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Understanding Ophelia’s Madness: Melancholy and Hysteria

Teodora is a bilingual writer and translator. She is the author of two books, a poetry volume, and a collection of short stories.


Ophelia, Madness, and Men

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 man, and she cannot live with that thought.

Feminist critics have noticed that Shakespeare gives us very little information about Ophelia. C. Neely, for example, comments that “her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet, she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives” (Showalter, "Representing Ophelia").


Melancholy and Love

Ophelia is the victim of 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 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 minds. 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 of the innate frailty typical of women (Neely 51).

Ophelia and Laertes

Ophelia and Laertes

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 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 on 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 to send 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 of standing 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 on 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 (4th to 5th century BC), "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 into 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, and 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.

Works Cited:

  • 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." Web. <>.


Teodora Gheorghe (author) on March 19, 2015:

Thank you, Melissa! I'm glad you liked it. :)

Melissa Reese Etheridge from Tennessee, United States on March 18, 2015:

This piece is exceptionally well written. Your analysis of the character is spot on. Thanks for such an interesting HUB.

Teodora Gheorghe (author) on March 16, 2015:

No worries, Vonda :) Yes, telling the difference and knowing that passion may not cover one's true needs is important.

Vonda Gee from New York on March 15, 2015:

Thanks for responding have to forgive me as I never heard of this story prior to reading it on your hub. I may have gotten a bit carried away with my comment, but it was in no way geared to you. I was so focused on covering the difference between being passionately loved and someone being passionate, as this always gets confused, and some women if not aware of this tend to invest themselves, thinking that ones passion will cover their needs.

P.S. I wish that consideration was more popular and individuals were more careful with their initiative, but this isn't so. One of the reasons maturity is important as you're able to tell the difference (in whatever matters) and keep your distance

Teodora Gheorghe (author) on March 15, 2015:

Vonda, I agree with you completely and thank you for your message. :) This hub does not illustrate my personal beliefs, it merely discusses some points of view, taking into consideration the mentalities of certain eras (women have been rather discriminated against back then). The theory of the "wondering womb" is, of course, silly and even hilarious.

Yes, I also believe that we should allow ourselves to be passionate and a bit "mad", even though some may regard our conduct and gusto as inappropriate.

Passion is about breaking the boundaries of your own feelings and not being afraid to do so, about taking a bold step in the direction of your object of desire. However, we should be careful not to misinterpret gestures, signs, or disregard others' feelings while being overwhelmed by our own desires.

Vonda Gee from New York on March 14, 2015:

Physical "Love" is one thing, you can be attracted to someone and even spend quality time with them as this is what being an adult is. But in this story it seems as though this woman gave her entire self over to a man who was passionate.....but not passionately in love with her. Anyone can be passionate, but when it comes to a committed relationship, are they passionate about you? Getting caught up in believing sex leads to Love or committing yourself (when you shouldn't) mentally and physically is a no no..... as one is bound to become crazy (in addition to whatever other mental illnesses she may have had) The level of passion mentioned in this story is rare, and in this time and age, even when you come across it, most fear what lies on the other side so most will refuse to tread or will tread softly. Personally I feel at some point everyone should dare to be passionate and freely express themselves...........just don't make a fool of yourself, as Loving and being passionate will never make you a fool

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on March 04, 2015:

Ophelia is a tragic figure for sure, being led up the garden path so to speak by Hamlet who seemed to love her initially. But despite the warnings from her brother and father she couldn't escape her own fate, loveless in the end. Thank you for an informative context in which we can better understand Ophelia's plight.

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