Jackie French, Ophelia: Queen of Denmark, Angus & Robertson/HarperCollins, 22 June 2015, 288pp., $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 7322 9852 4
French has followed I am Juliet with another interpretation of a Shakespearean play. Ophelia is a smart girl who sets herself up with Hamlet, then recognises he is not the brave new king she had hoped he would be, pretends to die, then re-asserts herself. In the process she sees her father, brother, queen and king die, but survives it all with only a few tears. Meanwhile she runs her father’s household, attends the queen and is part of the palace intrigue.
Both she and Hamlet see ghosts on the roof – we know where that led Hamlet – but Ophelia’s ghosts have only a small impact on her life. The portraits of the central players are merely sketches. Hamlet’s mother, the queen, his stepfather, the king, Polonius, Ophelia’s father, Laertes, her brother, even Hamlet himself serve their roles as Shakespeare’s characters, but with little added purpose in French’s book. Ophelia, however, has much greater agency, but despite her protestations of love and faithfulness, French’s Ophelia is not easy to like. She seems manipulative, cunning, and overly obsessed with cheese. There are even recipes for making cheese appended to the novel, in case you want to taste Ophelia’s favourite food.
French always writes well, and Ophelia Queen of Denmark keeps the reader on the page, but at times it asks us to suspend our disbelief beyond the limits. Hamlet with a happy ending? I don’t believe it.
reviewed by Stella Lees