Today on FeministFiction, I’m hosting Dot Hutchison, whose gorgeous Hamlet retelling A Wounded Name was released on September 1st by Carolrhoda Lab.
In this interview, we talk about the need to tell Ophelia’s story and the difficulties in writing a feminist story about a character who is almost defined by her passivity.
1. First, could you give us a quick summary of what A Wounded Name is about?
A Wounded Name is a YA retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s voice, set in the prestigious Elsinore Academy. After the Headmaster’s sudden death, Ophelia Castellan watches his son Dane shatter in grief, joined by fury when his uncle Claudius takes his father’s place in both the school and the widowed Gertrude’s bed. When Dane begins to suspect that his father’s death was no mere heart attack, Ophelia can only watch helplessly as he settles them all on a path of madness and ruin in the name of vengeance. Caught between her father’s pragmatism and her mother’s wildness, sometimes called madness, Ophelia tries to support Dane- sometimes her friend, sometimes so much more- but the storm brewing at Elsinore may destroy everyone before it’s done.
2. What was that it about Ophelia that spoke to you and made you want to tell her story?
I’ve always been fascinated by Ophelia- we get so little sense of her in the play, and the only time she really takes center stage is when she’s bonkers and passing out flowers. I wanted to know WHY. Why does she let Hamlet treat her the way he does, why does she go along with what her family tells her. Why does she go mad? Everyone in the play is always so anxious to speak for her, so quick to put their words in her mouth. I wanted to hear what she would say, if they only gave her the chance to speak.
3. I can imagine that moving a lot of the events and dynamics in Hamlet into a modern context was difficult. Why did you decide to do a modern day adaptation? What was the hardest thing about it?
Oh, goodness, it was hard. I wanted to update it because I wanted the characters to be the focus, rather than the setting. The setting was probably the easiest part. The school is so caught in its own ideals, trapped in an older mindset, that it still has a lot of the patriarchal prestige that weaves through the play. The rest of it was harder. Our superstitions have changed somewhat from the Bard’s day, our language has changed A LOT, so it didn’t get to be easy as a straight transition. Probably the language was the most difficult aspect of that; I grew up on Shakespeare, and I’ve always been in love with his language. Altering the setting, characters, even the story felt fine, but altering the language felt a little like sacrilege.
4. Ophelia is quite a passive character in the play. She’s ordered about and mistreated, but she doesn’t get much chance to act for herself. How did you approach turning her into the protagonist of her own story?
Ophelia managed to surprise me nearly at every turn. I’m a feminist through and through, and my female characters are usually strong, opinionated, vocal, and determined to make their own way. Ophelia…isn’t. She is very much a product of her environment, of the casual chauvinism that structures the school, of her mother’s wildness, and it frequently leaves her trapped within her own silence. I kept wanting her to break through that, to take control of what was happening to her and start forging her own path. But that’s not Ophelia. Her story is so memorable, so deeply a part of our cultural consciousness, in large part because everything happens to her, not because of her. So I focused on the connections she has with others, because that’s where that passivity comes from.
5. In A Wounded Name, Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship appears quite abusive. What made you decide to take that angle, rather than portraying in a more romantic light? Did you have any difficulties in writing this dynamic?
The way the relationship grew between Dane and Ophelia was another blow to my heart. They’re mutually self-destructive, both feeding into dangerous cycles that have a way of becoming habits. It’s unhealthy in the extreme. But. It’s unfortunately a strong echo of real life. They’re both coming from such unhealthy places mentally and emotionally, both struggling to deal with things that overwhelm them. He’s drowning in rage and vengeance and pain, so he lashes out, and she’s simply drowning, so she lets him. Ophelia deserves better and she knows that, but sometimes we’re just not strong enough to walk away from the people who mean something to us, especially if we think they need us. It was very difficult, and very painful to write, because I kept wanting to fix it. I kept wanting her to tell him no. But again, that’s just not Ophelia.
6. You also expand on the relationship between Ophelia and Gertrude, and between Ophelia and her mother. How did you approach these relationships? Was it important to you for Ophelia to have more female influence, good or bad, in her story?
At first I was just curious to see any female influence on Ophelia. I always understood why there weren’t many females in most of Shakespeare’s plays- it’s hard to keep a large number of boys in the troupe at just the right stage of pre-pubescence to let them play grown women- so at first I just wanted to even things out. Her mother wasn’t even in the original plans, but rather something that grew into the first draft and creeped me out so thoroughly I knew I had to keep her. Gertrude and Morgen create equal but opposing influences on Ophelia. Gertrude teaches her to be passive, a woman who knows her place in a man’s world and is content with her duties within it, whereas Morgen teaches her to defy everything and everyone for what she wants. Gertrude teaches her how to be a wife; Morgen teaches her how to be her own woman. She can’t actually be what either woman wants her to be, so she’s stuck in this limbo that perhaps, more than anything else, defines her role in things. Ophelia is surrounded by men, completely isolated in what is very much an environment run by men, but what neither of these two strong influences can teach her is how to be herself.
7. A Wounded Name explores both magic and madness, and the two often seem intertwined. Could you tell us a little about how this came about, and how you approached the issue of madness in Hamlet in general?
Madness is such a difficult and intriguing thing to approach in literature, because so much of it is based on perception. The description has been applied in so many ways to so many different things over the years that it becomes difficult to precisely, or even vaguely, define. Sometimes madness is as simple as stepping outside the established. The earth revolves around the sun? Madness! The earth is actually round, and there’s this force called gravity that keeps us from falling off? Madness! Man call travel into space, can actually touch other worlds? Madness! And it’s not- it’s just so far outside of what we as humans believe at the time of suggestion that we genuinely can’t encompass such a concept. And there’s such a fine line between diagnosable mental illness and the symptoms of religious prophetic ecstasy. From a sense of perception, as someone who stands outside of either, it’s a question of whether or not one is believed. The difference, too, is the very idea of madness. Excepting significant periods of lucidity, those we label as mad don’t know that. To them, their world makes every bit as much sense as ours does to us. There are rules, there’s structure. It’s real. What they see, what they believe, is as real to them as our daily conversations are to us, except that we as a collective bludgeon them with the concept of normative reality. As the author, I don’t know if what Ophelia sees is real or not; I know it’s real to her.
In Hamlet, there’s not much question that Ophelia goes insane. A Wounded Name questions whether she was ever truly sane, but the play makes a clear delineation. There is the demure, quietly teasing Ophelia who makes promises to her family and watches a play with Hamlet in her lap, and then there’s the girl who hands our flowers and sings bawdy songs she probably wasn’t supposed to know. But Hamlet, too, flirts with madness. He plays at it, pulling the semblance on and off at will, but play at a thing long enough and it can become far more real than he’d like. Hamlet explores so many kinds of madness, most of them brought on by a surfeit of strong emotion that severs the ties between what we know and what we may imagine. A Wounded Name plays on a few more. After all, Hamlet, Horatio, and the guards all see the ghost of the old king; where there are ghosts, who knows what else there may be? In the end, Ophelia’s madness may simply be a clearer sight into the world around her.
8. Finally, what are you working on now? Do you have any other Shakespearian retellings in the works?
Oh, goodness. Of all the questions I think that one may be the hardest to answer.
I’m pretty much always working on something, but I can’t always talk about it. That and I have a really broad range of ideas, so many of them spilling over each other and clamoring for precedence. At the moment, I’m splitting my time between an historical paranormal, a pretty-straight up fantasy, an urban fantasy, and the beginnings of a contemporary story, which for me is really weird. The last one, I mean, the rest is fairly par for the course. As far as Shakespeare retellings, there are definitely other things I’d really REALLY like to do, because there are so many questions that can be explored, but I also don’t want to get stuck in a rut, able to do nothing more than retellings. So we’ll see where things go. Right now I’m still pretty blown away by the fact that people want to read my projects.