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Ophelia

Brooks, Jean R. “Hamlet and Ophelia as Lovers: Some Interpretations on Page and Stage.” Aligorh Critical Miscellany 4.1 (1991): 1-25.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / HAMLET / OPHELIA / PERFORMANCE

This essay asserts that “Getting Ophelia right involves, by implication, Hamlet’s love relationship with her, and a re-examination of the question, in what sense they can be considered as ‘lovers’” (1). While literary scholars frequently get Ophelia wrong, actors and directors (e.g., Olivier, Jacobi) also make mistakes, such as altering the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy and negating textual evidence of Ophelia’s chastity. Actors also tend to stereotype Ophelia, whether as the “unchaste young woman” (e.g., West) (8) or as “more child than woman” (e.g., Mirren, McEwan, Tutin) (10). In actuality, the text purports “a well-disciplined Renaissance woman,” “a young woman, not a child, with her ‘chaste treasure unopen’d’ but at the peak of sexual attractiveness, because the key to the nunnery and play scenes lies in the difference between what the audience sees on stage and what Hamlet sees in his mind’s eye” (12-13). He projects “on to the innocent and—as the audience can see—unpainted Ophelia the disgust he feels at his mother’s sexual sins” (13) and the self-disgust he feels for inheriting “original sin” from his parents (14). But his ordering of her to a nunnery “suggests a kind of love that makes Hamlet wish to preserve Ophelia’s goodness untouched” (15). Ultimately, “it is Hamlet who rejects Ophelia, not Ophelia who rejects Hamlet” (15-16). But her “constant love gives positive counterweight, for the audience, to Hamlet’s too extreme obsession with the processes of corruption” (17). The “good that Ophelia’s constant love does for her lover, from beyond the grave, is to affirm his commitment to the human condition he had wished to deny” (21). Beside her grave, Hamlet belatedly testifies to his love for Ophelia, acknowledging “the good in human nature that Ophelia had lived for, and that Hamlet finally dies to affirm. Given the tragic unfulfilment of the human condition, could lovers do more for each other?” (23).

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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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DiMatteo, Anthony. “Hamlet as Fable: Reconstructing a Lost Code of Meaning.” Connotations 6.2 (1996/1997): 158-79.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / MYTHIC CRITICISM / OPHELIA

This article explores how the “nexus” of Hamlet and mythic heroes “links with another analogy between fable and history that involves an unsettling convergence of spirits” (159), how Shakespeare’s audience perceived “the myths’ cognitive potential . . . to have great speculative power” (159-60), as well as how myths are “enlisted but also deeply called into question by Hamlet” (160). A comparison of terminology, imagery, and plot between mythology and the play identifies parallels between Hamlet / Adonis / Orpheus / Vulcan / Aeneas / Hercules and Ophelia / Venus / Dido. While “classical points of contact” suggest a “symbolic coding and an implied range of meanings,” they also locate Hamlet “in a relationship to a specific audience or readership trained in academic recital and exegesis of Ovid and Virgil” (164). Due to the “hermeneutical traditions as they had come to evolve in the late Renaissance,” one must “read myth allusions in Hamlet not archetypically but stenographically” (165). For example, the “acquired double potential of myth allowing it to serve simultaneously as examples of human virtue and vice complexly connects in the play with Hamlet’s anxiety not only about his father’s apparition but also his own thoughts” (165). Is the Ghost a reliable source or “Vulcan (a daimon) forging his son (or a soul) into an agent of evil” (167)? Are Hamlet’s “imaginings” merely “misconceptions” or “the results of a moral contamination” (166)? The analogies between Hamlet’s experience and that of his mythic predecessors “indicate how Hamlet in plot, terms and phrases lingers over a whole range of ancient concerns through which late Renaissance culture both couched and covered over its own ambition and fears” (167-68). “Arguably,” Hamlet “stages the death not only of Hamlet but of the typically Renaissance belief in eloquence as some ultimate civilizing or enlightening process” (172). “The implied cleft between the miraculous possibilities posited in fable and the brute mortality of historical events in Denmark can also be sensed in the play if we consider the contrary influences of Ovid and Virgil upon the myths that the play takes up” (173): Hamlet seems “caught between the Virgilian sublime and Ovidian mutability” (173-74), and “Virgil’s permanent order and Ovid’s flux seem to vie for influence over the play” (174). “By bringing these parallelisms with figures from epic and fable to bear upon the history of Hamlet, the play acts out the tragic pathos that results when history and myth are implicitly revealed to be irreconcilable” (175). “The conflict of myth and history and of art and life is densely articulated through symbolic shorthand in Hamlet” (175).

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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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Fike, Matthew A. “Gertrude’s Mermaid Allusion.” On Page and Stage: Shakespeare in Polish and World Culture. Ed. Krystyna Kujawinska Courtney. Kraków: Towarzystwo Autorów, 2000. 259-75. [Originally printed in the-hard-to-find B. A. S.: British and American Studies 2 (1999): 15-25.]

HAMLET / MYTHIC CRITICISM / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA

This essay proposes that “the mermaid allusion—a powerful nexus of mythological and folk material—enables a new perspective on Gertrude’s speech and the play” (259). Gertrude’s description of Ophelia as “mermaidlike” (4.7.176) in the drowning report “evokes a whole tradition from Homer’s sirens to mermaid references in Shakespeare’s own time” because sirens and mermaids were conflated (and “interchangeable”) by the Elizabethan period (260-61). While the Christian Church linked “both images to the temptations of the flesh” (261), natural histories, literary works, travel literature, popular ballads, and reports of “actual mermaid sightings” all contributed to Elizabethan’s perception of a mermaid (262): “eternally youthful,” “beautiful,” embodying “the mystery of the ocean,” and possessing an “alluring” song (263). Although “the first lines of Gertrude’s speech do have unmistakable resonances with mermaid lore” (265) and “mermaid lore supports the possibility that being spurned by Hamlet may be a cause of both madness and suicide" (266), “it is her [Ophelia’s] divergence from the myth that is significant” (264). For example, legend held that a mortal male could trick a mermaid into marriage by stealing her cap; but, in Hamlet, the pattern “is reversed”: Hamlet gives Ophelia “tokens of their betrothal” which she returns to him in the nunnery scene (264). The implication is that Ophelia “is not a mermaid shackled to a mortal husband because of a trick, but instead a young woman who knows her own mind and frankly brings the symbolism of her relationship into harmony with the loss of emotional warmth” (364). Rather than a derogatory description of a chaste Ophelia, the mermaid allusion “echoes a native folk tradition of misogynistic insecurity” (267) and “participates in Hamlet’s larger image pattern of prostitution and sexuality” (268). In addition, the mermaid’s human/beast duality “suggests not only the danger of feminine seductiveness (Ophelia, Gertrude) but also the rational call (Horatio) to epic duty (the ghost)”—symbolically merging the two extremes that Hamlet struggles with in the play (270).

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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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Harris, Arthur John. “Ophelia’s ‘Nothing’: ‘It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter.’” Hamlet Studies 19.1-2 (Summer-Winter 1997): 20-46.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / OPHELIA / OPHELIA'S MURDER(ER)

While exploring what J. Max Patrick calls “the ‘erotic estimate’ of Ophelia,” this essay argues that audiences “are to suspect Claudius himself as the principle cause of Ophelia’s madness and death; specifically, that at some point shortly before her madness there has been a liaison between the two, that she has been sexually abused, and that he has been not only the sexual predator but also the one who ‘dispatched’ (1.5.75) Ophelia to her grave” (21). In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates “a world that one senses is somehow thoroughly contaminated” and a pervasive “sense of uncertainty, suspicion, and doubt” (22). The ambiguity surrounding Ophelia contributes to this aesthetic project. For example, the “sexually suggestive language” of her mad songs (e.g., tricks, hems, beats, spurns) encourages audiences to “suspect misfortune” (24). In addition, her statement, “It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter” (4.5.171-72), strongly implicates the King as the thief. Upon hearing these words, Laertes suspects “This nothing’s more than matter” (4.5.173). But the King, Ophelia’s frequent interrupter, attributes Ophelia’s behavior to excessive grief. In actuality, the mad scene presents evidence that Ophelia has been sexually abused by the King (31). Further proof appears in “the curious (and obvious) stress upon sexual imagery” in Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s drowning (35), the gravedigger’s exposition on the uncertainty of the death and cryptic ballad (which seems intentionally altered from the original to raise suspicions), and the priest’s oddly timed stress on Ophelia’s chastity. Perhaps “the formation of suspicions—without sufficient evidence as proof—is exactly what Shakespeare intends to elicit” (24). But, while Horatio is responsible for telling Hamlet’s story, audiences are responsible for “‘hearing’ Ophelia’s story” (42).

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Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Painted Women: Annunciation Motifs in Hamlet.” Comparative Drama 32 (1998): 47-84.

ART / HAMLET / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA / THEOLOGICAL

After exploring the representations of Annunciation in art and religion, this essay argues “that Hamlet’s parodies and distortions of a rich array of traditional Annunciation motifs are set ironically but not didactically against his tendency to trust his own reason and to assert his own will against the inscrutable will of God” (58). The nunnery scene, with Ophelia manipulated into the posturing of a pseudo Mary, merits intense focus. For example, the curtains that Claudius and Polonius hide behind are, by the late sixteenth century, “quite commonly a part of Annunciation iconography” (63). Such “distorted and parodied Annunciation motifs inform the impossible miracles that Hamlet demands of Ophelia and Gertrude, his maid and his mother,” as only Mary can fulfill both roles chastely (67). While evidence in the text suggests Ophelia’s virginity, the maid is “only a poor imitation of the thing itself,” of Mary (73): she is “a victim rather than a hero,” “used, manipulated, betrayed” (72). Hamlet too is unlike Mary due to “his distrust of God’s Providence” (73) and his rejection of “the traditional Christian scheme of fall and redemption” (74). Although Hamlet “is never painted simply in Mary’s image” (76), he “is moving at the end of the play, inexorably if also inconsistently, towards letting be, ‘rest’ in a ‘silence,’ a wisdom, of Marian humility” (77).

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Jenkins, Ronald Bradford. “The Case Against the King: The Family of Ophelia vs. His Majesty King Claudius of Denmark.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 17.3-4 (Aug. 1996): 206-18.

CLAUDIUS / LAW / OPHELIA / OPHELIA'S MURDER(ER)

Narrated by the attorney representing Ophelia’s family, this essay presents the jurors (a.k.a. readers) with evidence that King Claudius seduced, impregnated, and murdered Ophelia. First, the prosecution establishes the King’s character for the court: Claudius is capable of murdering his brother, of plotting to kill his nephew/son-in-law, and of seducing his sister-in-law/wife. Although Ophelia is praised by several respected “character witnesses” (e.g., Campbell, Vischer, Coleridge, Johnson, Hazlitt, Jameson) (208), evidence emerges that Ophelia was not a chaste virgin. For example, Polonius and Laertes feel the need to warn Ophelia about protecting her chastity, and, in response to their cautions, “Her lack of indignation is puzzling” (209). According to the prosecution, Ophelia’s lack of chastity leads to her impregnation by Claudius. Hamlet and Gertrude learn about the scandalous pregnancy, and both shun the young girl. But Ophelia and her unborn child pose threats to the throne. Adopting the disguise of madness (like Hamlet), Ophelia uses sing-song ramblings and symbolic flowers to accuse her seducer. Claudius responds by ordering two men to follow her, and then she suddenly drowns, “accidentally.” Aside from the Queen’s enthusiasm to report the death of her rival, the description of events reveals that Ophelia’s garland was another attempt to accuse Claudius with symbolic flowers; also, the cumbersome clothes that drown Ophelia seem out of place for the warm season but appropriate for the concealment of her pregnancy. Aware of the unborn child, the church grudgingly provides a grave-side service for the unwed mother. In closing arguments, the attorney articulates Claudius’ motives for murdering Ophelia and “begs simply that justice be done” (218).

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

MUSIC / OPHELIA / RHETORICAL

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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Pennington, Michael. Hamlet: A User’s Guide. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

CLAUDIUS / GERTRUDE / GHOST / HAMLET / HORATIO / OPHELIA / PERFORMANCE / POLONIUS

Framed by introductory and concluding chapters that narrate personal experience as well as insight, this monograph “is only in the slightest sense a history of productions”—“really imitating a rehearsal” (22). The first chapter focuses on the action by following the script “line by line” in the style of “a naive telling of the story” which can “often provoke a discovery” (22). As in “most productions,” the “script” is an “accumulated version”: a combination of elements “from the Second Quarto and the Folio and any number of later versions, with occasional mischievous forays into the First (‘Bad’) Quarto” (24). Act and scene designations are replaced by days to avoid confusion and “to draw attention to the fact that, while five separate days of action are presented, Shakespeare’s manipulation of ‘double time’ is so skilled that you can believe that several months have passed by between the beginning and the end” (23). The chapter on Hamlet’s characters comes second because one should not “make assumptions about character until the action proves them” (22). Characters are approached in groups, such as “The Royal Triangle” (Claudius/the Ghost/Gertrude) and “The Commoners” (players/gravediggers/priest). Then attention shifts to Hamlet. After discussing the demands of casting and rehearsing the role of Hamlet, the second chapter describes the excitement of opening night and the energizing relationship an actor shares with the audience. Although challenging, playing the role of Hamlet “will verify you: you will never be quite the same again” (193).

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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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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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Ronk, Martha C. “Representations of Ophelia.” Criticism 36 (1994): 21-43.

ART / GERTRUDE / NEW HISTORICISM / OPHELIA / PSYCHOANALYTIC

Perceiving Ophelia as a mix of emblem and the projection of others, this dense article sets out to discover what Ophelia’s “representation represents” by focusing on the report of her drowning (23). Emblematic and allegorical characteristics of the speech reveal some insight into Ophelia—the means particular to a historical period when “the emblematic was a received mode of perceiving the world” (27). But like emblem books of the period, the combination of the visual and verbal still leaves much unarticulated. Another component in the speech is the speaker, Queen Gertrude, who becomes an appropriate substitute for Ophelia based on their shared gender and roles within the patriarchy. While Gertrude offers a “dispassionate description” of the drowning (29), she also becomes linked to Ophelia’s passive volition. The questioning of Gertrude’s involvement in Ophelia’s death (and Hamlet Sr.’s) provides reiteration of an insistent question within the play: “what it means not to know what is going on” (31). As Gertrude “leisurely relates” Ophelia’s demise, this ekphrastic moment presents a brief “stillness” within the play before the plot rushes to tragic fulfillment (32). The resulting ramifications elicit contemplation from the audience and move Ophelia “out of narrative and into some ‘cosmic order’” (34). As emblem (and myth) Ophelia possesses the capacity to arouse fear, referring to Freud’s “The Uncanny.” Her “ekphrastic presence” implies “the impossibility of more than seeing what the viewer ‘could not have seen’ . . . to an audience intent on viewing what is not there” (38).

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Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Hamlet. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / CLAUDIUS / GERTRUDE / GHOST / HAMLET / HORATIO / LAERTES / OPHELIA / PERFORMANCE / POLONIUS

Combining literary scholarship with interpretive performances, this monograph promises "a way to listen to and grasp the complex tones of Hamlet and the other characters" (x). Chapters follow the chronological order of the play, pausing to "discuss the important characters as they appear" (12). For example, the first chapter explores the opening scene's setting and events, as well as the variations staged in performances; the examination of this scene is briefly suspended for chapters on Horatio and the Ghost but continues in chapter four. This monograph clarifies dilemmas and indicates "the choices that have been made by actors and critics," but its actor-readers must decide for themselves (xi): "I believe this book will demonstrate that each actor-reader of you who engages with Hamlet's polyphony will uniquely experience the tones that fit your own polyphony" (x).

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Simon, Bennett. “Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation.” American Imago 58.3 (Fall 2001): 707-22.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / HAMLET / OPHELIA / PSYCHOANALYTIC

After reviewing “several broad trends in the history of interpretation of the play” and locating “within those trends some dominant themes in psychoanalytic interpretation,” this essay offers a “late-twentieth-century psychoanalytic interpretation—both of Hamlet and Hamlet—based on trauma theory” (707). Trauma research provides insights pertinent to Hamlet: trauma victims often experience oscillations between numbness and overwhelming emotions, difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, “a sense of unreality,” a sense that the “self and the world become loathsome,” a thirsting for revenge or scapegoat, and “a profound mistrust of the future” as well as of other people (e.g., family members, friends) (712). But “secrecy associated with a trauma is especially devastating” because secrets “combined with confusion about fact and fantasy often lead to incomplete or fragmented narratives”; “a story that cannot be told directly in narrative discourse finds expression through displacement, symbolization, and action” (713). In Hamlet, the protagonist’s trauma derives from his first encounter with the Ghost, which leaves Hamlet “both certain and uncertain” of his father’s death, his uncle’s responsibility, and his mother’s involvement (714). Following this meeting, Hamlet mutely expresses his story in Ophelia’s closet (717). His madness (perhaps more real than even Hamlet realizes) “is a symptom of the ‘feigning’ and deceit around him,” such as Claudius’ secrecy and Ophelia’s seeming betrayal (715). In comparison, Ophelia experiences various traumas, including “a web of half-truths, paternal attempts to deny her perceptions,” the loss of “male protection” (716), the secrecy surrounding her father’s murder (and her lover’s responsibility), as well as “the impossibility of any kind of open grieving or raging—let alone discussion” (715-16). While her “feelings are consistently ignored and she is silenced,” Ophelia’s madness “is focused on her speaking in such a way that she cannot be ignored” (715). In this “aura of a traumatized environment,” the theater audience must “live with a discomforting set of ambiguities” that Horatio’s promised narrative cannot entirely clarify (717).

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