Reviving Ophelia: Not Your Passive Corpse

Today I am angry about Ophelia.

More specifically, I am angry about the dominant cultural conception of Ophelia: the one that portrays her as a passive girl, beautifully drowning in a cloud of flowers. Her suicide is the epitome of the beautiful death, and she the image of the mad girl as tragic, doomed heroine.

This is a reduction of Ophelia’s character: a retrospective misreading of the text as it stands. In fact, Ophelia’s madness is far from passive or invisible. Rather, Ophelia’s madness is loud. It is visible and embarrassing and indecorous. In her “mad” scene Ophelia sings excerpts of bawdy songs, her clothes in disarray. It is the most she speaks in any scene in the play, and she even interrupts Gertrude and ignores Claudius and Laertes, speaking over them.

OPHELIA
Say you? nay, pray you, mark.
(sings)
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.

QUEEN GERTRUDE
Nay, but, Ophelia,–

OPHELIA
Pray you, mark.

The mad girl Ophelia was never passive and retiring. Her death – which does not occur on stage – is aestheticized by Gertrude after the fact.

This is important to me for a lot of reasons, one of which is the way we think about mental illness in women today and its ugliness. My depression doesn’t make me beautiful. More often than not, my madness is irritability, a struggle to control my anger, smiling when I want to scream.

Last year for a Shakespeare course I wrote a paper arguing that Ophelia is, more or less, the female counterpart of Hamlet – in a sense, she shows what Hamlet might be like if he were born a woman. To quote myself:

Ophelia acts as a feminine foil to Hamlet’s inability to act, but where his paralysis is internal, hers is external and enforced by her place as a young woman in a patriarchal society. Both she and Hamlet find a brief escape from their inability to act, and for each of them this independent action ends in death. Where Hamlet is allowed the privilege of interiority and subjectivity, however, Ophelia is unable to construct an identity for herself due to the overwhelmingly patriarchal and masculine structure of the play.

Ophelia has come down to us as one pole of the archetypes of female madness (the other being the avenging fury, a la Medea or Clytemnestra – about whom I could say more, but that’s another blog post): the beautiful but tragically doomed young woman, wilting for Hamlet’s neglect, driven mad by the murder of her father.

That lingering image of Ophelia, however, floating before she sinks, is not even the one we the audience witness. The Ophelia we see is the girl shouting to be heard, demanding attention, and leaving her witnesses puzzled in her wake.

I wish that Ophelia were remembered more.

Further Reading: The Unified Theory of Ophelia: On Women, Writing, and Mental Illness

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