Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

From being painted as a graceful fixture of nature to being written as a lesbian in a guerilla commune (Showalter 237), Ophelia of Hamlet is undoubtedly one of the most emblematic female characters of Shakespearean drama. Feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter traces the extensive iconography of Ophelia’s image in her essay “Representing Ophelia,” asserting that compiling this cultural history illuminates information about femininity and sexuality, as well as society’s shifting outlook on women (224). Showalter claims that “there is no true Ophelia”; each of these shifting visions of her should be dissected closely and then analyzed holistically as a part of the “cubist Ophelia”, or the multiple perspectives of her over time (238). However, this valuable work stopped short in the 1980s, vaguely predicting “a new perspective on Ophelia’s madness as protest and rebellion” (237). This claim was absolutely spot on, and since the 80s, productions of Hamlet have featured various renditions of this rebellious Ophelia. This essay will focus on the 2009 film directed by Gregory Doran (adapted from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 production of Hamlet) and the 2000 film adaptation directed by Michael Almereyda. Both the Doran and Almereyda films portray Ophelia’s madness as an active expression of rebellion against an oppressive system, as Showalter claimed many modern productions would, and this demonstrates society’s growing relationship with the Feminist movement. Lastly, in a more personal style, this essay considers whether an Ophelia completely free of the infantilizing and romanticizing male gaze is possible, imagining what changes to the original play might be needed to achieve such a result.

Gregory Doran’s 2009 production of Hamlet features an Ophelia, played by Mariah Gale, that upholds a traditionally feminine and obedient role and later rebels from that performance in her madness. Ophelia’s costuming and her relationship with her clothing throughout the play signify this change in perspective. Doran introduces Gale wearing her signature florals in her establishing scene with Laertes and Polonius, but with a modern and relaxed twist of pants that match the setting of her home. The deep programming of her obedience becomes clear when Polonius begins giving his lecture about behaving; Laertes and Ophelia compete to finish his sentences as fast as possible, indicating a childhood of competition to be the best child for their father. In her appearances at the court, she wears a girly floral dress, emphasizing her youth and femininity, and in her more formal use as a pawn for Claudius and Polonius to examine Hamlet’s madness, she sports a tight green dress, almost exhibiting herself as the flower sprouting from a green stem. Mariah Gale’s stiff body language during this scene, which features her only visible interaction with Hamlet, indicates a level of strained performativity. On any lines that reference the heavens, she returns mechanically to the same position: stretching one arm up to the sky and keeping her legs and core low to the ground. In this performance and every other obedient act she has performed to date, Ophelia makes a patriarchal bargain; she trades her autonomy, including her ability to have a romantic relationship, for her and her family’s survival in the court. Mariah Gale’s performance of Ophelia emphasizes this fact, especially by shedding that performative exterior in her madness. In her first appearance as a madwoman, she literally strips herself of her now dirtied floral dress —her feminine baseline—and screams, demanding recognition.

Mariah Gale’s depiction of madness is a pointed rebellion against her expected performance of a feminine, obedient woman. She not only takes hold of the way that she acts, but the way that others see her. By taking off her clothes, she and her body take power in the room and hold attention to her discretion. Her appearance is completely dirtied, and her mannerisms are large and grotesque. This manifestation of Ophelia’s madness could not be more different from the past versions which eroticize and romanticize her in various ways; Amanda Kane Rooks describes Jean Simmons’ madness from the 1948 Laurence Olivier film as almost entirely “ornamental” and featuring a “barely perceptible [level of] dishevelment” with flowers strung “appealingly” in her hair (478). In contrast, Mariah Gale’s mad Ophelia can be best described as animalistically angry at moments, with shaking and growling, and hauntingly poignant at others, with heartfelt pleas to Claudius and Gertrude. She is unpredictable. However, she demonstrates awareness of her surroundings. She is not a “vacuum”, as it was distressingly popular to call Ophelia and other schizophrenic women in the 1960s (Showalter 236). While Mariah Gale’s Ophelia is clearly agitated, she protects herself and demonstrates somewhat rational thought. She shouts at people who come close to her, standing up for her personal space, and she even breaks the fourth wall and looks in the camera on the line, “he is dead and gone” (Shakespeare 4.5.35). Upon her exit, she curtsies, humorously acknowledging and rebelling from the expectation that she maintains an obedient feminine performance.

In scene 4.5, Doran and Gale show a clear commitment not only to subverting and rebelling against the popularly beautified, mad Ophelia, but also to demonstrating respect for Ophelia as a complex character through a realistic depiction of her madness. Gale enters the scene covered in mud and carrying weeds, which is much closer to what Ophelia would have looked like had she gone into the countryside to pick flowers. This not only strays from the romanticized Ophelia that creatives love to conjure, but also generates a respect for Ophelia’s experience. The director and actor, in an attempt to unlock more layers of her experience and depict her realistically, acknowledge that Ophelia’s experiences and thoughts have value without needing to be aesthetically pleasing. This approach differs from the prescriptive and demeaning Victorian approach to Ophelia. As Showalter describes, the lyrical and “faded beauty” of Ophelia became the original icon of a madwoman, a “case study” for hysteria commonly seen in young women (229). Rather than working from real experience, medical professionals used a 17th century playwright’s dramatic vision of a madwoman as a blueprint to define and categorize real women’s mental illnesses (Showalter 230). In contrast, Doran and Gale attempt to empower Ophelia through real experience, and in doing so, assert Ophelia’s existence as an agent with complex thoughts and contributions to the story beyond being consumed as beautiful art.

The Michael Almereyda adaptation provides a more blatantly rebellious Ophelia played by Julia Stiles; Almereyda increases and emphasizes her visual role by inserting her in multiple key scenes she doesn’t normally witness. Stiles’ Ophelia and her signature bright red costumes now occupy an unavoidable visual presence in the environment of Hamlet. Almereyda pushes her to the forefront of the story, resembling a romantic lead opposite Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet. Their romance immediately establishes itself as intimate, monogamous, and historical; they kiss in the very first scene. Hamlet plays video footage of their romance over and over again, giving the audience a hint of their history embedded in both his tapes and memories. Stiles has moments entirely to herself on screen, living in her own apartment which is explicitly labeled as hers, and spending time on her passion for photography. Her personhood exists outside of her love for Hamlet and her obligations to her family. As Rooks explains, this Ophelia has a “decidedly androgynous” style of baggy, square clothes and very little make-up (477). These visual and logistical departures from the typical Ophelia immediately establish her importance in the story and defy the traditional, passive role she tends to fill.

Even though she clearly possesses more autonomy than a classic Ophelia, Stiles’ version  still experiences suppression and infantilization. Staying relatively true to Shakespeare’s original dialogue, Polonius restricts Ophelia from continuing her relationship with Hamlet even though Almereyda makes it clear that in his world of the play, she is a young adult living alone. Additionally, resembling the Freudian interpretations that were popularly incorporated into Ophelia’s relationships with the men in her family (Showalter 236), Liev Schreiber’s Laertes inserts incestuous undertones through his heavily whispered goodbyes to Ophelia and his tight embrace, even stealing one of her hairpins as a trophy. Ophelia’s body is essentially invaded in the scene in which Claudius and Polonius use her to spy on Hamlet. Instead of hiding in the same physical space as the dialogue, they wiretap Ophelia, weaving a microphone under her clothing. This, in combination with her consistent silence that reveals her subscription to social expectations, demonstrates Ophelia’s oppression under a “determined patriarchy that sanctions her constant surveillance as well as the possessive involvement of the men around her” (Rooks 477). By strengthening the weight of oppression on Ophelia, Almereyda sets the stage for her inevitable rebellion.

Ophelia’s madness in the Almereyda film manifests as a rebellion that defines her as an individual agent and avoids eroticization. Similar to Doran, Ophelia disrupts the social order through sound and gesture. Stiles interrupts a very public visit to the Guggenheim museum, shouting and kicking and until she has to be escorted away. After disrupting the social performance, Almereyda incorporates Ophelia’s established passion into her defiant madness; she flicks photographs of flowers to replace the physical flora she gives to Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes. This choice creates a dynamic arc in her passion, defining it as a tool for her autonomy: she uses it to dissent and advocate for herself. Additionally, although morbid, she demonstrates her ability to make her own decisions through her suicidal ideation, as she fantasizes about jumping into Claudius’s pool early on in the movie. This separates her drowning from Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts and ensures that she is prescribed autonomous thought by the audience. That way, even though she stops wearing her signature red after her breakup with Hamlet, Ophelia still maintains unquestionable credit for her decision to drown herself.

In their posthumous depictions of Ophelia, neither Doran nor Almereyda give in to the  past trend of voyeuristically showcasing her beauty. Rooks calls this trend a kind of “necro-aesthetic” (481) which objectifies and romanticizes Ophelia’s death. The Doran film features only a fleeting shot of Laertes holding Ophelia’s corpse in a simple white dress, and has absolutely no visual of Ophelia drowning. The Almereyda version has a medium shot of Ophelia’s drowned, drifting body in the fountain, but avoids her face and does not permit the audience to relish the beauty of a “sensuous siren” as featured in Millais’s famous painting (Showalter 229).  In their living moments, both of these Ophelias “demand acknowledgement” (Rooks 480). In contrast, both productions treat their dead Ophelias with a neutral lens, as individuals who made the tragic decision to end their lives, not beautiful women turned into art for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

However, the recent increase of rebellious Ophelias does not eliminate the need for Feminism and Feminist criticism; modern film stereotypes often paint a sexist image of women. Additionally, the sexism embedded in the text would require a change so drastic that it would be considered an entirely different play. As amazing and subversive as these two modern productions are, in order to have a truly independent Ophelia, it would take changes that would make the play very different. Philippa Kelly asks the question that I myself am asking: “in a contemporary performance of Hamlet, can Ophelia be rescued from pitying infantilization”?  I think depicting a victimized Ophelia does not exacerbate this pitying view, but depicting her as existing solely in that victimized state absolutely does. Hamlet as written features much of Ophelia’s silence, which she is forced to keep in front of people in power: Polonius, Claudius, Hamlet, and even Gertrude. In my vision of Ophelia, she can be stifled by society and in her individual relationships, but the play itself must have a neutral perspective and acknowledge her as an agent: this ideal can be achieved by altering and adding a few key moments.

Working backwards, Ophelia’s death is the only one that occurs during the timespan of the play not shown on stage save for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Those two are somewhat expendable as comedic characters who serve a specific purpose of spying on Hamlet for Claudius and Gertrude. When they are not needed anymore, the audience doesn’t have a strong emotional tie to them, so the narrative only lightly references their deaths. Shakespeare assumes Ophelia fits into this category as well; he does not bestow her the dignity of departing the story on stage. Gertrude relates her testimony of Ophelia’s death and insists it was an accident: she and her “fantastic garlands” (4.7.192) fell in the water after an “envious sliver” (4.7.198) of weeds below broke. Shakespeare’s version of Ophelia’s demise maintains her rigidly quiet femininity. Even in death, she is no one’s obligation. Up until this point, she is entirely conceived of as woman as object; Laertes and Polonius order her to “think [her]self a baby”, Claudius and Polonius use her as a plot device, and Hamlet appears to love her until he bluntly drops her like a child who lost interest in a toy (Shakespeare 1.3.114). To combat this objectification, Ophelia must have the space on stage to make the decision to drown. I want her to have a soliloquy after an entire play of obedience and silence. Her suicide must indisputably be an act of rebellion. While it may be logistically difficult to depict Ophelia drowning onstage, it is ridiculously easy to have her open her mouth and speak.

In addition to giving her autonomy in death, I want to see her autonomy in joy. Before she dies, one scene in which she releases the performance that she keeps up for others will suffice. Maybe that’s in romance, but that wouldn’t be my favorite choice. I would love for her to have a passion. Maybe something that ties in to her death; singing, floral arranging, hiking, or something altogether different. Heavy metal. Something that makes noise. Maybe something Laertes knows about and loves and keeps secret with her. Maybe she paints. Yes, the Almereyda film gives her a hobby, but it sticks out as an addition that strays from the text because it’s featured in silence. I want her passion, something that forces the audience to see her as a complex character who can make the choice to use at least some of her time how she wants, to demand verbal acknowledgement. In order to loosen the grip of the infantilizing male gaze, Ophelia must have the space on stage to be, as Hamlet considers for himself over and over. This addition would not be inappropriate for a version of the play set in the past, and it would not contradict the oppression that Ophelia certainly experiences. Giving Ophelia the chance to drop her performance and experience an instant of peace or pleasure would actually reveal the extent to which her world limits her. The humanity and agency of women experiencing such a force of oppression exists most viscerally in ephemeral moments–in breaths, thoughts, and passions. Returning a few of these instances to Ophelia gives a glimpse of her character as a fully formed being. Fundamentally, these changes further Showalter’s vision of a cubist Ophelia, adding another living, breathing dimension to this iconic Shakespearean character. While the trend of rebellious Ophelias demonstrates the world’s growing warmth toward the Feminist movement, creatives must maintain steadfast in their advocacy for the representation of dynamic female characters in new and old media.

Works Cited

  • Hamlet. Directed by Gregory Doran, performances by David Tennant and Mariah Gale, BBC, 2009.
  • Hamlet. Directed by Michael Almereyda, performances by Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, Miramax, 2000.
  • Kelly, Philippa. Contemporary Ophelia, HowlRound Theatre Commons, 10 May 2015. howlround.com/contemporary-ophelia. Accessed 11 Dec. 2020.
  • Rooks, Amanda Kane. “The ‘New’ Ophelia in Michael Almereyda’s ‘Hamlet.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 475–485. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43798981. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
  • Sciamma, Céline. interview with author, Perth Festival, Perth, 2019. 
    https://www.perthfestival.com.au/media/nqfhguvf/media-kit-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire.pdf
  • Showalter, Elaine. “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism”, Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, Routledge, Methuen, 1985. http://sites.uci.edu/shakespeare/files/2015/10/Showalter.pdf
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, The Folger Shakespeare Library, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, updated edition, Simon & Schuster, Washington D.C., 2012.

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