‘So few choices for a maiden – marriage, the madhouse, brothel, or nunnery.’ This has often been a sad truth about women’s lives, and many women – both real and fictional – have been trapped within this constricting framework. One such woman is Ophelia, the doomed heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – or so you might think. In Umberto Tosi’s Ophelia Rising, she breaks free of her own fictional heritage, and becomes far more than the doomed, mad figure of the Bard’s play.
In Hamlet, as we all know, Ophelia’s story ends when she succumbs to a watery grave. Mad, broken and betrayed, she is a tragic figure. Tosi, however, picks up the narrative and turns it in an entirely new direction. In Tosi’s novel, Ophelia gets a life – and what a life it is, set against the backdrop of social and religious unrest, and involving some of the most important historical and social developments of the time. Instead of drowning, Ophelia is rescued by a group of wandering players, and joins them as they make their way across Europe – a Europe that is ravaged by war and social unrest, but which is also a place of new discoveries and developments. This is the Early Modern world, a world so unstable and conflicted that to its inhabitants it must sometimes have seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse; yet it is also a world that is becoming more recognisably like our own.
Tosi’s Ophelia is an independent: a courageous, self-reliant and adventurous woman. Post-Hamlet, and for all the dangers she endures, Ophelia enjoys something of an individual renaissance, tasting personal autonomy and the return of precious freedom. Northern European mythology fuses with Southern European art and culture; in the course of her journey, Ophelia becomes a truly international figure. She also becomes an example of a figure that still raises some eyebrows today: a single mother, bringing up her son without any stable father figure, standing outside of the patriarchal system of the day. Indeed, far from being reliant on a man, this Ophelia sometimes becomes a man: on occasion she dresses as, and lives as, a man. She studies, writes and reads, takes an active part in the changes sweeping across Europe, and becomes part of the ongoing movement of European history. In short, this is anything but the passive, helpless Ophelia we’re traditionally acquainted with.
Tosi’s novel also reaches back into the past, teasing out the distant strands that helped to form Hamlet and Ophelia’s characters – an aspect of their intertwined stories that was left in the shadows by Shakespeare. As a child, Ophelia was a tomboy, Hamlet’s equal. She enjoyed an exhilarating degree of physical and psychological liberty, and this helped her to develop into the character she becomes. The young Ophelia is courageous, independent, and adventurous – absolutely not a passive victim, and not in thrall to powerful men.
Tosi combines beautiful prose and philosophical reflection with a satisfying pace, just as he seamlessly interweaves fact with fiction. The vastness of the setting never detracts from Ophelia, a character we come to know intimately. The result is a large-scale and yet intimate portrait of a woman, surviving as best she can in a tumultuous world. I think Shakespeare himself would be proud to see what his heroine achieves.