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Painted Women: Annunciation Motifs in Hamlet R. Chris Hassel, Jr. When Polonius and Claudius "loose" Ophelia to Hamlet early in act 3, they set the stage with a prop which visually and verbally suggests the iconography of the Annunciation: Read on this book, That show of such an exercise may color Your [loneliness]. We are oft to blame in this— 'Tis too much prov'd—that with devotion's visage And pious action we do sugar o'er The devil himself. (3.1.44-48)' In most representations of the Annunciation, the Virgin sits holding an open book of devotion to represent her piety and her devotion to God. Alternatively she kneels or stands near it.2 This whole tradition and not merely the held book of devotion is presumably the "devotion's visage" that will color Ophelia's acting here. That Ophelia's "pious action" is false against the Virgin's true partly explains why Polonius then refers to sugaring "O'er/ The devil himself in their hypocritical iconography. Claudius is even more uncomfortable than Polonius with this cynical use of religious iconography, since his ugly guilt is juxtaposed so painfully against Ophelia's apparent innocence, not to mention the Virgin's: O, 'tis too true! How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art, Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it Than is my deed to my most painted word. (3.1.48-52) Though "painted word" refers to Claudius's hypocrisy, it also reinforces the visual and verbal allusion to Annunciation art since Gabriel's salute, "Behold a Virgin shall conceive," and Mary's response , "Be it unto me according to thy word" (in Latin, of 47 48Annunciation Motifs in Hamlet course), are commonly ribboned across Annunciation representations like the bubbles in today's cartoons (figs. 1-2). "Plast'ring art" may also suggest the traditional medium of fresco, though of course it also connects a harlot's illusory cosmetics with Ophelia's compliant posing and Claudius's own guilt and hypocrisy .3 But though Hamlet sees "devotion's visage" as soon as he comes upon Ophelia reading a book, his response is not what Polonius and Claudius have hoped, and certainly not what we might expect from the Gabriel whose place he has taken on their canvas. Armed paradoxically against their "plastering art," not only by Ophelia's nervousness and awkwardness, but also by his troubling sense that sexuality and purity, beauty and honesty cannot coexist, Hamlet quickly parodies Ophelia's contrived Marian image with bitter references to her impurity: what he thinks of as all female "frailty," particularly as it pertains to conception, generation, breeding. Her devotional pose provokes the sarcastic "Nymph, in thy orisons/ Be all my sins remembered" (3.1.8889 ), a bawdy and irreligious pun that glances at a Reformation controversy about the Virgin's intercession for our sins. We are still familiar with the prayer which also echoes Gabriel's words, and Elizabeth's: "Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb; Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." The just-arrived and oft-mentioned "Rosencrantz," in German (or the Danish Rosenkrands) literally "rosary beads," might have reinforced this context and informed Hamlet's cynical glance at the Virgin's intercessory powers with even more Reformation energy.4 "Nymph" is both too pagan and too sexual for the Virgin Mother of Christ. And when Hamlet asks "[A]re you honest?" "Are you fair?" and then insults Ophelia with "bawd" and "our old stock" (3.1.102, 104, 111, 1 17)—the stock of Adam and Eve, of original sin, concupiscence —we see that Hamlet also distrusts Ophelia's suggestive pose because he distrusts all women. Ophelia's seeming may offend Hamlet as a poor performance, but it offends him even more as a reminder of the fools women make of men through their infidelity , their powers of sexual influence, their role in the Fall, and their bearing of fools, imperfect people, particularly imperfect...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 47-84
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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