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Feminism

Adelman, Janet. “Man and Wife Is One Flesh: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body.” Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. By Adelman. New York: Routledge, 1992. 11-37.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / HAMLET / PSYCHOANALYTIC

This monograph chapter argues that Hamlet “redefines the son’s position between two fathers by relocating it in relation to an indiscriminately sexual maternal body that threatens to annihilate the distinction between the fathers and hence problematizes the son’s paternal identification” (14-15). Hamlet “rewrites the story of Cain and Abel as the story of Adam and Eve, relocating masculine identity in the presence of the adulterating female” (30). Gertrude “plays out the role of the missing Eve: her body is the garden in which her husband dies, her sexuality the poisonous weeds that kill him, and poison the world—and the self—for her son” (30). The absence of the father combined with the presence of the “engulfing mother” awakens “all the fears incident to the primary mother-child bond” (30). The solution is for Hamlet to remake his mother “in the image of Virgin Mother who could guarantee his father’s purity, and his own, repairing the boundaries of his selfhood” (31). In the closet scene, Hamlet attempts “to remake his mother pure by divorcing her from her sexuality” (32-33). Although Gertrude “remains relatively opaque, more a screen for Hamlet’s fantasies about her than a fully developed character in her own right,” the son “at least believes that she has returned to him as the mother he can call ‘good lady’ (3.4.182)” (34). As a result, Hamlet achieves “a new calm and self-possession” but at a high price: “for the parents lost to him at the beginning of the play can be restored only insofar as they are entirely separated from their sexual bodies. This is a pyrrhic solution to the problems of embodiedness and familial identity . . .” (35).

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Bergoffen, Debra B. “Mourning, Woman, and the Phallus: Lacan’s Hamlet.” Cultural Semiosis: Tracing the Signifier. Ed. Hugh J. Silverman. Continental Philosophy VI. New York: Routledge, 1998. 140-53.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / PSYCHOANALYTIC

Concurring with “Lacan’s notions of the phallus, jouissance, the symbolic, the imaginary, and the signifying chain” (140), this article suggests that Gertrude demonstrates “the way woman’s complicity is essential to the patriarchal order as she provides a glimpse of a woman who steps outside its parameters” (141). In the role of mourning, woman represents “the invisible medium through whom the phallus passes” (144). But Gertrude substitutes “marriage nuptials for mourning rituals”; her marriage to Claudius “violates the father who has not been properly remembered, and it violates the son who is denied his legacy” (146). Gertrude’s “refusal to mourn brings back the ghost and fuels its impossible request: that the son do what the mother will not, legitimize the father” (146). But Hamlet, a male bound by patriarchal laws, cannot perform the “social act” of mourning, as he and Laertes prove at Ophelia’s burial (141). And, as long as Gertrude “confers legitimacy on Claudius, Hamlet’s action is barred” (149). The son begins the process of “re-inserting his mother into the patriarchal phallic order” in the closet scene by accusing her “of being too old to love,” by de-legitimizing her “mode of otherness” (149). Gertrude, in death, finally frees Hamlet to act by being unable to mourn Claudius, but her absence means no mourning and, hence, no mediation for the transference of power: “in the absence of women, Denmark comes under the rule of its enemy,” Fortinbras (151-52). “Rejecting the role of passive mediator Gertrude plays the game of jouissance” (153). Yes, Gertrude is destroyed as a result, but she succeeds “in exposing the myth of the male phallus” and “provides us with a glimpse of a signifier placed outside the patriarchal structure of silenced mourning women” (153).

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Dane, Gabrielle. “Reading Ophelia’s Madness.” Exemplaria 10 (1998): 405-23.

FEMINISM / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA

Admittedly negotiating the simultaneous rationalization and preservation of insantiy, this article attempts to answer the important question of how to read Ophelia’s madness. Ophelia initially appears “shaped to conform to external demands, to reflect others desires” (406): she is Laertes’ “angel,” Polonius’ “commodity” (407), and Hamlet’s “spectre of his psychic fears” (410). While the conflicting messages from these male/masculine sources damage Ophelia’s psychological identity, their sudden absence provokes her mental destruction. Optimistically, Ophelia’s madness offers the capability of speech, the opportunity to discover individual identity, and the power to verbally undermine authority. A thorough analysis of Ophelia’s mad ramblings (and their mutual levels of meaning) provides “a singular exposé of society, of the turbulent reality beneath its surface veneer of calm” (418); but her words still suggest a fragmented self and provide others the opportunity to manipulate meanings that best suit them. Ophelia’s death is also open to interpretation. While the Queen describes “the accidental drowning of an unconsciously precocious child” (422), this article suggests that “Ophelia’s choice might be seen as the only courageous—indeed rational—death in Shakespeare’s bloody drama” (423).

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Dews, C. L. Barney. “Gender Tragedies: East Texas Cockfighting and Hamlet.” Journal of Men’s Studies 2 (1994): 253-67.

FEMINISM / HAMLET / "TO BE, OR NOT TO BE" SOLILOQUY

Written in an unorthodox style and laced with personal letters to familial models of gender, this article hopes to rectify the lack of scholarship about “the harmful results of society’s gender pressure on the male characters in Hamlet” (255). Hamlet’s ideal model of masculinity is his father, whose ghost demands proof of the son’s manliness. Similarly, Laertes’ dead father also becomes a source that demands a show of loyalty through revenge (due to Claudius’ manipulation). While Laertes appears to embrace the masculine ideals, Hamlet is in an “ambivalent position,” suspended between the masculine and feminine (259). The indoctrination pressures of Claudius and Polonius as well as the problematic female chastity of Gertrude and Ophelia deliver conflicting messages to Hamlet. His “tragic flaw” seems “his inability to reconcile the mixed messages he is receiving regarding gender and the options available to him” (261). But Hamlet has no options because of his royal title and destiny. The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy provides the simultaneous contemplation of suicide and gender conflict. This conflict and the lack of choices seems epitomized in the final scene, when Horatio and Fortinbras describe the dead Hamlet in different gender terms. Hamlet presents ambivalence about the dilemma “of a reconciling of both masculine and feminine within an individual personality,” a dilemma that men still face today (266).

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Dunn, Leslie C. “Ophelia’s Song’s in Hamlet: Music, Madness, and the Feminine.” Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture. Ed. Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 50-64.

FEMINISM / HISTORY OF IDEAS / MUSIC / OPHELIA

This essay argues “that the representation of Ophelia’s madness involves a mapping of her sexual and psychological difference onto the discursive ‘difference’ of music” and that “this dramatic use of music reflects the broader discourse of music in early modern English culture, with its persistent associations between music, excess and the feminine” (52). Early modern British writers contend with “the conflicting ideologies of music inherited from Platonic and Christian thought”: music represents “the earthly embodiment of divine order,” but it also introduces “sensuous immediacy” and “semantic indeterminacy” (56). While Pythagorean harmony “is music in its positive or ‘masculine’ aspect,” music also possesses the capability of “cultural dissonance” in its “negative or ‘feminine’ aspect” (58). In Hamlet, singing allows Ophelia to become “both the literal and the figurative ‘dissonance’ that ‘expresses marginalities’” (59). Her representation “draws on gender stereotypes of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage” and simultaneously dislocates them (60): “If Ophelia’s singing lets ‘the woman’ out, then, it does so in such a way as to problematize cultural constructions of women’s song, even while containing her within their re-presentation”; but her “disruptive feminine energy must be reabsorbed into both the social and the discursive orders of the play” (62). Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s drowning “re-appropriates Ophelia’s music” and “aestheticizes her madness, makes it ‘pretty’” (63). Rather than dismiss Ophelia’s singing “as a conventional sign of madness,” critics should “acknowledge its significance” by “making her singing our subject” (64).

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Fienberg, Nona. "Jephthah's Daughter: The Parts Ophelia Plays." Old Testament Women in Western Literature. Ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcit. Conway: UCA, 1991. 128-43.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA / THEOLOGICAL

This essay explores "cultural resonances between the politically unstable time of Judges in Israel's history, the political confusion in Hamlet's Denmark, and the anxiety over succession in late-Elizabethan England" (133). While Jephthah's daughter and Ophelia share similarities, they also differ in an important way: the unnamed daughter is an obedient sacrifice, and Ophelia "develops from her status as a victim" to "an author of a potentially different story, a woman's story" (133-34). Ophelia comes to realize her subversive potential and, in a commanding oration about the weakening of Hamlet's "noble mind," laments the lose of her own political ambitions (135). But her madness empowers her with liberties, such as demanding a meeting with Gertrude. Once granted entrance, "she, like a wandering player, comes to hold a mirror up to the court" (136). Gone is her submissive voice, replaced by "a range of voices" (137). Ophelia now "commands attention" (137). Interestingly, her invasion of the court parallels Laertes' rebellious entrance: they have "competing political claims, his assertive and explicit, hers subversive and encoded in mad woman's language" (137). Because her songs "introduce the protesting voice of oppressed women in society" through the veils of a ballad culture, Ophelia is not understood by her male audience; but her "rebellion against the double standard and its oppression of women arouses fear in Gertrude, who understands" (138). When the Queen reports Ophelia's drowning, she insists "on her time and the attention of the plotting men" (138). Her description portrays "a woman who draws her understanding of her world from women's culture" (139). The Queen, "perhaps like Jephthah's daughter's maiden friends, returned from temporary exile to interpret the meaning of the sacrificed daughter's life" (140).

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Findlay, Alison. "Hamlet: A Document in Madness." New Essays on Hamlet. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning. Hamlet Collection 1. New York: AMS, 1994. 189-205.

FEMINISM / HAMLET / OPHELIA / RHETORICAL

By focusing on Hamlet and Ophelia, this essay examines "how gender dictates access to a language with which to cope with mental breakdown" and considers "how madness produces and is produced by a fragmentation of discourse" (189). The death of Old Hamlet marks the unraveling of language's "network of close knit meanings and signs" in Denmark (191). In this atmosphere, Hamlet and Ophelia "are threatened with mental breakdowns, rendering their need to define their experiences and re-define themselves particularly acute" (192). Hamlet attempts a "self-cure" to deal with his mental instability (192): he "uses his control over the written word to empower himself in emotionally disturbing situations"; examples include Hamlet's letters to Ophelia, Horatio, and Claudius, his forged orders to England, and his rewriting of The Murder of Gonzago (193). Hamlet discovers "a verbal and theatrical metalanguage with which to construct and contain the experience of insanity" (196), but Ophelia "does not have the same means for elaborating a delirium as a man" (197). She possesses "very limited access to any verbal communication with which to unpack her heart" before her father's death (199). After his passing, Ophelia is confronted "with an unprecedented access to language which is both liberating and frightening" (200). Her songs "are in the same mode as Hamlet's adaptation, The Mousetrap, and his use of ballad (III.ii.265-78); but, unlike Hamlet, she will not act as a chorus" (201). Also, she "cannot analyze her trauma" the way that he does (200). In the context of other Renaissance women dealing with insanity (e.g., Dionys Fitzherbert, Margaret Muschamp, Mary, Moore), Ophelia's experience of "trying to find a voice in the play" seems "a model for the difficulties facing Renaissance women writers" (202).

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Finkelstein, Richard. “Differentiating Hamlet: Ophelia and the Problems of Subjectivity.” Renaissance and Reformation 21.2 (Spring 1997): 5-22.

FEMINISM / HAMLET / OPHELIA / PSYCHOANALYTIC

This essay explores how “Shakespeare uses Ophelia to expose an interplay between culture, epistemology, and psychology which constructs Hamlet’s heroic subjectivity, itself understood through his logic, development, and actions informed by agency” (6). Hamlet and Ophelia are similar in various ways, including their “fashioning a sense of interiority” (6). But they also differ. For example, Hamlet “goes out of its way to disassociate her [Ophelia’s] epistemological habits from the empirical exactitude Hamlet seeks” (11). Ophelia “signifies knowledge which cannot be known with certainty” (10). According to “contemporary French feminism, the opposition of Claudius, Horatio, Fortinbras, and Hamlet (prior to his fifth act embrace of providence) to Ophelia’s manner of signifying cannot be separated from challenges female bodies pose to gendered concepts of fixed subjectivity” (13). Yet Ophelia’s “disjointed speeches do not define a feminine language so much as they interrogate the related economies of object relations and a readiness to act which mark Hamlet’s ‘developed’ subjectivity in the play” (14). The uncertainties of Ophelia’s death “also raise questions about whether agency itself can define subjectivity” (15). While agency and intention “do not function efficiently for either Hamlet or Ophelia,” the play allows “more than one means of defining subjectivity” (17). Through Ophelia, “the play interrogates its own longings, and its participation in defining subjectivity” (18).

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Floyd-Wilson, Mary. “Ophelia and Femininity in the Eighteenth Century: 'Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.'” Women’s Studies 21 (1992): 397-409.

FEMINISM / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA / RECEPTION THEORY

This article contends that “by the late eighteenth century, the era’s evolving notions of gender and the paradoxical effects of censorship actually infused representations of Ophelia with ‘erotic and discordant elements’” (397). Performance reviews and the script from William Davenant’s revival of Hamlet present the Prince as the ideal and honorable hero, Ophelia as the ideal woman, and their relationship as (the ideal) romance. Such changes from the original source are made possible through the deletion of dialogue: Laertes’ cautioning of Ophelia about Hamlet’s intentions, Polonius’ directing of Ophelia to withdraw from Hamlet’s suit, Ophelia’s replies to Hamlet’s sexual innuendoes, and Ophelia’s most bawdy lines in the mad scene. The final product is a sexually unaware and innocent Ophelia, but this shadow of Shakespeare’s character “combines the residual (though censored) sexual awareness of the Renaissance with an emerging ideal of the inherently pure and moral female” (402). Almost a century later, David Garrick introduced large production changes, including modifications to endow Ophelia with the “natural” feminine qualities valued in his own period: “passivity and emotionalism” (403). His Ophelia actor, Susannah Cibber, initiated the “femininity”’ in Ophelia. The contrasts between the two productions of Hamlet and the social periods suggest that the eighteenth century’s censorship “helped turn sex into a secret—synonymous with truth—resulting in the modern desire to release it from its ‘repressive’ constraints” (407).

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Fox-Good, Jacquelyn A. “Ophelia’s Mad Songs: Music, Gender, Power.” Subjects on the World’s Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ed. David C. Allen and Robert A. White. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995. 217-38.

FEMINISM / MUSIC / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA

After discussing the study of Shakespearean music, this essay approaches the words and music of Ophelia’s mad songs as “constituting her own story, using her own voice for her own grief, and for rage and protest” (222). In the historical context of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, music is associated with madness, a “female malady” to borrow Showalter’s phrase (231-32). Aside from the subversive power of music, this medium’s identification with the female/effeminate creates “fear, which led many writers of the period to issue strong warnings against the dangers of music and music education” (232). Ophelia’s songs end her dutiful silence and “constitute her character” (233). “Specifically, in their melodies, harmonies, tempos, and generally in the bodily power of their music, her songs are expressions of loss and emptiness but also of a specifically female power” (233). Ophelia’s assertion of “her power in music makes music a kind of secret code, a deceptively ‘pretty’ language”; music “is nothing (nothing but all things); it is noting; it is to be noted, and reckoned with” (234).

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Hamana, Emi. “Whose Body Is It, Anyway?—A re-Reading of Ophelia.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 143-54.

FEMINISM / HISTORY OF IDEAS / OPHELIA

According to this article, although Hamlet “treats the question of the female body through masculine ideologies and fantasies,” the text is “not a closed, monolithic structure,” as is demonstrated by the contradictions discussed in this essay (143). A brief examination of Christian tradition and Cartesian dualism explains the Elizabethan tendencies towards misogyny and somatophobia (143). In Hamlet, Gertrude’s sinful lust is punished by the objectification and de-sexualization of the body, but the innocent and puppet-like Ophelia also “suffers a series of patriarchal oppressions” (145). While the mad scene follows the “Renaissance theatrical convention” and “the masculine assumption” of “mad women as erotomaniacs,” it also “has a subversive dimension”: “It invites us to rethink the conceptualization and representation of the female body” with contradictions that “question patriarchal ideology” (146). Ophelia’s madness disrupts the play’s dynamics (146), and “grants her autonomy as a subject” (147); most importantly, it shows “the dualism of mind and body,” not as binary opposites but as “inseparably related” (147-148). This “embodying of the mind” (149) contrasts sharply with Hamlet’s aspirations of “separating the masculine mind (reason) from the feminine body” (148). In the drowning report, the similar merger of “mind/body and subject/object” “represents a different kind of female body: not a fixed entity but a mutable structure” (151). Ophelia “revolts against those forces that shape her textual boundary,” “destabilizes patriarchal control, and resists masculine fantasy of order and universalization” (152).

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Jardine, Lisa. “‘No offence i’ th’ world’: Hamlet and Unlawful Marriage.” Uses of History: Marxism, Postmodernism and the Renaissance. Ed. Francis Barker, Peter Hume, and Margaret Iverson. Essex Symposia: Literature/Politics/Theory. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1991. 123-39. [Reprinted in David Scott Kastan’s Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1995).]

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / NEW HISTORICISM

While distinguishing its approach from “retrospective critical activity” (126), this essay sets out “to provide a historical account which restores agency to groups hitherto marginalised or left out of what counts as historical explanation—non-élite men and all women” (125). In Hamlet, Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius appears “unlawful” by the early modern period’s standards, and “it deprives Hamlet of his lawful succession” (130). Gertrude “has participated in the remarriage—has (literally) alienated her son, and Old Hamlet’s name” (135). In denying Gertrude exoneration, “we have recovered the guilt surrounding her as a condition of her oppression”: “women are not permanently in the object position, they are subjects. To be always object and victim is not the material reality of woman’s existence, nor is it her lived experience” (135).

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Kusunoki, Akiko. “‘Oh most pernicious woman’: Gertrude in the Light of Ideas on Remarriage in Early Seventeenth-Century England.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 169-84.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / NEW HISTORICISM

Contending that Shakespeare’s original audience would have viewed the Queen as “a potent figure in her flouting of patriarchal dictates through her remarriage,” this reading of Hamlet “examines the significance of the representation of Gertrude in the context of society’s changing attitudes towards a widow’s remarriage in early seventeenth-century England” (170). Gertrude’s remarriage “demonstrates an interesting possibility of female agency” that contributes to the undermining of residual cultural values in the play (173). Religious and literary sources of the Elizabethan period (e.g., Characters, The Widow’s Tears) reflect “dominant sentiments against a widow’s remarriage,” but historical research shows the social reality that upper class widows often remarried (175). Their independence and ability to choose a new mate “presented a contradiction to patriarchal ideology” and “posed a radical threat to the existing social structure” (176). But changing attitudes were also emerging during this period: Puritans started to argue the benefits of a widow’s remarrying, and Montaigne’s Essays proposed an “utterly realistic understanding of human nature”—particularly of female sexuality (179-80). In this light, the marriage between Claudius and Gertrude “might not have seemed to some members of the Elizabethan audience particularly reprehensible” (179). Although Hamlet succeeds in desexualizing his mother in the closet scene, Gertrude maintains her own authority by continuing to love Claudius while denying his order not to drink from the chalice (180). Her “attitude to her remarriage points to the emergent forces in the changing attitude towards female sexuality in early seventeenth-century England” (180).

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Lamb, Susan. “Applauding Shakespeare’s Ophelia in the Eighteenth Century: Sexual Desire, Politics, and the Good Woman.” Women as Sites of Culture: Women’s Roles in Cultural Formation From the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century. Ed. Susan Shifrin. Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate, 2002. 105-23.

FEMINISM / OPHELIA / RECEPTION THEORY

Focusing upon Restoration and eighteenth-century treatments of Ophelia’s sexual nature, this study proposes that early Ophelias “reveal the dark side of the assumption that open expressions of sexual desire and freedom from oppression are one and the same thing”; they also “demonstrate the way in which an exclusive focus on women’s sexuality can in fact erase or obscure the place and influence of women in the public sphere” (106). According to the “surprisingly generous” “records concerning Ophelia in the long eighteenth century,” Ophelia “repeatedly appear[ed] on stage in the century’s most popular Shakespeare play,” and “she and characters based on her had a consistent place in the period’s critical commentary, poetry, novels, illustrations and paintings. Until the end of the eighteenth century, critics and adaptors alike considered her crucial to Hamlet and the most prominent actresses of the age [. . .] played the part (107). Although some critics argue that the deletion of Ophelia’s “bawdy lines” in stage performances reflects “a campaign to de-sexualize Ophelia because she is female,” “adaptors cut sexually explicit language in general, not just in the mouths of women,” and the “common practice in the eighteenth century [was] to gentrify Shakespeare’s more socially-elevated characters” (110). In addition, various unabridged “scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s works appeared in the eighteenth century and were eagerly consumed by the public,” allowing theatergoers to imagine lines missing during Hamlet performances (112). As for Ophelia’s sexuality, eighteenth-century medical and social attitudes held that “a love-mad woman’s sexual desire was not what was considered sick about her”; the “lack of gratification rather than the desire itself caused the insanity”; a “madwoman,” such as Ophelia, “loved according to the strictest rules of propriety and virtue” (108). “Ophelia and Ophelia figures” actually liberated “writers, painters and actresses” from strict social “paradigms,” enabling “what the period thought to be natural, virtuous, and virginal desire in a woman to be visible to spectators” (117). But in focusing on her sexuality, the period’s “readers, writers, performers, painters, audiences and critics [. . .] suppressed the political, familial, and social ramifications of the original character’s madness” (117). “It is not woman’s sexual desire but the place of women in the social and political web that is problematic. Ophelia’s position as the daughter of a powerful courtier, the lover of the Prince who kills her father, the sister of a man with considerable political power, and as a woman whose speech in madness has political implications for her hearers is lost in what has become a long-term focus on her sexuality” (117).

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Loberg, Harmonie. “Queen Gertrude: Monarch, Mother, Murderer.” Atenea 24.1 (June 2004): 59-71.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / OPHELIA’S MURDER(ER)

Using behavioral research and feminist theory, this article proposes that Queen Gertrude is involved in Ophelia’s mysterious “drowning.” It discusses strategies of human aggression (e.g., indirect, verbal), debunks resilient sex/gender stereotypes (e.g., the weaker sex), and uncovers textual evidence (e.g., Gertrude’s dying with all of the play’s male murderers, her marital and psychological union with King Claudius, the suspicious drowning report scene). While arguing the Queen’s guilt, this study also maintains that Gertrude is innocence of accusations that a “lustful libido” motivates her hasty marriage to Claudius (63); “rather, the need to secure her roles as monarch, mother, and wife seems the primary catalyst in her decision” (63-64). Unfortunately, Ophelia poses a threat “to of the Queen’s roles. Her presence destabilizes the social order of the caste system, and ‘her father’s death’ is a catalyst for the political revolt against the throne (emphasis added 4.5.77). Ophelia also endangers the Queen’s title of mother with the potential of Hamlet’s yet-unborn child” (67). “The Queen’s hostility towards Ophelia initially appears through sophisticated strategies of aggression, but the increasing dangers force stronger defenses. Whether resulting from physical action or ethical stagnation, the Queen is culpable in the death of Ophelia” (68). After challenging the dogma used to exonerate Gertrude (e.g., genre definitions, suicide preference, lack of confession), this article asks, “are we capable of evaluating the evidence against Gertrude without being influenced by her sex/gender? Can we escape stereotypes and social myths? Are we ready to acknowledge the awesome paradox of femaleness: the simultaneous potential for birth and death?” (70).

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Low, Jennifer. “Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet.” Centennial Review 43.3 (Fall 1999): 501-12.

DUEL / FEMINISM / HAMLET

This essay proposes that “in the course of the fencing exhibition, Hamlet discovers a means of performance acceptable to him” (501). Prior to this climactic scene, Hamlet struggles to balance the expectations of his public persona (e.g., prince) with those of his domestic roles (e.g., son). The conflict between the rational thoughts of ideal masculinity and the violent actions necessary to exact revenge compound Hamlet’s dilemma. Hamlet can only act when he finds a personal “form of masculine decorum,” “uniting private and public identities” and performing “the part of a man according to his father’s model” (504). A brief history of dueling proves that Hamlet finds a fitting means to act: “the duel embodies the notion of manhood, both through the correspondence of word and deed and through the implicit legitimization of vigilantism (and, by extension, individualism) as a means of achieving justice” (505). While the duel is initiated with the formality of tradition and ritual, its context within the theatrical production “interrogates the very structure of drama’s mimetic framework” (506). The nature of this lawful duel for entertainment is also altered by the unlawful and lethal intentions of Claudius and Laertes. Claudius seems solely responsible for the deadly results because “The violence set in motion by the king becomes the swordsman’s prerogative” (508). Thanks to Claudius’ ploy, Hamlet is able “to die as an avenger and a true prince” (509).

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Ouditt, Sharon. "Explaining Woman's Frailty: Feminist Readings of Gertrude." Hamlet. Ed. Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood. Theory in Practice. Buckingham: Open UP, 1996. 83-107.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE

After discussing the premises of (and problems within) feminism, this essay examines three feminist perspectives of Gertrude and "the interpretive possibilities that they present": Rebecca Smith's "A Heart Cleft in Twain," an example of "reading as a woman"; Jaqueline Rose's "Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure," an example of psychoanalytic criticism; and Lisa Jardine's Still Harping on Daughters an example of materialistic, feminist criticism (87). Each perspective is summarized, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and is used as a launching pad for broader discussions. For example, Smith's article suffers from its passé political agenda, which views Gertrude as a nurturing-non-fictional-persona and raises questions about textual gaps being filled by critics/audiences/readers with ulterior motives; but it also leads to questions of Gertrude's guilt. Together, the three representatives "form part of a changing cultural and critical history" and reflect the "continuing project" of feminism (105).

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Peterson, Kaara. “Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition.” Mosaic 31.3 (1998): 1-24.

ART / FEMINISM / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA

This essay strives “to position Ophelia’s dual representational history more precisely within both art-historical and dramatic-critical frameworks” (2). While eighteenth-century Shakespearean painters generally limited Ophelia to the unstressed presence of a group, the mid-nineteenth-century artists increasingly focused on the moments of Ophelia’s drowning. Interestingly, the original source of this scene is presented as a second-hand account of events, reducing Gertrude’s narrative to a “ventriloquized history” (8). Regardless of textual authority, visual artists consistently use standard conventions of Ophelia’s death scene (e.g., dress, flowers, water) from the nineteenth century to the present. According to the work of Elisabeth Bronfen, the merger of the feminine body and death threaten masculinity with “radical instability” (18); hence, visual artists prevent their Ophelias from looking truly dead. Ironically, the image of Ophelia, “a Shakespeare-brand product,” is currently being misapplied to unrelated materials (e.g., souvenirs, CD covers)—creating “an issue precisely of non-referentiality” (20). After arguing that Ophelia’s literary and visual bodies converge, this article concludes that “Ophelia’s complete story” can only be discerned from the original source, the text (22-23).

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Philip, Ranjini. “The Shattered Glass: The Story of (O)phelia.” Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 73-84.

FEMINISM / OPHELIA

This article proposes that Ophelia’s story “anticipates Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis of the way to achieve an integrated self transcending the dichotomy” of good and bad women (73). Ophelia initially appears as a “nothing” and has been critically viewed as a “negative nothing” (74), but she “moves to a greater, though incomplete, reconciliation of self” (75): her madness liberates her voice and sexuality; and, as an assertion of will, her suicide “is an act that confronts disillusionment, madness, and death” (80). Unlike Gertrude (who cannot look at Hamlet’s mirror), Ophelia meets and momentarily merges with her reflection/double in the surface of the water. She metaphorically shatters the glass, as Gilbert and Gubar prescribe. Her resultant death suggests Shakespeare’s understanding of his Elizabethan audience and of its perceptions of the female/feminine. Ophelia’s death leads to the climactic confrontation among the males and allows her to fulfill the role of “mythic heroine” (81). The story of Ophelia then “is one of nobility and heroism, of self-awareness and self-integration” (81).

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Reschke, Mark. “Historicizing Homophobia: Hamlet and the Anti-theatrical Tracts.” Hamlet Studies 19 (1997): 47-63.

FEMINISM / HAMLET / METADRAMA / NEW HISTORICISM / QUEER THEORY

After acknowledging the complications of studying sexuality before the late eighteen hundreds and the feminist efforts to historicize misogyny, this article examines Hamlet “to demonstrate how misogyny intersects with a nascent form of homophobia, a cultural fear of male-male sexual bonding articulated in the anti-theatrical tracts” (49). A survey of anti-theatrical propaganda reveals cultural anxieties about effeminacy, sexual promiscuity (e.g., sodomy), and any behavior that undermines social/patriarchal institutions (53). Hamlet “seems to embody the specific juncture of misogyny and fear of male-male sexual desire that the anti-theatrical tracts begin to coordinate” (55): he clearly shows misogynistic tendencies with Gertrude and Ophelia; he also voices his attraction to “dead or distant men” (e.g., Old Hamlet, Yorick, Fortinbras) because his fears of the sodomy stigma restrict the expression of such sentiments to “men only in relationships in which physical contact is impossible” (56); with Horatio, Hamlet disrupts every moment of potential intimacy by interrupting himself, “trivializing his own thoughts,” pausing, and then changing the discussion topic to theatrical plays (57). Hamlet’s behavior “demonstrates the power of anti-theatrical homophobia to regulate male behavior” and “expresses the anti-theatrical complex that . . . anticipates modern homophobia” (57). While the playwright “comes close to overtly acknowledging the cultural/anti-theatrical association of sodomy with the male homosociality of theatre life,” “A metaphoric treatment of anti-theatrical concerns, including homophobia, corresponds to—and possibly follows from—the meta-theatrical concerns that structure form and character in Hamlet” (58).

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Roberts, Katherine. “The Wandering Womb: Classical Medical Theory and the Formation of Female Characters in Hamlet.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 15 (1995): 223-32.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA

This essay approaches wombsickness (a.k.a. hysteria) as a “condition, described early in patriarchal Western culture, [which] has been a literary motif from classical to modern literature” (223). Evidence spanning from Greek medical theories to the doctrines of sixteenth-century physicians testifies to the belief that the female womb has physiological needs (e.g., sexual intercourse); left unmet, these demands result in hysteria. Simultaneously, stringent social codes of the Renaissance restricted female sexuality. A patriarchal culture defined women—socially and medically—by their relationships to men. Ophelia and Gertrude suffer classic symptoms of wombsickness. As a young girl of marriageable age and emotional instability, Ophelia is a prime candidate for wombsickness. She has been mentally and physically preparing herself for marriage/sex with Hamlet; but in the loss of all male figures to guide and support her, Ophelia becomes “completely vulnerable to her own femaleness” (229). Gertrude also suffers symptoms of hysteria, according to Hamlet’s account of “a woman whose physiology apparently required frequent intercourse” (230). In the absence of her original husband to sate and govern her sexual energies, Gertrude is easily seduced, and her disorderly behavior damages the society. As “her natural guardian,” Hamlet must intervene to “constrain her”—hence the closet scene (231). While Gertrude properly responds to his chastising by transferring her allegiance from Claudius to Hamlet, and in a sense recovering from her wombsickness, it is too late to prevent the destruction of the throne’s inhabitants. This article makes no definitive claims about Shakespeare’s intentions but notes that Renaissance literature “reflects and reinforces” previously developed concepts of women, bringing “those concepts into the twentieth century” (232).

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Shand, G. B. “Realising Gertrude: The Suicide Option.” Elizabethan Theatre XIII. Ed. A. L. Magnusson and C. E. McGee. Toronto: Meany, 1994. 95-118.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / PERFORMANCE

This article uses an “actorly exploration” of Hamlet “to account for how an apparent subtextual subversion of the script [Gertrude’s conscious act of suicide] might actually have its birth not in wilful actorly or directorly self-indulgence, but in close and honest realisation of the textual evidence” (99). Gertrude exists in a male-dominated world, where she is commanded by males and offered no privacy. Her limited ability to speak does not reflect ignorance, as several critics have contended, but the Renaissance’s expectations of the female gender. These social constraints produce in Gertrude “an impacted condition, a state of painfully ingrown pressure to react” (106). Meanwhile, an astute Gertrude begins to recognize her sin in an incestuous marriage, as well as her inadvertent responsibility for the murder of Hamlet, Sr. and all subsequent events (e.g., Polonius’ death, Ophelia’s madness). The Mousetrap guarantees consequential guilt, which appears evident in the closet scene. While Polonius’ murder suggests her association between guilt and death, Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s drowning marks a personal desire for death. This alert Gertrude cannot miss the development of an alliance between Claudius and Laertes, the charge of murderer-with-poison against the King, the tension among the males, nor the tainted cup offered to Hamlet during the duel. She consciously drinks the poisoned wine after having been “denied virtually any other independent action from the beginning of the play” (118).

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Stanton, Kay. "Hamlet's Whores." New Essays on Hamlet. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning. Hamlet Collection 1. New York: AMS, 1994. 167-88.

FEMINISM / GERTRUDE / HAMLET / LAERTES / OPHELIA

This interpretation explores all the variations of whore-dom in Hamlet. The women are not the only ones prostituted. Like Ophelia, Hamlet is "'whored' by the father": "The older generation incestuously prostitutes the innocence of the younger" (169). Further examples include Polonius prostituting Laertes and Reynaldo with plans of spying and Claudius, the "symbolic father," similarly misusing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (169). But the victims are not entirely innocent either. Hamlet "whores" the theater and its actors--"his great love"--by perverting artistic purpose and integrity (173), and the play-within-the-play "whores him as he has whored it, making him no longer one of the innocent, but one of the 'guilty creatures' at and in the play" (185). Laertes misuses his favorite pastime, fencing, to destroy his perceived enemy (180). The duel, "a gruesome perversion of the sex act" complete with phalluses and pudendum (181), leaves a dying Hamlet to whore Horatio, Fortinbras to whore Hamlet's story, and a new "bawd" to reestablish the patriarchy (182). Because these males insist on a binary opposition between genders, ever fearing womanly characteristics within themselves, they project their "whorishness" onto female targets, covering over masculine violence (178). The closet scene exemplifies this technique: after Hamlet murders Polonius, Gertrude's "supposed sin is made to overshadow his actual sin and somehow to justify it" (179). Only in death does Ophelia escape the whore image, but she becomes the "worshipped Madonna as Hamlet and Laertes can then safely whore their own self-constructed images of pure love for her as rationale for violence against each other" (179). The whoring consumes the play, as Hamlet "'whores' Hamlet the prince to be the organ for its art" (183).

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Stone, James W. “Androgynous ‘Union’ and the Woman in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 71-99.

FEMINISM

This article explores “the various ways androgyny, the collapse of sexual difference, is represented” (71), as “union that erases the ambiguously gendered divisions between mind and body, deeds and words, duty and affect, gives rise to a catastrophic crisis of nondifference” (72). In Hamlet, basic dichotomies “do not hold, for the play insists on the antithetical collapse of primal antinomies” (78). In this world, opposites become indistinguishable for Hamlet (e.g., Old Hamlet/Claudius, Gertrude/Ophelia). While his masculine and ideal father “is represented as emasculated” by the penetration of liquid (“semen = life”? or “semen = poison”?) (83), his Mother “is imagined as the masculine aggressor” (84). Her “crossing of sexual boundaries and collapsing of difference informs the androgyny that so conspicuously marks Hamlet’s character” (85). “As high is reduced to low on the axis of social status, so sexual distinctions are likewise undone in death, as in birth and intercourse. Their collapse is what sets off the chain of deaths in the play, which in turn viciously reestablished the cycle of sexual nondifference (a corpse of whichever sex is still a just a corpse)” (89). Hamlet returns to Denmark “far less anxious about the collapse of boundaries” because he comes to understand the solution: “destroy difference via the massive implosion that death effects” (89-90). “Death returns man to the undiscovered country whence he originated, the place where he and woman are joined (foutre) in a common fault or fold, cross-coupled in nondifference” (90).

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Thompson, Ann and Neil Taylor. William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Writers and Their Works. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / BIBLIOGRAPHIC / FEMINISM / NEW HISTORICISM / PERFORMANCE / RHETORICAL

This text begins with a questioning of Hamlet's status within the canon. Although other Shakespearean tragedies (e.g., King Lear) have threatened to displace Hamlet in the past, its position currently seems secure. The section titled "Which Hamlet?" discusses the Folio/Quartos debate, as well as how understanding of the play's meanings and values vary "according to the reader, the actor or the audience" (17). The third chapter examines Hamlet "as a self-contained fiction which takes history and politics as part of its subject matter" and "as a late-Elizabethan play which can be seen in relation to the history and politics of its own time" (23). The next section explores rhetoric in the play, such as how all of the characters seem to speak in the same linguistic style and how some quotes from the play "have passed into common usage," creating challenges for performers (33). The chapter on gender examines the history of female Hamlets, questions of Hamlet's sex/gender, the play's female characters, and feminism's influence on the study of this tragedy. "The Afterlife of Hamlet" discusses how editors, actors, and directors "have added to the multiplicity of Hamlets by cutting and rearranging that text" (52), how the drama has been adapted to popular mediums, and how it has been appropriated for political purposes in various countries. The conclusion foresees an optimistic future for Hamlet, and assortment of illustrations and a select bibliography round out the monograph.

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All information Copyright © 2002-2007 Harmonie Blankenship
Contact the author at h.blankenship@hamlethaven.com