Portraits of Ophelia

There is no 'true' Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak, but perhaps only a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more than the sum of all her parts.  - Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism" in Susan Wofford (ed.), Hamlet, St. Martin's Press, Boston, 1994. p. 238.

Needless to say, most of the character analysis of Hamlet focuses on the character of Hamlet himself. As we see in the section on religious interpretations of Hamlet (On Good and Evil), Claudius and Polonius also are taken as having an independent existence. Most often, this is not the case with Ophelia. She is most frequently analyzed in relationship to Hamlet, and her motivation seems dominated by the characters with whom she interacts until she is spins free in her madness. Otherwise, she seems to be a sympathetic and engaging pawn of the drama. The Freudian critic, Jacques Lacan provides us with an excellent example.

I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia, and I'll be as good as my word.  - Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," in Shoshana Felman, Literature and Psychoanalysis, Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1982. p.11.

What is the point of the character Ophelia? Ophelia is obviously essential. She is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet.  - Lacan. p.20.

This attitude has caused no small amount of consternation amongst feminist critics such as Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University.

The bait-and-switch game that Lacan plays with Ophelia is a cynical but not unusual instance of her deployment in psychiatric and critical texts. For most critics of Shakespeare, Ophelia has been an insignificant minor character in the play, touching in her weakness and madness but chiefly interesting, of course, in what she tells us about Hamlet...  - Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism" in Susan Wofford (ed.), Hamlet, St. Martin's Press, Boston, 1994. p. 220.

Adolph-William Bouquereau, La Petite Ophélie (TheYoung Ophelia)

A central obstacle to affirming Ophelia's existence as an independent character is that she appears to have no past. With Hamlet, we know through exposition of his father, his childhood and his education, and we see him in relationship to old friends. However, we have none of these cues to give us a sense of Ophelia's past.

Shakespeare gives us very little information from which to imagine a past for Ophelia. She appears in only five of the play's twenty scenes; the pre-play course of her love story with Hamlet is known only by a few ambiguous flashbacks.  - Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism" in Susan Wofford (ed.), Hamlet, St. Martin's Press, Boston, 1994. p. 221.

Recent feminist critics saw Ophelia's lack of an independent will as representative of a repressive double standard inherited in our traditions.

Polonius dispatches his son to the university to sow his wild oats, to learn through his errors how to be true to himself, and thus to other men. But his daughter must not rely on her own judgment. Her conviction of Hamlet's sincerity arouses contempt: 'Affection, pooh! you speak like a green girl/ Unsifted in such perilous circumstance' He advises her to
          ... think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay
     Which are not sterling.

Laertes expects Ophelia to heed his counsel that 'best safety lies in fear.' Her whole education is geared to relying on other people's judgment, and to placing chastity and reputation for chastity above even the virtue of truthfulness. Ophelia has no chance to develop an independent conscience of her own, so stifled is she by the authority of the male world.  - Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, Macmillan, London, 1975. p.94.

In an effort to conceive of Ophelia as a character with her own richness and integrity, interpreters of the role have often felt obliged to ascribe a past to her which is not evident from the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet itself. This was particularly true of Victorian interpretations which represented a period of great fascination with Ophelia. Like many critics, the Victorians went to the extant sources of the Hamlet story which were the probable progenitors of the Shakespeare version -- to Saxo Grammaticus' Historia Danica (printed 1514) and to François de Bellforest's The Hystorie of Hamblet (1576). Employing a mixture of these texts and imagination, they came up with their own portraits of Ophelia - including a past.

Ophelia -- poor Ophelia! Oh, far too soft, too good, too fair, to be cast among the briers of this working-day world, and fall and bleed upon the thorns of life! What shall be said of her? for eloquence is mute before her! Like a strain of sad, sweet music, which comes floating by us on the wings of night and silence...
The love of Ophelia, which she never once confesses, is like a secret which we have stolen from her...  - Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines:Characteristics of Women (1889), AMS Press, New York, 1967. pp. 154-5.

The situation of Ophelia in the story is that of a young girl who, at an early age is brought from a life of privacy into the circle of a court -- a court such as we read of in those early times, at once rude, magnificent, and corrupted. She is placed immediately about the person of the queen, and is apparently her favourite attendant. The affection of the wicked queen for this gentle and innocent creature is one of those beautiful and redeeming touches, one of those penetrating glances into the secret springs of natural and feminine feeling which we find only is Shakespeare.  - Jameson. pp. 155-6.

Starting with the Romantics, it was popular to mix the childhood of Shakespeare's characters with your own childhood. We can see this tendency, for example with the portrait of Ophelia created by Helena Faucit Martin.

Ophelia was one of the pet dreams of my girlhood - partly, perhaps, from the mystery of her madness.  - Helena Faucit Martin, Shakespeare's Female Characters, Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1888. p.4.
It hurts me to hear her spoke of, as she often is, as a weak creature, wanting in truthfulness, in purpose, in force of character, and only interesting when she loses the little wits she had. And yet who can wonder that a character so delicately outlined, and shaded in with touches so fine, should be often gravely misunderstood?  - Helena Faucit Martin. p.3.

Helena Faucit Martin, who played Ophelia against William Charles Macready's Hamlet in Paris, goes further in imagining a childhood for Ophelia. This imagined experience serves as a background for actually creating the part herself. "I had lived again and again through the whole childhood and lives of many of Shakespeare's heroines, long before it was my happy privilege to impersonate and make them, in my fashion, my own." (p.6) Here's the account of Ophelia's childhood that emerges from this process.

I pictured Ophelia to myself as the motherless child of an elderly Polonius. His young wife had first given him a son, Laertes, and had died a few years later, after giving birth to the poor little Ophelia. The son takes much after his father, and, his student-life over, seeks his pleasures in the gayer life of France; fond of his little sister in a patronizing way, in their rare meetings, but neither understanding nor caring to understand her nature.

The baby Ophelia was left, as I fancy, to the kindly but thoroughly unsympathetic tending of country-folk, who knew little of "inland nurture." Think of her, - sweet, fond, sensitive, tender-hearted, the offspring of a delicate dead mother tended only by roughly-mannered and uncultured natures! One can see the sweet child, with no playmates of her kind, wandering by the streams, plucking flowers, making wreathes and coronals, learning the names of all the wild flowers in glade and dingle, having many favourites, listening with eager ears when amused or lulled to sleep at night by the country songs, whose words (in true country fashion, not too refined) come back again vividly to her memory, with the fitting melodies, as such things strangely but surely do, only when her wits have flown...

When we first see her, we may fairly suppose that she has been only a few months at court. It has taken off none of the bloom of her beautiful nature. That remains pure and fresh and simple as she brought it from her country home. One change has taken place, and this a great one. Her heart has been touched, and has found its ideal in the one man about the court who was likely to reach it, both from his rare and attractive qualities, and a certain loneliness in his position not very unlike her own. How could she help feeling flattered - drawn towards this romantic, desolate Hamlet, the observed of all observers, whose "music vows" have been early whispered in her ears? On the other hand, what sweet repose it must have been to the tired, moody scholar, soldier, prince, dissatisfied with the world and all its ways, to open his heart to her, and to hear the shy yet eloquent talk which he would woo from her - to watch the look, manner, and movements of this graceful child of nature ...  - Helena Faucit Martin, Shakespeare's Female Characters, Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1888. p.7-9.