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.


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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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.


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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Oshio, Toshiko. “Ophelia: Experience into Song.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 131-42.


This essay contrasts Ophelia’s “inability to express herself by means of words” (131) with her expressiveness and impressiveness “in her singing” (132). Ophelia first appears to possess “a degree of wit, not unlike Hamlet’s opening puns” (132) and an “earnest truthfulness” in her exchanges with Laertes and Polonius (133). Her description of Hamlet’s madness to Polonius reveals “dashing eloquence,” attention to detail, and a compulsion to tell all, “even though she may be extremely frightened” (133). As “a mere puppet” in the nunnery scene, Ophelia’s “words do not sound like her own,” and “Hamlet’s vicious attack” leaves her “split in twain or, even three” (134). But her soliloquy at the end of the scene reasserts her straightforwardness, as she disregards the audience behind the arras (135). Unfortunately, Ophelia fails to act, to fully express herself, or “to defend her relation with Hamlet in the first scene”: “By internalizing her grief, she breaks into madness” (135). She now finds release in songs that present “a range of different images, sharply contrasted one to another, from innocent or sacrificial victim to experienced whore” (136). During “these alternate tones of joy and despair Ophelia pours out her inner thoughts and feelings” (139). Fittingly, Ophelia dies singing, expressing herself in a powerful mode. The sheer “profusion of her songs is unrivaled in Shakespeare’s tragedies” and “contrasts keenly with the sparingness of her speech,” suggesting that this “character is represented fully in songs. Shakespeare made her entire being lyrical” (141).

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