‘Hamlet Geek’ Takes on Ophelia for Summer Research Project

| June 3, 2008

After spending a few minutes at Liz Zuckerman’s Facebook profile, one might be tempted to write a story about the Sweet Briar College student without talking to her at all.

In cyberspace, the rising senior lists her favorite things — movies, books, TV shows, music and quirky quotes from sources as diverse as Korean YouTube videos, Broadway musicals and Lord Tennyson.

Zuckerman is witty, self-deprecating and passionate about Shakespeare, whose work she claims she can quote endlessly. She has a self-published novel, plays and screenplays to her credit, she makes dolls and sews Renaissance-style gowns as hobbies, and she plans to own a sword someday.

“Yeah, that’s right,” she writes in the “About Me” section, “a sword.”

Which brings us back to writing a story about Zuckerman without actually speaking with her. Why in the name of Tolkien — she ascribes god-like status to the “Lord of the Rings” author — would you want to do that?

Over chai lattes at Sweet Briar’s Book Shop Café one drizzly Wednesday morning, Zuckerman talked about writing, acting, driving (she doesn’t) and her latest project, a novel from the point of view of Hamlet’s Ophelia that she’s writing for Sweet Briar’s Honors Summer Research Program.

She arrived for the interview wearing blue jeans and a jewel-toned camisole, a gift from her mother for her 21st birthday. Her dark brown hair, long and wavy, hung around her shoulders, a little frizzy from the rain.

When asked, “Why Ophelia?” Zuckerman, a 2005 graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, is quick to admit she’s a “Hamlet geek.”

“The first time I really read … ‘Hamlet’ was senior year of high school with an amazing student teacher who was just fantastic,” she said. “She got a class of high schoolers energized about ‘Hamlet,’ which is a huge achievement.”

After that, the play — and particularly Ophelia — stuck with Zuckerman. Despite Ophelia’s limited stage time, she said, “she’s such an enduring character. [Ophelia], in the white dress with the crown of flowers and distributing flowers while she’s insane, is iconic.”

The more she thought about Ophelia and saw the character portrayed in different ways on stage and in film, the more Zuckerman wondered, “What’s going on with her? What’s her deal? … It just stuck in my head and stayed there until I started doing something about it.”

She started writing the novel about a year ago, and will use the next several weeks in the Honors Summer Research Program to finish the first draft. Her goal is to write 30 pages a week, and each week she meets twice with faculty advisor Carrie Brown.

So far, Zuckerman is enjoying the process: imagining who Ophelia is and what she would have thought — had Shakespeare given her more stage time — about the political, social and even meteorological happenings in Elsinore.

“I love that kind of imagining, too,” she said. “To take a set of circumstances that you know — that everyone in the world knows — and to try to look at it differently, through someone else’s perspective. I just love it. I love reading that sort of writing and I love doing it.

“It opens up all these questions. I may be more fixated than I should be on all the various politics. … But trying to imagine all the machinations going on with the king and Gertrude and Claudius and Polonius is just endless fun and, of course, what Ophelia’s going through at that point in time is her own growing up.

“It’s all horrendously complicated and I couldn’t love it any more.”

The novel, which covers Ophelia’s life from ages 8 to 18, is written in first person from beyond the grave. For those unfamiliar with “Hamlet,” Ophelia drowns in Act 4. Exactly how she meets her watery end is a point of dispute, but Zuckerman is going with suicide.

“That’s totally my view,” she said. “You can sit and debate with Shakespeare scholars over whether or not it was suicide, whether it was an accident, as [Hamlet’s mother] Gertrude relates it. There’s one thing I read somewhere that said, ‘Well how does Gertrude know? Did she push her?’ but I think it was suicide. These are, of course, all my own biases.”

As to whether or not insanity led to Ophelia’s suicide, Zuckerman thinks she was primed for self-destruction by an unstable home life, the death of her father and Hamlet’s rejection of her as a lover. She doesn’t think Ophelia was “crazy,” at least not the entire time.

“I think there is the moment at which she goes crazy when she loses her grasp on the world,” she said. “The way I see it, she’s had the kind of upbringing that would prepare her to go insane.

“I see her as being so internalized that she doesn’t have anyone to go to talk out her problems. She’s got to do it all inside, and the sheer volume of problems building up over the years has to, at some point, lead to an explosion, which I think is when she finally goes insane.”

Over the next several weeks, Zuckerman will ponder these sorts of things. She also will spend her evenings rehearsing for Endstation Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The play is one of two in the works for the Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival, to be held July 9 through 27 at Sweet Briar. The other is a play about Hurricane Camille.

Zuckerman has appeared in numerous Sweet Briar Theatre productions, including leads last year in “Measure for Measure” and “Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards.” In “Romeo and Juliet,” she will play Benvolio — sidekick to Romeo and Mercutio — who for Endstation’s purposes is female.

When asked what Zuckerman brings to the role, “Romeo and Juliet” director and Sweet Briar theater professor Bill Kershner said, “Liz brings a great deal to Benvolio. … She is a fine actress, and always fascinating to watch on stage.

“I think it will be an interesting twist for Benvolio to be a woman. We are toying with the idea that Benvolio might have a bit of a crush on Romeo. Liz always brings a smart, fresh, interesting approach to any role she plays — I love working with her.”

Looking ahead to graduation next spring, Zuckerman isn’t sure what the future holds. She’s thinking about graduate school, but doesn’t want to have to choose between the two great loves of her life: acting and writing.

“I suppose, best case scenario is that I would be able to clone myself and one of me could go act and one of me could go write, because I’ve never been able to choose between the two,” she said. “I don’t know quite how it would work, but I want both of them in my life.”

— Suzanne Ramsey

Category: Performing Arts