A Raft in the Flood

In this posting a moral framework is derived from first principles through the interpretation of an ancient fairy tale. It is argued that the fairy tale is a hitherto unrecognised source for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The framework will then be applied to query the motivation for the October 7 2023 Operation Al-Asqa flood.

The Baker’s Daughter (Crossley-Holland 1987, 331) begins, “The baker was thin-lipped; he never gave so much as a crumb away. But his daughter was worse. Not only was she mean; she simpered and toadied to the rich and she insulted and sniffed at the poor”. Confronted with a hungry, destitute woman dressed in thin clothing and begging for food, the baker’s daughter begrudgingly provides a small piece of dough that she then bakes. The small piece of dough is transformed into the “biggest loaf in the oven”. It is too large to be just given away. On two further occasions the baker’s daughter attempts to produce a suitably small loaf to give away. Each time she uses increasingly smaller pieces of dough but each time, when baked, the dough is transformed into increasingly larger loaves of bread. The baker’s daughter in frustration and bewilderment looks at the destitute woman afresh. She sees a ‘good woman’ – a fairy – rather than the destitute woman who entered. She is transformed into an owl.

The tale is one of metaphysical transformation. It is not therefore to be taken literally: the invitation is to interpret it symbolically.

Bread is a staple. The baker’s daughter was likely to have been raised in an environment where food was plentiful and unlikely to have experienced hunger. Inculcated by her parents’ meanness, the baker’s daughter does not recognize this initially. She offers increasingly less than the normal serve and fails to appreciate the increasingly greater need such a strategy would induce over time. By repeatedly transforming the increasingly smaller portions of dough into increasingly larger loaves of bread, the destitute woman / fairy – armed with the supernatural power which is the compensatory preserve of the powerless – symbolically demonstrates how much further the poor must stretch what little they have to make ends meet. A symbolic interpretation suggests that the baker’s daughter is humbled; has the crucial insight into what she is doing; sees through her unconscious attitude with which she has been inculcated in relation to the poor; and, at the moment of awakening, transforms into an owl.

In the fairy tale the last piece of dough is no bigger than “your thumb” – not the expected ‘her thumb’. From this perspective both the insignificance of such a loss to us and the impossibility of a piece of dough of that size sustaining the other is appreciated. Through evoking an empathetic response, the invitation is to make an offering willingly and with the intention of enabling the other. Initially the protagonist is presented as someone’s daughter,. Through acting in a manner meaningful to her in defiance of her parent’s values she realizes that she has agency. She has awakened to being her own person. Her encounter with the ‘good woman’ is the catalyst for the awakening of her conscience. The story presents an epiphany and invites those with the ears to hear to participate in it.

Indeed the one extant report of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the period, almost certainly of the play in production, suggests that an understanding of epiphany was essential to fully appreciate the play. Gabriel Harvey, Professor of Rhetoric at Cambridge between 1574 and 1576 (H. Wilson 1945, 168) wrote, “The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them, to please the wiser sort.” (Chambers 1930, 197). If Harvey is using the term “wiser” in the sense presented by the fairy tale, it follows that those who understood the fairy tale in the manner presented above would appreciate aspects of the play those that didn’t wouldn’t.

Alison Chapman’s starting point is that Ophelia’s religious references “cannot be assembled into a coherent, stable whole (she is mad, after all)” (112). In relation to The Baker’s Daughter she asserts that “since this story features the tragic fate of a daughter, it resonates generally with Ophelia’s own circumstances, and the baker’s daughter transformed into an owl resembles Ophelia transformed by madness” (113). Chapman omits to mention that the Oxford English Dictionary identifies that an owl is emblematic of wisdom born of stupidity and, as a corollary that it is possible that Ophelia is not “mad, after all”. She does not attribute any significance to the attitude with which the baker’s daughter has been inculcated nor the increasingly small offerings being transformed into increasingly larger portions. Chapman recognises that the baker’s daughter transformation is somehow metaphoric of Ophelia’s one but fails to recognize that Ophelia’s identification with the baker’s daughter means that the tale is an unacknowledged source for the play.

In the preface to his New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Hamlet Philip Edwards states,

“The textual problem of the play is of great complexity. It may seem an exasperating coincidence that a play that is as perplexing and problematic for the critic as Hamlet should also have unusually severe textual difficulties, but in fact the ambiguities in the meaning of the play are closely connected with its lack of clear and settled text. Both the prince and his play come down to us in more shapes than one. If the prince were not so mercurial the text would be more stable. It is Shakespeare’s difficulty in containing Hamlet within the bounds of a play, and the theatre’s difficulty in comprehending the working of Shakespeare’s mind, that have led to the multiple and scarcely reconcilable variations in the play’s language and structure… In searching for a solution to the play’s textual problems, we should not imagine that we are likely ever to find ourselves with a single definitive text. The study of the early texts of Hamlet is the study of a play in motion. […] We must be prepared for the possibility that the variations in the text of Hamlet are not alternate versions of a single original text but representations of different stages in the play’s development.” (2003, 8)

If Harvey’s was treated as the definitive performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it would follow that at one time there was a single definitive text of Hamlet. Edwards is aware of Harvey’s annotation (2003, 5). He neither recognizes a contradiction between his view and that of his Reformation peer nor makes any effort to address it.

Both Chapman and Edwards demonstrate significant lapses in critical thinking in their respective area of specialization. Is there an explanation for the situation other than “Shakespeare’s difficulty in containing Hamlet within the bounds of a play” and “the theatre’s difficulty in comprehending the working of Shakespeare’s mind”? John Dover Wilson’s theory “that the manuscript used by the printer for the second quarto (Q2) was Shakespeare’s own ‘foul-papers’”(Edwards 2003, 10) has not been disproved. Edwards describes Wilson’s theory as “orthodox since the publication of Wilson’s The Manuscript of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in 1934”. (2003, 10) He neither incorporates, qualifies or repudiates it however. His 2003 edition of Hamlet was a departure from scientific method. Academic writing is double blind peer reviewed before it is accepted for publication. One would expect such lapses would be recognized. They were not.

The Al-Aqsa mosque has neither been desecrated by Israel nor is Israel threatening to desecrate the Al-Aqsa mosque. It is “under the custodianship of an Islamic trust (waqf) maintained by the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan”. (Zeiden, 2024) Prima facie, the atrocities of the 7 October 2023 Operation Al-Aqsa Flood are attributable to a psychotic meltdown. The barbarism that Israel is confronting appears that of those without conscience. Why are the perpetrators completely beside themselves? What is the significance of Al-Aqsa?

According to Islamic sources, the Qurʾān (17:1) indicates that Muhammad was miraculously transported one night from Mecca (al-masjid al-ḥaram, or “the sacred place of worship”) to this site in Jerusalem (al-masjid al-aqṣā, “the farther place of worship”). On that spot he led Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other messengers (rusul) of God in ritual prayer (ṣalāt). That same night he was taken up to heaven from the site of the Dome of the Rock for an encounter with God (see Miʿrāj). (Zeiden 2024)

There is a miracle but no metaphysical transformation involved. Unlike Harvey and Shakespeare, Muhammad, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were not contemporaries. What agency do Abraham, Moses and Jesus have in this narrative: are they participating of their own volition or as hostages? Why is it important to the narrative that they participate in ritual prayer? Does Islam’s understanding of Abraham, Moses and Jesus differ from those of other faiths? Has Islam’s understanding been elevated over that of others? Why is the miracle important to the narrative? Why is the miracle more important than individuating and living according to one’s conscience?

Critical thinking involves endless questions.

I was the family member sitting vigil with my mother when she awakened from the induced coma she had been placed after being admitted to hospital. We had planned for her to join us on a family holiday the day she was admitted to hospital. We had all been looking forward to it.

“Am I dead?” she asked me on awakening.

“No”, I replied. Taking advantage of her morbid state of mind I continued, “You are however terminally ill”.

I explained her prognosis and she was silent for a long time.

“What are you thinking?” I finally asked.

About the boat that never returns.”

We’re all on that boat Mum.”, I replied, “I am glad to be on the boat with you.”

Life is most precious when there are no more questions and there is a shared understanding. That the perpetrators and those who support their actions on October 7 have never experienced someone being with them just for the pleasure of being there for them is indicated.


Chambers, E.K. 1930. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Chapman. “Ophelia’s ‘Old Lauds’: Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet.” Medieval & Renaissance drama in England. 20:111-35. Accessed 1 May 2024.

Crossley-Holland, K. 1987. “The Baker’s Daughter”, British Folk Tales. London: Orchard Books.

Shakespeare, W. 2003. Hamlet Prince of Denmark. Edited by Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shakespeare, W. 1982. Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Edited by Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen.

Wilson, H.S. 1945. “Gabriel Harvey’s Orations on Rhetoric”, A Journal of English Literary History 12.3:167-82.

Zeidan, Adam. “Al-Aqsa Mosque”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Apr. 2024, Accessed 16 May 2024.

About the Author
Of Jewish parents, from shortly after my sixth birthday I was a boarder at an Anglican boarding school. My parents hosted Columbo Plan students for many years and our family home was a place where they were welcome to hang out. I enjoy reading Shakespeare and Jung. I have Arts and Engineering degrees and work as an Enterprise Architect.