Ophelia Castellan has never been normal, no matter how much her father and brother try to make her. When the Headmaster of Elsinore Academy is found dead, Ophelia’s world — and everything she thought she knew — slowly comes crashing down around her. Dot Hutchison’s novel, A Wounded Name, released this past September, is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective, but the story unfolds not in the kingdom of Denmark, but at Elsinore Academy, where the boys are prepared for college and careers and the girls are trained to be society wives.
Ophelia has always been considered rather strange since her mother died, particularly since she shares her mother’s gift of being able to perceive the supernatural creatures of the world around her. She can hear the song of the bean sidhe, see the morgens that inhabit the lake near the school, and now, she is able to see the ghost of Headmaster Danemark. No matter how many pills Ophelia takes, or how much her father and brother urge her to be a good girl, or how much Gertrude, the Headmaster’s widow, acts as a sort of mother figure for her, Ophelia will never be able to fulfill their expectations. She has a promise to keep, one that she made long ago, and once promises are made, they can never be broken.
But soon after Headmaster Danemark’s death, his widow, Gertrude, gets engaged to his brother, Claudius. Headmaster Danemark’s son, Dane, still reeling from the pain of his father’s death, is appalled and incensed at this and is determined to make his mother suffer for it. He and Ophelia soon begin a torrid, destructive relationship. Dane has let his hatred consume him so much that he begins to lash out at everyone around him, particularly Ophelia and his friend Horatio. When he discovers that his father has been murdered, he exacts a plan of vengeance, and everyone, including Ophelia is dragged into it. Ophelia has made many promises during this time, to her father, to her brother, to the boy who is supposed to love her, but there is one promise that outweighs all of those, and she must choose which promises to honor and which to break.
Hutchison’s retelling provides more insight into the woman characters of the story, particularly Ophelia and Gertrude. Elsinore is a school in which “the boys progress and advance, and the girls cling to a time that was never ours.” While the boys have lives with many possibilities, the girls at Elsinore Academy are only trained to be one thing and nothing else. Not every girl or woman is going to fit into that specific mold that is predestined for, and Ophelia certainly does not, though she knows she must try to. Gertrude, on the other hand, is better able to, and when she acts and makes decisions in accordance with this role, she is demonized for it, particularly by her own son. This is a world in which women have little to no options and are not taught to explore what options they have, unlike the boys. They don’t have autonomy because it’s not an accepted thing for them to have it, and they’re not allowed to be who they truly are. The frustration and feelings of helplessness at not being able to escape a situation are evident in both Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s characters. In Ophelia’s case, though, there are a few options to escape the situation she finds herself in, and the question is which one to take.
Hutchison’s prose is poetic and lyrical without being too flowery, and she gives Ophelia a compelling, sympathetic voice. As she’s telling you the story, you feel just as trapped as Ophelia does, and you can see the tragic ending coming even if you already know the story of Hamlet. Yet you still hold out some hope for Ophelia, because you want her to come out of this okay and to have a chance at living a full, productive life without all of these people trying to dictate who she should be and what she should feel. In the end, the choice is hers, and the effects will be irreversible.
I would strongly recommend A Wounded Name to anyone who appreciates modern Shakespeare retellings, particularly those that explore the complexities of the woman characters. I rate this book three out of five unicorns.