Understanding Ophelia’s Madness – Melancholy and Hysteria
Michel Foucault discovered that, in the 17th century, philosophers were particularly interested in the connection between body and mind. This is possible due to the existence of passions, which commence in the mind and trigger action. The madness of passions troubled both flesh and spirit. Melancholy and hysteria were most likely to affect passionate men and women. Ophelia is, indeed full of passion that eventually dissolves into irrationality. Shakespeare condemned the excess of lust, with respect to the Puritan tradition. He considered that carnal desires were the cause of madness. Ophelia’s death is a troubling response to madness in the world of men. She knows that her chastity is of no value to any men and cannot live with that thought.
Feminist critics have noticed that Shakespeare gives us very little information about Ophelia, “her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet, she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives”, comments C. Neely. (Showalter, “Representing Ophelia”)
Melancholy and Love
Ophelia is the victim of the melancholic love. She bears Hamlet an honest love, but his brutal rejection of her affection is too much to endure. Her purity and sensitivity lead her to madness and then suicide. The depiction of Ophelia’s madness includes numerous allusions to her chastity, which may be an indication of one of the causes of melancholia, namely sexual deprivation. The love for Hamlet is mocked by the prince, who sends her to a nunnery. Ambiguously, “nunnery” designates both a convent and a brothel, which points to Hamlet’s disgust for her lack of purity and fake chastity. Later, in her senseless talk, Ophelia borrows Hamlet’s ideas, as if wishing to punish herself by assuming a false blame. In reality, she mourns the impossibility of fulfilling physical love, the very sin Hamlet accuses her of. She sings of a Valentine’s Day when a maid loses her chastity: “Let in the maid, that out a maid/ Never departed more” (Shakespeare, Hamlet 4.5.53) The flowers she carries and distributes are a hint at her imagined deflowering, and a symbol of the loss of both love and sanity. (Neely 52)
Melancholia and madness usually invited a gendered interpretation. Women were thought to be the weaker sex, and thus much more likely to lose their mind. While Hamlet’s melancholy is loaded with philosophic tumult and contradictions, Ophelia’s madness is less complex. She is so sensitive, that, when rejected by the one she loves, she cannot continue to live. “There is no doubt that her madness is natural”, comments C. Neely. “Natural” is a suggestion of simplicity, but also the innate frailty typical of women. (Neely 51)
Hysteria – Living in a Patriarchal Society
In the 19th century, Ophelia’s love sickness may be regarded as an attribute of hysteria - a medical diagnosis made exclusively in women. Since the ancient times women were seen as vulnerable creatures exposed to the threats of madness. The patriarchal society that existed in Shakespeare’s era was powerful enough to create strong mental pressures in women. Ophelia is dominated by three men: Polonius-the father, Laertes-the surrogate father, and Hamlet the lover. (“Frailty, thy name is woman”)
The father does not understand Ophelia’s love for Hamlet. He is far from his daughter’s real emotional needs. Hamlet inflicts the biggest spiritual wound on the girl. He uses his masculinity to undermine her chastity and to throw stones at it. Under his verbal attack, Ophelia is no more than a woman like any other – feeble-minded and untrustworthy. The one she loves turns into her enemy, for no particular reason. Hamlet is not simply voicing foolish ideas. His bitter tongue carries with it a heavy thought, deeply rooted in him: that of women’s inferiority. He blames Ophelia, who, being a woman, cannot understand his hidden intentions and torments. Laertes, the protective and glib-tongued brother, insists upon Ophelia staying away from Hamlet’s immoral intentions.
While pleading for caution, Laertes forgets about his own sins, the very same he imputed to Hamlet. Laertes indulges in carnal pleasures and others of the sort, so Polonius feels the moral obligation of sending a spy to keep a watchful eye on his son’s escapades. But, when it comes to his sister, Laertes adopts a whole different attitude. Ophelia is valuable to the men not because of her femininity and grace, but because she is a member of Polonius’s family. Her actions should be a reflection of her upbringing. Stepping on the other side of morality (which equals consummating a relationship with Hamlet) would stain the reputation of her respectable father. So, Laertes’s tactics are doubled by hypocrisy and the belief in the men dominating women’s affairs, as she is not capable to stand on her own.
The chastity that her father and brother fought to guard perishes, along with her life. In a manner of speaking, death is the only escape from the patriarchal leash. At Ophelia’s funeral, even men attempt to beautify her choice of death over love. Her womanhood is finally honored and unanimously embraced. Neely sees this as an innovation from Shakespeare’s part.
Ophelia’s suicide is depicted by Gertrude with regret and sorrow, as accidental. Madness is to blame, but it is madness that embellishes her femininity: “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself/ She turns to favor and to prettiness” (Shakespeare, Hamlet 4.5.187-188)
The Wandering Womb
The history of hysteria is linked to the ancient Greek world. In the gynecological treaties of the Hippocratic corpus (4-5th century b.c.) “hysteria” is the term which describes a woman’s womb. Plato imagines the uterus as wandering through the woman’s body. The moment it reached the chest area, it strangled the victim and caused hysteria. (Foucault 142) No matter how bizarre this may sound to us today, back then it constituted a trustworthy piece of medical proof. Galen wrote that hysteria was caused by sexual deprivation. It was often found in virgins, nuns, widows, and sometimes married women. Given the belief that women did not possess the mental capacities of men, they took a great risk if they sought to advance through education or varied activities. Ophelia is obviously an intelligent and refined young lady. Even in her moments of madness, her alienated discourse contains proverbs, ritualistic songs of transformation and loss, and formulas of leave taking. In Elizabethan times, women often smothered their true feelings, in order to conceal their “madness”. They would plunge passively in their domestic life. But Ophelia is not an ordinary woman. The stingy criticism she brings to Laertes’s piece of advice belongs to an atypical Elizabethan woman. Although subdued, Ophelia toys with emancipation, which brings her close to madness.
Shakespeare’s contemporaries preserved the idea of the wandering womb, which was designed to travel through the body and feed on the energy or intellect of vulnerable women. Ophelia is sexually repressed and she becomes weak in the absence of love. She is the prototypical victim of hysteria. The symptoms of the illness included faintness, nervousness, shortness of breath, irritability, muscle spasm, loss of appetite. C. Neely identifies these symptoms in Ophelia’s behavior. Her “winks, and nods, and gestures” may suggest the spasms of the womb. (Neely 52) Madness is present in both speech (verbal shifts of direction) and body: “beats her heart/Spurns enviously at straws”. (Neely 52) According to Foucault’s studies, hysteria was mainly a disease involving spasms, convulsions, and an exaggerated emotional ferment.
- Shakespeare, William, and G. R. Hibbard. The Oxford Shakespeare: "Hamlet" Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1998.
- Foucault, Michel, and Richard Howard. Madness and Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Neely, Carol Thomas. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 2004.
- Showalter, Elaine. "Representing Ophelia." Ecmd.nju.edu.cn. Web. <http://ecmd.nju.edu.cn/UploadFile/17/8062/ophelia.doc.>.