Norway, mid-11th Century
Looking back, I blame my disgraceful behaviour in part on my hunger to make sense of the lives of Prince Hamlet and his family. If we’re to stay sane, our world must make sense, and to my thirteen-year-old self there was too much in the lives of the queen and king that made no sense at all. In part I blame my bad behaviour on my boredom. Yes, it was glorious to live as a lady in the castle, but I hadn’t realised how tedious such a life would be. Servants did all the work, and except for a few hours schooling each day, I had nothing but sleeping and eating and grooming myself to fill my time. The gentle-born boys of my age had hawking and hunting and riding and training in the arts of war, but girls were expected to wait patiently until they were given in marriage as brood mares for their husbands. […] At about thirteen the blood begins to boil and a dark sap in us begins to rise. I suspect even the most chaste among us begin to be haunted with lewd thought and dreams. I do know that in the beginning, my fantasies of Prince Hamlet centred around acting in plays together, but now I began to have fantasies of a baser nature …
Another novel full of medieval magic and mysticism, and of medieval outsiders (a girl taken from the only life she has known and expected to live as a great lady in the castle of the king, a prince who cannot play the macho role expected of him, a herbalist with a rather too comprehensive collection of poisons) this is a follow-on from The Third Witch. Not a sequel, but another novel written in the same vein: Take a Shakespeare play and rewrite it from the viewpoint of a teenage girl.
It worked well in The Third Witch. At first, I didn’t think it was working so well here. Like Gilly (in The Third Witch), Ophelia is of gentle birth but when the story opens is being brought up in poverty by strangers. Like Gilly, she is full of romantic dreams and crazy schemes. Like Gilly, she is wild, she is totally ruthless, and she will use anyone to gain her ends.
They are both obsessed. Gilly was obsessed with revenge. Ophelia is obsessed with her love for the beautiful, mad prince who spoke to her one day in an idle moment as he passed through the village, and does not even recognise her when, years later, she has been reinstated at the castle as Polonius’ daughter. Her friend and mentor at the castle, the one who transforms her from village hoyden to young lady, is the queen, Gertrude, a rather pathetic figure who is abused by her brutal first husband, King Hamlet.
Yorick shook his head. ‘She doesn’t say him nay, even when he beats her. What can she do now?’
‘She can run away,’
‘And go where?’
‘She has no family, no money. What can she live on?’
I was sick of his objections. ‘She can learn a trade and take to weaving.’
Amusement flickered in Yorick’s eyes. ‘I don’t think a queen can give over being a queen and take to a trade.’
‘Better that than to stay here and let one of the king’s loyal soldiers toss her over a parapet to her death in the sea.’
‘In the eyes of the law and the church, she’s the king’s property, like his hounds or his boots. She cannot leave him.’
True, but to Ophelia, unacceptable. And it is this that leads to her first murder. For yes, it is Ophelia who puts the poison in Claudius’ hand and thus rids the court of its murderous king and saves the queen’s life.
But one thing leads to another. One death, one murder …
Although I have no reservations about the novel, finally, I have to admit that I am not sure about the title. The one motive Ophelia never has is revenge – though others around her are indeed intent on just that.
Well written, though, and if you enjoyed Rebecca Reisert’s first novel based on a Shakespeare girl, you will enjoy this one.
If there were another in the series, would the next be Juliet, I wonder? And would Juliet, like Ophelia, only seem to die?