Mary Catherine Bolton (afterwards Lady Thurlow) (1790-1830) as Ophelia in 1813, opposite John Philip Kemble's Hamlet While it is known that Richard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare's time, there is no evidence of who played Ophelia; since there were no professional actresses on the public stage in Elizabethan England, we may be certain that she was played by a boy. The early modern stage in England had an established set of emblematic conventions for the representation of female madness: dishevelled hair worn down, dressed in white, bedecked with wild flowers, Ophelia's state of mind would have been immediately 'readable' to her first audiences. "Colour was a major source of stage symbolism", Andrew Gurr explains, so the contrast between Hamlet's "nighted colour" (1.2.68) and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78) and Ophelia's "virginal and vacant white" would have conveyed specific and gendered associations. Her action of offering wild flowers to the court suggests, Showalter argues, a symbolic deflowering, while even the manner of her 'doubtful death', by drowning, carries associations with the feminine (Laertes refers to his tears on hearing the news as "the woman"). Gender structured, too, the early modern understanding of the distinction between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's: melancholy was understood as a male disease of the intellect, while Ophelia would have been understood as suffering from erotomania, a malady conceived in biological and emotional terms. This discourse of female madness influenced Ophelia's representation on stage from the 1660s, when the appearance of actresses in the English theatres first began to introduce "new meanings and subversive tensions" into the role: "the most celebrated of the actresses who played Ophelia were those whom rumor credited with disappointments in love." Showalter relates a theatrical anecdote that vividly captures...
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