Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism Elaine Showalter Though she is neglected in criticism, Ophelia is probably the most frequently illustrated and cited of Shakespeare’s heroines. Her visibility as a subject in literature, popular culture, and painting, from Redon who paints her drowning, to Bob Dylan, who places her on Desolation Row, to Cannon Mills, which has named a flowery sheet pattern after her, is in inverse relation to her invisibility in Shakespearean critical texts. Why has she been such a potent and obsessive figure in our cultural mythology? Insofar as Hamlet names Ophelia as “woman” and “frailty,” substituting an ideological view of femininity for a personal one, is she indeed representative of Woman, and does her madness stand for the oppression of women in society as well as in tragedy? Furthermore, since Laertes calls Ophelia a “document in madness,” does she represent the textual archetype of woman as madness or madness as woman? And finally, how should feminist criticism represent Ophelia in its own discourse? What is our responsibility towards her as character and as woman? Feminist critics have offered a variety of responses to these questions. Some have maintained that we should represent Ophelia as a lawyer represents a client, that we should become her Horatio, in this harsh world reporting her and her cause aright to the unsatisfied. Carol Neely, for example, describes advocacy--speaking for Ophelia--as our proper role: “As a feminist critic,” she writes, “I must ‘tell’ Ophelia’s story.”But what can we mean by Ophelia’s story? The story of her life? The story of her betrayal at the hands of her father, brother, lover, court, society? The story of her rejection and marginalisation by male critics of Shakespeare? Shakespeare gives us very little information from which to imagine a past for Ophelia. She appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes; the pre-play course of her love story with Hamlet is known only by a few ambiguous flashbacks. Her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet, she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives. Thus another feminist critic, Lee Dewards, concludes that it is impossible to reconstruct Ophelia’s biography from the text: “We can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet.” If we turn from American to French feminist theory, Ophelia might confirm the impossibility of representing the feminine in patriarchal discourse as other than madness, incoherence, fluidity, or silence. In French theoretical patriarchal language and symbolism, it remains on the side of negativity, absence, and lack. In comparison to Hamlet, Ophelia is certainly a creature of lack. “I think nothing, my lord,” she tells him in the Mousetrap scene, and he cruelly twists her words: Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. Ophelia: What is, my lord? Hamlet: Nothing. (III. ii. 117-19) In Elizabethan slang, “nothing” was a term for the female genitalia, as in Much Ado About Nothing. To Hamlet, then, “nothing” is what lies between maids’ legs, for, in the male visual system of representation and desire, women’s sexual organs, in the words of the French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray, “represent the horror of having nothing to see.” When Ophelia is mad, Gertrude says that “Her speech is nothing,” mere “unshaped use.” Ophelia’s speech thus represents the horror of having nothing to say in the public terms defined by the court. Deprived of thought, sexuality, language, Ophelia’s story becomes the Story of O--the zero, the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference, the cipher of female sexuality to
be deciphered by feminist interpretation. A third approach would be to read Ophelia’s story as the female subtext of the tragedy, the repressed story of Hamlet. In this reading, Ophelia represents the strong emotions that the Elizabethans as well as the Freudians thought...
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