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Julia Duray

In Act 4 scene 7 of William Shakesepeares Hamlet, Queen Gertrude recounts
Ophelias innocent death in extremely detailed and poetic terms, But long it not be/Till
her garments, heavy with their drink,/Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay/To
muddy death. (IV.xii.180-183). The character of Ophelia, whose own death was not
even included in the action of the play, nonetheless remains in important figure in art
even today, whose mysterious and pitiful insanity and death remain a source of
inspiration and bewilderment for the actors and artists who portray her. In Elaine
Showalters essay, Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of
Feminist Criticism, she asserts that Ophelias true story is that of her representation over
time in art and on the stage. She claims it is the feminists critics job to tell that story and
interpret these various historical and contemporary representations (Showalter, 223). I
agree with Showalters interpretation, and in order to stress the validity of her argument,
wish to extend it to further representations of Ophelia seen throughout the past twenty
years. Because Ophelia is a constantly changeable prism through which to view
contemporary psychiatric and gender perspectives, analyzing the way she is portrayed in
a production of Hamlet, or any piece of art, rather than simply the role she plays in the
story, can help us better understand the time period or society she exists in and therefore
can enrich our understanding of our own society through an examination of her recent
To begin, recent theatrical productions have portrayed Ophelia as a liberated soul,
therefore becoming a symbol of the progressive feminism that lies in challenging the
social order. In The Royal Shakespeare Companys television production of the play,
directed by Gregory Doran, Ophelias insanity is erratic and moody, quickly switching
from weeping innocence to frightening rage within a few lines (Hamlet). This somewhat
disturbing behavior however feels simultaneously liberating compared to the
conservatively green-frocked pawn she is forced to play as in Act 2 Scene 2. Indeed, in
this production during her mad scene she appears to tear off her clothing in spite of
Claudius and Gertrude rather than for any sexual reason, therein liberating herself from
the male pressures that have been exerted upon her. The lines Pray you mark become
desperate pleas for attention, assertions of dominance amongst people who have
previously robbed her of her power and conviction. Mariah Gales performance therefore
speaks to liberation and emotional expression that has before been oppressed by male
dominant forces. This becomes especially apparent in this production when Ophelia first
enters the room in Act 4 Scene 4 and the first glimpse we have of her crazed persona is
seen in a cracked mirror right alongside Gertrudes reflection. Gertrude, like Ophelia, has
been unfairly manipulated by male forces--seduced by the same man who killed her
husband. Just as admits her own uneasiness and guilt (Each toy seems prologue to some
great amiss./So full of jealousy is guilt,/It spills itself in fearing to be spilt [IV.v.17-20])
Ophelia appears in her reflection as almost a representation of her subconscious, an eerie
shadow of her own inner frustration, further underlining the theme of liberation. Franco
Zeffirellis 1990 production has a similar effect, in that Helena Bonham Carters Ophelia
is also very confrontational, though even more overtly sexual. Her liberation through her
insanity is most clearly evidenced however through Zeffirellis portrayal of her death, a
wide shot of her running across a green meadow in a free, child-like way. In both
interpretations it seems that Ophelia has something to benefit from her madness
freedom from the oppressive social rules laid upon them by the men who dominate their
lives. Showalter explains in her essay that this sort of interpretation is popular among
feminist theorists for whom the madwoman is a heroine, a powerful figure who rebels
against the family and the social order; and the hysteric who refuses to speak the
language of the patriarchal order (Showalter, 237). I believe that this feminist
interpretation is actually quite representative of the contemporary social psycheone in
which females are increasingly encouraged to challenge gender roles.
Recent artistic representations of Ophelias death, both in the art world and in pop
culture also reflect this theme of a female being released from a world of injustice and
oppression, an almost celebratory interpretation of her passing. They speak to liberation
of the female sex as a whole and the ends women are sometimes driven to in their
attempts to free themselves. Gregory Crewdsons photograph Untitled (Ophelia) presents
a modern Ophelia drowning in her own living room (Crewdson, 2001) which could easily
be interpreted as a symbol of the suburban housewife, trapped in her own sphere of
domesticity who may only find release through a peaceful death (Whewell). In
contemporary literature, Jeffery Eugenides The Virgin Suicides tells the story of the
Lisbon family, whose five daughters all mysteriously commit suicide within the same
year. Although their death remains an unsolvable mystery for their small suburban
neighborhood, it is suggested that they seek for an escape from a strict household and
perhaps even a connection to their youngest sisterthe first in the family to take her own
lifein their collective suicides (Eugenides). Like Ophelia, the Lisbon sisters are
vulnerable, powerless, unable to make their own choices, and in deep grieving over a
close family member. They are finally freed by their rash decision. Additionally, any
modern artistic portrayals of Ophelia, especially in photographs, involve bathtubs
(Young), a feature that only further blurs the line between suicide and cleanliness, purity,
salvation. All of these modern representations force us to reexamine Ophelias death and
view it as a necessary source of release and purification from outside evils and social
pressures. This reveals the growing contemporary position that women must liberate
themselves from a male dominated world. Various artistic representations of Ophelia
today demonstrate extreme examples of the desperate women face in attempting to free
Elaine Showalters essay claims that it is the feminist literary critics duty to tell
Ophelias story of her constantly changing representations, because the way she is
represented speaks volumes about the society and era that is presenting their
interpretation. For Elizabethans, Ophelias insanity spoke to love-melancholy, or
heartache and was presented as an inevitable part of female nature. Romantics embraced
the extreme emotional display brought about by Ophelias insanity and portrayed it as
thrilling and sexualized. I am arguing that Ophelia in a contemporary context speaks to
feminine frustration at oppression in a male-dominated world. She frees herself from this
world by retreating to a primitive state, expressing her inner desires and secrets: Quoth
she, Before you tumbled me,/You promised me to wed./So I would ha done by yonder
sun,/And thou hadst not come to my bed (IV.x.62-66). It is possible to read this instance
of emotional frenzy not as a moment of madness, but of lucidity. This is the only scene in
which Ophelia is able to express herself without the influence of others, namely men. In
this sort of progressive reading of the text, Ophelia is a victim of an oppressive world in
which frailty is closely associated with women (I.ii.146). This reading is especially
relevant in context today, a time when women are becoming ever more aware of their
forced subordination to men and are looking to free themselves from the constricting
gender roles indoctrinated into them through cultural and social traditions. Elaine
Showalter argues that we must tell Ophelias story of her depiction over time. If we apply
this to contemporary interpretations, we learn about the growing recognition of womens
oppression in a male-led society and the passionate lengths at which women are willing
to go to combat it.