115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ophelian Variations in Paul Griffiths’ let me tell you

Jonathan Burton, Whittier College

In let me tell you Paul Griffiths’ formal experimentations amount to what Elaine Showalter calls a “feminist poetics,” embedding within a male tradition a fractured female perspective that allows Shakespeare’s Ophelia to speak in a simultaneously familiar and resistant tongue. 

Proposal: 

On the face of it, Paul Griffiths’ let me tell you dazzles with its formal experimentation.  Working only with the 483 words assigned to Ophelia in Shakespeare’s second quarto and first folio editions of Hamlet, Griffiths crafts a backstory and prequel to Shakespeare’s play that moves between genres and styles with the kind of facility we tend to associate with James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer and Anne Carson.  Across its just 139 pages we encounter narrative prose, song, stream of consciousness, sonnets, free verse and play-like passages of dialogue.  For Griffiths, who is best known as a music critic and librettist, these generic shifts function like harmonic variations, rehearsing in various registers a common theme: Ophelia thinks; Ophelia decides; and Ophelia acts.

The protean formalism of Griffiths’ slim volume helps us to see anew Ophelia’s supposed incoherence while refusing to sustain a history of appropriations and re-visions that either emphasize the subordination of Ophelia’s tragedy to Hamlet’s or seek to detach her entirely from Shakespeare’s prince.  In this paper, I argue that Griffiths’ formal experimentations serve two key purposes.  First, Griffith’s commitment to an Oulipian text means that the authority of Shakespeare’s language underpins every word spoken by his re-made Ophelia.  Second, Griffiths’ formal variations amount to what Elaine Showalter calls a “feminist poetics,” embedding within a male tradition a fractured female perspective in order to speak in a simultaneously familiar and resistant tongue.  Without adding a single word, Griffiths’ work ultimately allows us to re-see Shakespeare’s Ophelia as a figure no less complex and fascinating than Shakespeare’s paragon of subjectivity.