Debating Madness: Ophelia and the theorists.

Published: 2019/12/06 Number of words: 3015

Published in 1632 Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy,’ places the term ‘melancholy’ as an umbrella for any number of mind ‘disorders’ including lovesickness and religious melancholy. To the seventeenth century mind, therefore, melancholy or madness indicated a number of variable conditions that overlapped and caused a change in the normal personality of the sufferer. It has an earlier and different meaning to ‘insane’, which came into use during the eighteenth century and implied something much more dehumanising. (1) This chapter will return to Ophelia and put together the differing viewpoints of her importance as a character and the significance of her madness.

‘In Shakespeare or Cervantes, madness still occupies an extreme place, in that it is beyond appeal. Nothing ever restores it either to truth or to reason. It leads only to laceration and thence to death. Madness, in its vain words, is not vanity; the void that fills, it is a “disease beyond my practice”, as the doctor says about Lady Macbeth; it is already the plenitude of death; a madness that has no need of a physician, but only of divine mercy. The sweet joy Ophelia finally regains reconciles her with no happiness.’ (2) To Foucault, the question is, who do we socially construct as mad? The answer being that it rests with power and he looks into areas of confinement and the segregation of the mad.

Figure 1Foucault works through the leper colonies, segregated from society, and then moves from the leper to the new segregation of the mad, taking as he writes a selection of and writers such as Shakespeare, Cervantes and Bosh’s ‘Ship of Fools.’ He sees a medieval (Hieronymus Bosch, ‘Ship of Fools,’ circa 1490)
Age where there was an un-silenced madness, followed by a break after the Renaissance, which then saw a de-humanising of the mad as attitudes changed by the eighteenth century. His view is challenged by Carol Thomas Neely in ‘Distracted Subjects’ (2004) in which she both begins to address the ‘madwoman’ he left out and points out that leper houses were never places of complete exclusion, nor were they ever ‘filled by the mad.’ (3) Foucault saw madness as occupying the former place of leprosy and noted the seventeenth century’s lack of development regarding madness; the Renaissance for him being a few texts of male intellectuals, or a number of works of art. Neely, in contrast, looks for a rethinking of madness and in an earlier article (1991) began to question why attention was given to Hamlet’s melancholy, but not Ophelia’s breakdown. She looks toward how ‘the drama helps to produce such distinctions through the contrasts between Ophelia’s eroticized self-alienation and Hamlet’s heroic melancholy.’ (4) Neely also points out that whereas Foucault states that in Shakespeare madness is never restored to reason, that is patently contradicted by the Jailer’s daughter. Foucault has cast a huge shadow over the study of madness, but for the specific role of Ophelia it is another theorist, Lacan, who really managed to incite a number of feminist writers to respond in a variety of ‘defenses.’

Lacan, a theorist who wished to build upon and revise Fraudian theory, opened with his ideas on Ophelia at a psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet in Paris in 1959. Seeing the play as one not about guilt but about mourning, he persisted on referring to Ophelia only as “the object Ophelia,” and “O-phallus.” He went on to say that she had a role within the play only as an object of Hamlet’s male desire, “that piece of bait Ophelia.” (5) Lacan, who returned to considering the early work of Freud essentially believed that ‘the subject’s desires are manufactured for it.’ Within that role of manufacturing desire the family is the essential ‘site of production’ where language and the Oedipus complex ‘work in tandem.’ (6) Therefore Ophelia, such as she is, is the product of her family and their desires for her. She exists to be pushed before Hamlet as a possible future bride for the preferment of her family’s power base. Due to Hamlet’s disillusionment with his mother he reacts badly toward her rejection of him, frustrated in his desire he turns instead to an inward dislike of women. Ophelia’s weak character that is never allowed a free voice cannot cope with the changing of events and she loses her mind. Such appears to be the view suggested by Lacan, such is the view attacked by Elaine Showalter in her 1985 paper: ‘Representing Ophelia.’

Figure 2Elaine Showalter is a feminist literary critic and she takes a view that we only see Ophelia as she is played on the stage, so as different directors interpret her alongside the actress playing the part, so our interpretation of her changes. An understanding of her has changed over the centuries (7) and that can distort meaning. For Derrida ‘everything is the text,’ and madness a stage of doubt, like dreams, that should be regulated by the philosopher. (8) Outside of the text is the interpretation, the way the actress ‘sees’ and ‘understands’ her character, as such perhaps there is no true Shakespeare any more, only the interpretation of our generation. Keith Jenkins says of history that ‘the past has gone and history is what historians make of it.’ (9) With this line of thinking applied to Shakespeare, when we go to the theatre, or cinema, and see Hamlet, if we return and write a piece on the play, we may be heavily influenced by what we have seen. So therefore the essay becomes a piece on Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia, and not what Shakespeare may have intended; the ‘message’ has been lost over time and interpretations. We can read reviews that talk of ‘A Hamlet for our generation,’

‘in order to reaffirm its value in the different circumstances of our world.’ (10) Those values change dependent upon the society it is playing for. Neely has categorised the varying ideas on madness and this is paraphrased at the bottom of this page (11). Clearly as the attitudes of society change so do the interpretations of the characters. In the eighteenth century Ophelia’s madness was seen as ‘wholly unsatisfactory, being both indecently expressed and unjustly suffered.’ (12) Today that emphasis has changed into seeing her as a young female in an unjust male dominated society, where she is suffering any number of indignities previously discussed in Chapter One. Even returning to the text as a reader, we bring to our reading of it our own backgrounds and cultural history, we create our own ideas and bring our pre-conceptions as we watch the play in performance.

Elaine Showalter says of Ophelia, ‘Deprived of thought, sexuality, language, Ophelia’s story becomes the story of O, the zero, the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference.’ (13) Ophelia is not to be deprived of these essentials; feminist writers have sought to present her as a ‘victim’ of the patriarchal society where her madness releases her voice. But it is important not to get too carried away, as Neely says both Foucault and Showalter fail to fully explore gender madness, ‘for Foucault there are only madmen; for Showalter there are only madwomen.’ (14) In Hamlet the real and the feigned aspects of madness come to the stage and in Act III scene ii Hamlet lies at Ophelia’s feet and there is a word play between them as they settle to watch the ‘play within the play.’

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Lying down at OPHELIA’s feet
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?
(III sc.iii, 105-117)

Hamlet is showing to everyone at court that he chooses to lie with Ophelia and the language here is suggestive, but is more so if you are aware of Elizabethan slang. When Hamlet asks her if she thinks about ‘country matters’ when he lies in her lap, she replies defensively that she thinks ‘nothing.’ When Hamlet replies with ‘nothing’ he connects into Elizabethan slang where “nothing” equalled female genitalia. In this scene Hamlet acts to divert the court from his real intent, the testing of Claudius during ‘The Murder of Gonzago.’ However in doing so he gives very confusing messages to Ophelia, ‘which simultaneously arouse and damn her budding sexuality…Both her father and lover have prepared her for madness by demanding that she be virginal, yet treating her like a whore.’(15). Ophelia’s mind may be already disturbed at this stage, she doesn’t understand what is going on and tries to make connections, feeling deceived in her past opinion of Hamlet’s love. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are clearly on the edge at this time and Showalter makes the point that ‘both characters gradually became exemplars of derangement for clinical medicine to the point where a nineteenth-century asylum doctor could write that he had admitted “many Ophelia’s” to his ward.’(16)

To Freud, Hamlet was weighed down unconsciously by guilt due to feelings of repressed sexuality and suffering from the Oedipus complex. Within this he projects that onto Ophelia, as seen in the ‘Murder of Gonzago’ scene. Perhaps he is suffering from the loss of his ‘love’ for her, he sees her as rejecting him; returning his letters, and then acting against him as a puppet of the king and her father. Lacan talks about the play in terms of mourning and this is one such aspect.

Freud, among others, speculated on the state of mind Shakespeare was in around 1601 to explain what happens within Hamlet. Hamlet was probably written just after the death of Shakespeare’s father in 1601 and Shakespeare himself is rumored to have played the ghost in production. Freud presents Hamlet as the autobiographical mask of Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet marking the convergence of mourning, allegory and the Oedipus complex; as both histrionic avenger and melancholy introvert.’ (17) Projecting a writer into their own work, so making Shakespeare the figure of Hamlet as mourner, as Freud would have it, seems to be a very uncertain procedure. Going back to the previous chapter about the place grief and loss has in changing our consciousness, there do seem to be links between the writer and play; closer perhaps than in many other works. The loss of his father and the closeness in names between Hamlet and Hamnet may be indicative of a grieving writer projecting that loss into the play. However ‘is it legitimate to apply a psychological theory developed in turn-of –the-century Vienna to people in other cultures or historical periods?’ (18) This is an important point, we can put on our spectacles of the past to view people of previous centuries, but we can never really think as they do. Projecting theories of repression, complexes or modern feminist ideas onto a piece of work that was unlikely to have been written with those aspects in mind can only ever be speculative theory. The place of Ophelia ultimately would appear to be to show us aspects of Hamlet, even if there is a reverse effect of his personality causing her breakdown. The play is not called ‘Ophelia,’ and she is not in more scenes presumably because Shakespeare did not consider it important to show us more. To the main protagonist the world has become unbearable and he becomes extremely self destructive, unfortunately the losers in this scenario are women and Hamlet himself.

Figure 3Searching for Ophelia through the theorists has proved to be complex. Different writers seem to try to use the character to press their own ‘angle’ and in doing so often lose the essential sadness Shakespeare seems to have given us within the character. Hamlet’s ‘madness’, whether feigned or real, seems to be able to give us the innuendo, puns and the ‘wink to the audience’ that encourages us to see it as deception. Ironically both he and Ophelia will lose a father and this grief will cause both of these characters to lose their mind in different ways. Hamlet ultimately self-destructs, the death of so many characters due to his actions. For Ophelia a Hamlet who is ‘mad’ gives a reason for his seeming rejection of her, but in the scene earlier quoted, his distaste and hostility for her leaves her more unsure, it has an effect of disquieting her. ‘The scenes of madness, real for Ophelia, equivocal for Hamlet–are equivalent to dreams inserted into the text of a narrative that become switch-points for actions leading in unforeseen directions. Ophelia’s madness closes off and summarizes the action.’ (19) For Ophelia it is trauma and grief that trigger the madness, she is not ‘the object’ Lacan presents, she is a character who is shown to love and has lost. She has also been ‘used’ by all nature of
writers and theorists over the centuries to project their own layer of thinking, using her as a ‘vehicle.’ ‘In the nineteenth century, Ophelia was used to represent hysteria, which was at the time believed to be a real organic disease, transmitted genetically and associated with presumptive but unidentified changes in nervous tissue. Hysteria became a major focus of scientific study with girls and women as its major target. According to Georgianne Ziegler, during this time when photography became in vogue, young women in insane asylums were posed as Ophelia in photographic portraits.’ (20)

Because of these many changing interpretations over the centuries since the play was written, we have moved a long way outside of the text and with this we can lose a sense of the trauma and tragedy she experiences.

1) The Oxford English Dictionary Online defined Insane as: adjective 1 in or relating to an unsound state of mind; seriously mentally ill. 2 extremely foolish; irrational. origin: Latin insanus, from in- ‘not’ + sanus ‘healthy.’ The idea therefore that begins to be introduced is that the ‘insane’ are not curable.

2) Michel Foucault, ‘Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason,’ Translated by Richard Howard, New York, Vintage Books, abridged Version, p.31.

3) Carol Thomas Neely, Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture, Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 2004, p.10.

4) Carol Thomas Neely: Recent Work in Renaissance Studies: Psychology Did Madness Have a Renaissance? Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4. (Winter, 1991), pp. 776-791.

5) Patricia Parker & Geoffrey Hartman (eds) ‘Shakespeare and the question of theory,’ New York & London, Methuen, 1985, p.77.

6) Kaja Silverman, ‘The Subject,’ in Visual Culture: the Reader, Jessica Evans & Stuart Hall (eds) London, Sage Publications in association with The Open University, 1999, p.350.

7) In the eighteenth century ‘Ophelia confirmed and contributed to an eighteenth century impression about feminity and female madness. Women at any rate, the best of them, the most delicate, the homes of sensibility, were thought to be utterly passive, pitiable, gentle… Allan Ingram & Michelle Faubert, Cultural Constructions of Madness in the Eighteenth Century: Representing the Insane, Hampshire, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

8) ‘For Foucault, Derrida,’, site access 6.08.07.

9) Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History, London, Routledge, 1991, p.6

10) The Zeffirelli Hamlet, commentary by Frank Kermode, 1990.

11) Madness through different Centuries: Middle Ages- it marks the intersection of the human and transcendent. Eighteenth Century – To Foucault madness is now the mark of Unreason, it is the animal side of human nature that needs confinement. Nineteenth Century – It is now insanity and is identified with hereditary degradation and immorality. Twentieth Century (latter half) – the barriers between the mad and the sane, the real and illusory are collapsing. Carol Thomas Neely, Documents in Madness”: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Early Modern Culture, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3. (Autumn, 1991), pp. 315-338.

12) Alan Ingram & Michelle Faubert, Cultural Constructions of Madness in Eighteenth Century Writing: Representing the Insane, Hampshire, Palgrave MacMIllan, 2005, p.114.

13) Elaine Showalter, Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, in Patricia Parker & Geoffrey Hartman (eds), Shakespeare & the Question of Theory, New York & London, Methuen, 1985, p.79.

14) Neely, 1991, op.cit, p.318.

15) Anna K. Nardo, The Ludic Self in Seventeenth Century English Literature, New York, State University of New York Press, 1991, pp26-27.

16) Bennett Simon, Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation, American Imago 58.3 (2001) 707-722 citing Showalter, p.707.

17) Julia Reinhard Lupton & Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993.

18) William McKinley Runyan, Psychology and Historical Interpretation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, USA, 1998, p.5.

19) Bennett Simon, Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation, American Imago 58.3 (2001) 707-722 citing Showalter, p.717.

20) Marina Gonick, Between Girl Power and Reviving Ophelia: Constituting the neo-liberal Girl Subject,’ NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006) 1-23 p.11.

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Online Chat Messenger Email
+44 800 520 0055