Feminist Theory Applied to Hamlet

2809 WordsMar 1, 201312 Pages
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…show more content…
According to David Leverenz, in an important essay called “The Woman in Hamlet.” Hamlet’s disgust at the feminine passivity in himself is translated into violent revulsion against women, and into his brutal behaviour towards Ophelia. Ophelia’s suicide, Leverenz argues, then becomes “a microcosm of the male world’s banishment of the female, because ‘woman’ represents everything denied by reasonable men.” To liberate Ophelia from the text, or to make her its tragic center, is to re-appropriate her for our own ends; to dissolve her into a female symbolism of absence is to endorse our own marginality; to make her Hamlet’s anima is to reduce her to a metaphor of male experience. I would like to propose instead that Ophelia does have a story of her own that feminist criticism can tell; it is neither her life story, nor her love story, nor Lacan’s story, but rather the history of her representation. This essay tries to bring together some of the categories of French feminist thought about the “feminine” with the empirical energies of American historical and critical research; to yoke French theory and Yankee knowhow. Tracing the iconography of Ophelia in English and French painting, photography, psychiatry, and literature, as well as in theatrical production, I will be showing first of all the representational bonds between female insanity and female sexuality. Secondly, I

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