upon myself; How the wheel of fate will act, such that what goes around comes around, i.e., God will bring retribution on Hamlet for his actions, and for his bringing me to such a sad state ].
It is the false steward, that stole his master’s daughter.
    [Most likely an inversion of, “It is the false master who stole the steward’s daughter,” and may be a reference to Hamlet’s falsehood for stealing Ophelia’s virtue without marrying her, as promised.  If taken at face value, this could be a reference to Mary Fitton’s steward at court, Francis Knollys, who was charged by Mary’s father to look after her, but who was smitten and wanted to marry her]
Laertes: This nothing’s more than matter.
    [What she is saying may sound crazy but there is some sense to it.  Laertes’s line is for the benefit of the audience, alerting them to attend to Ophelia’s words and not simply dismiss them as sheer nonsense.  In other words, Ophelia’s words—both past and future—contain a hidden message and intent.]

: There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
: A document in madness: thoughts and remembrance fitted.
    [‘Fitted’ could be a pun on Fitton]
: There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end—

Rue was called, “the herb of grace on Sundays” because it was tied into sprigs, dipped into holy water, and sprinkled about the churche before mass.  It’s bitter smell was thought to ward off evil spirits and keep the holy water holy.O you must wear your rue with a difference’ is addressed to the Queen. “Difference” is a term from heraldry which refers to a variation in a coat of arms which distinguishes one family from another.  It is likely that ‘rue,’ instead of referring to an herb, as it did in the previous line, herein means rue or sadness.  Thus Ophelia may be saying that the Queen must wear her rue (her sadness) in the form of her son whereas Ophelia would wear her rue in a different way—in the shameful form of having a child out of wedlock, or in the form of having aborted her child.

     All melting; though our drops this diff’rence bore:
     His poisoned me, and mine did him restore.   (A Lover’s Complaint, 43)

Ophelia’s Last Verse

And will’a not come again?

And will’a not come again?

No, no he is dead;

Go to thy deathbed.

He never will come again.

His beard was as white as snow,

All flaxen was his poll.

He is gone, his is gone,

And we cast away moan.
 [Do not weep for him]
God ‘a mercy on his soul. And of all Christian’s souls.  God buy [be with] you.   (4.5)

Ophelia’s cryptic lines seem to be addressed to a) her unborn child (soon to be aborted) b) Hamlet, and c) Hamlet’s father (i.e., Herbert’s father, Mary Sidney’s husband). In the opening she may be referring to Hamlet, who is gone and will not come again. (The internal reference to “will,” may indicate Fitton’s sentiment that “Will” [Herbert] will never come again—that they will never be lovers again; that what they once had is “dead,” that they will never be married.  There is no clear indication what His beard was as white as snow, | All flaxen was his poll could mean, but it may be a reference to Herbert’s father, who died in 1601 (just prior to the writing of Hamlet), and who was old and gray when he died. The line, “God ‘a mercy on his soul,” could be directed to God, asking for mercy on her child’s soul, or to the child’s grandfather. And in the line thereafter, “And of all Christian’s souls,” she could be her asking God for mercy on her own soul, for what she is about to do.

Some Considerations

Timeline  - 1601

19 Jan                Herbert’s father dies

late Jan              Fitton is “proud with child”

March               Fitton “loses child in childbirth”
March – June     Herbert in Fleet prison

April 8              Herbert turns 21, becomes 3rd Earl of Pembroke

June- Aug          Herbert under house arrest in Baynard’s Castle (London)

Aug -                Herbert banished to Wilton House

    a) Ophelia tells us that she was deprived of her virginity on St. Valentine’s Day.  This may relate to the date of Fitton’s “deflowering” (February 1600).   It was made known that she was “with child” in January 1601, and we can surmise that she became pregnant around November 1600.  She “lost” the child “in childbirth,” in March 1601—which was five to six months after she became pregnant.  (This assumes that the child was aborted at around five months; if she actually lost the child in childbirth, she would have become pregnant nine months earlier, in June 1600). 

    b) Laertes tells his sister that Hamlet will not marry her because they are of a different social class—which was the case with Fitton and Herbert.  Laertes also suggest that Hamlet is young, and that is will say anything to get with her, and that such youthful lust-driven displays of love should not be trusted.  The same was true of Herbert and Fitton.

    c) Ophelia states that she only slept with Hamlet after he promised to marry her.  In A Lover’s Complaint—which we assume was written by Mary Fitton
she depicts this same scenario with William Herbert.  (In one of her songs, Ophelia quotes the man as saying that if the woman did not sleep with her, if she held herself back, he would have married her.  If the Hamlet-Ophelia story is based upon the Herbert-Fitton affair, we can assume that this was something that Herbert told Fitton, of something that Fitton believed, in retrospect).

In Sum

In sum, the Hamlet-Ophelia subplot reveals very personal material about William Herbert and his scandalous relationship with Mary Fitton: it tells us that he seduced her, that he promised to marry her (if she would have sex with him), that he got her pregnant, and that she took herbs to abort the child (in mid-February) after William adamantly refused to marry her.The play also reveals that the Queen (Mary Sidney) wished that her son had married Ophelia (Fitton).  (Some of particulars of this arcane subplot were confirmed in the poem, A Lover’s Complaint, which was included in the 1609 edition of “Shake-speare’s Sonnets.”  Despite adamant claims to the contrary—by Statfordians and anti-Stratfordians alike
the poem was most likely written by Mary Fitton.) 
    When young William saw that his mother had made public certain details of this somewhat embarrassing secret young William would have became very angry. It was enough that William was imprisoned and banished from court (and that his mother was deeply and romantically involved with a much younger man of a much lower class) but, now, to have the details of his past shames made public, by his mother—in what William may have interpreted as his being sacrificed for his mother’s art—was the final straw.  In 1604, shortly after the play was written (and perfomed) William and her mother were estranged, and this estangement lasted for ten years.
Even though much of the material in Hamlet was cryptic, and would not be recognized by the general public at the time the plays was performed, nor today, those “in the know” would have immediately recognized the Herbert-Fitton scandal in the Hamlet-Ophelia subplot.  But one play was not enough: Mary's profligate and womanizingson was also found, clearly recognizable as Bertram, in All’s Well that Ends Well—a play written around the same time, 1602-1604.  In both plays Herbert is the high-born youth who refuses to marry a woman of a lower class (even though that woman possesses high-class virtue).  In both plays the Queen/Countess (the youth’s mother) expresses the clear opinion that her son should marry the woman, even though she is of a lower class.  In both plays, it seems, that the woman consents to sleep with the young man only after he makes vows to love and marry her—and then, after sleeping with her, the young man "dumps her" (as in All's Well) or refuses to marry her once she become pregnant (as in Hamlet).  In both plays Mary Sidney is clearly recognized as the Queen/Countess, William Herbert as Hamlet/Bertram, and Mary Fitton as Ophelia/Helen. 

Additional Notes:

All’s Well That Ends Well

In Hamlet (1603), the Hamlet-Ophelia subplot was wholly added to the original story (of Amleth) in order to reference the real life Herbert-Fitton story.  No portion of it is found in the original story.  Likewise, most of the departures from the original story, regarding Bertram and Helena, in All’s Well That Ends Well were made to shed light on the same Herbert-Fitton story.  The Author’s source story for All’s Well That Ends Well was Gigletta di Nerbona, which is found in Day III of Boccaccio’s Decameron.  The Author followed Boccaccio’s plot closely, yet when it came to Bertram and Helena some telling changes were made—all of which were made to bring the subplot closer in line with the true facts of the Herbert-Fitton story.  Moreover, within the Bertram-Helena subplot the Author added further dialogue so as to express her position and feelings on the matter—namely that Bertram should marry Helena for her worth and quality as a person (and the merit she has gained in her own right) rather than reject her because of her lack of inherited merit (and wealth).  This expresses the sentiments of Mary Sidney; the triumph of love over class and convention was a constant theme in her life and in her plays.
  The specific changes that the Author made to the original story are as follows:

a) Helena is from a lower class (and somewhat naive).  In the original, Boccaccio’s Gigletta is wealthy and knowledgeable in the ways of the world.

b) Bertram’s faults are pronounced and made apparent; Boccaccio’s Bertramo does not have any appreciable faults.

c) The King takes on a larger role and makes clear his moral position that humans are equal; one’s merit should be weighed by what he has earned, and developed in himself (and not by what he is born with).  He approves of the match between Bertram and Helena, while the King in Boccaccio’s story is hesitant.

d) Four major characters are added, all of whom serve to raise our estimation of Helena and lower our opinion of Bertram.  These characters are: the Countess of Rossillion (Bertram’s mother), Lafeu (a counselor), Lavache (a wise fool), and Parolles.

e) A Countess is added to the story; in the original there is only a dead Count.


All’s Well that Ends Well
was written around 1602-1603.  This was the time period which immediately followed the Herbert-Fitton scandal; it was the same general period in which Hamlet was written, which was the time when William Herbert was exiled to Wilton House.

    Three plays, all written around 1601-1604, reflect the Herbert-Fitton scandal and casts William Herbert as the well-off, high-minded male who impregnates a lower female but who then refuses to marry her.  The three plays were Hamlet (Herbert-Fitton = Hamlet Ophelia), All’s Well That Ends Well (Herbert-Fitton = Bertram-Helena), and Measure for Measure (Herbert-Fitton = Claudio-Juliet)


Appendix 3a: Hamlet and the Authorship Question

An examination of the Authorship Controversy as referred to in Hamlet.

Rosencrantz:Faith [in faith, truly], there has been much to do [debate] on both sides, and the nation [general public] holds it no sin to tar [stick] them [the actors and their companies] to controversy [over who wrote Richard II; relating to the Essex revolt and their playing of Richard II on the eve of the uprising]. There was for a while no money bid for argument [no person knew, and therefore no one would place a bet, as to who authored the play Richard II] unless the poet [the one who actually wrote the play] and the player [i.e., Augustine Phillips, an actor-shareholder of The Globe, whose company performed the play] went to cuffs [together] in the question.

: Is’t possible? [that one could bring in the writer along with the player?  that no one knows who wrote the play and who has been writing under the penname “Shakespeare”?]

uildenstern: O, there has been much throwing about of brains.  [There has been much questioning and “racking of brains” with respect to who wrote the play—yet no one can figure it out].

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