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Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Did Ophelia Go Mad?

Shakespeare created many great women, and they were of many types.  Beatrice, Rosalind were feisty and easily got the best of their men.  Portia was less edgy, but nonetheless pitiless in her views of the men who came to win her.  Constance and Margaret were the she-bears of the Histories – violently protective of their children, demanding the rights and vengeance when wronged.  Tamara (the wicked Goth queen of Titus Andronicus) who urged her boys to rape Lavinia and to have her tongue cut out and hands cut off was by far the most evil of female villains; but Goneril and Regan were close behind.  Who can forget Regan’s insistence that her husband, Cornwall, dig out Gloucester’s other eye?  Lady Macbeth was a worthy bloody-minded, greedy, and power-hungry villain until she got consumed by guilt.  Cleopatra was in a league of her own – she-bear in her protection and promotion of her children, but cunning, sexy, devious, and cynical.

The same Shakespeare that created these cunning, driven, and often brutal women also created a line of innocents.  Juliet, Desdemona, Lavinia, Miranda, Imogen and Ophelia were more sinned against than sinning.  Juliet was the sweet, young, innocent thing that loved Romeo in a complete, devoted, and guileless way.  Lavinia was a sacrificial victim.  Miranda knew only the island kingdom of her father Prospero, and her love for him and Ferdinand.  Desdemona was not quite as innocent – she and Emilia confess quite sexual feelings and ambitions – but this was Desdemona; and if Othello could not deal with her very vital sexuality, that was his problem.  Isabella is a type of innocent, although a hard, prudish one; and her very savvy legal arguments with the Duke, she understands life.

Ophelia (Hamlet) is perhaps Shakespeare’s best-drawn innocent woman.  She is more complex than any of the others, more psychologically evolved although tormented.  She is a tragic figure, raised in simplicity, thrown to the wolves of the court, doomed to love a true madman, seeing her father killed.  She, like the others, is pure and guileless; but she is closest to Lavinia for having suffered unjustly.  But why did she go mad? 

Lady Anne, marries Richard III despite the fact that he murdered her husband and father-in-law, Henry VI, was suspected of many more killings, and clearly on his way to slaughtering his way to the throne.  Her willing marriage to Richard is both a final acceptance that the world is an inescapably perverse and evil place and a capitulation to it.  Marrying Richard will afford her the protection of the crown.  In other words, Lady Anne did not go mad at the killing around her – not even at the killing of her future husband.   Was Ophelia that innocent? Even Lavinia who had been raped and mutilated and understood the evil of the woman who was the force behind her raping sons, did not go mad or kill herself like Ophelia, but struggled to name names.  Innocent Cordelia did not catch the infectious madness around her, but wronged, only gained resolve and purpose, raised an army and invaded England. 

Many critics have pondered the same question of Ophelia’s madness.  One of the most insightful was an early critic, Helena Faucit, Lady Martin, who published a book on Shakespeare’s female characters in 1885 (On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters).  She writes:

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 pleasure in the gayer life of France; fond of his little sister in a patronising 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, [8] wandering by the streams, plucking flowers, making wreaths 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 be 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 had 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 [9] and simple as she brought it from her country home.

Another early critic, Mrs. Jameson, writing in 1832 (Shakespeare’s Heroines) writes more about the court to which the innocent Ophelia returned:

Again, in the father of Ophelia, the Lord Chamberlain Polonius - the shrewd, wary, subtle, pompous, garrulous old courtier - have we not the very man who would send his son into the world to see all, learn all it could teach of good and evil, but keep his only daughter as far as possible from every taint of that world he knew so well? So that when she is brought to the court, she seems, in her loveliness and perfect purity, like a seraph that had wandered out of bounds, and yet breathed on earth the air of Paradise. When her [157] father and her brother find it necessary to warn her simplicity, give her lessons of worldly wisdom, and instruct her "to be scanter of her maiden presence," for that Hamlet's vows of love "but breathe like sanctified and pious bonds, the better to beguile," we feel at once that it comes too late; for from the moment she appears on the scene, amid the dark conflict of crime and vengeance, and supernatural terrors, we know what must be her destiny.

Anyone as worldly-innocent as Ophelia would obviously be easily courted and won by anyone, let alone Prince Hamlet.  With anyone else, hers would not be a tragedy, but she is doomed to love the crazed Dane.  Lady Martin again:

And to Ophelia, how great must have been the attraction of an intercourse with a mind like Hamlet's, when first she saw him, and had been sought by his "solicitings"! How alluring, how subtly sweet to one hitherto so lonely, so tender-hearted, shy and diffident of her power to please..

Hamlet, of course, is descending into his own form of madness, and fueled by the intemperate jealousy of his mother but unable to unleash all his frustrated sexuality on her, vents his rage on poor Ophelia, destroying her with his savage words.  Worse, she blames herself for Hamlet’s lunacy and her father’s complicity.

Then, loving Hamlet so completely and innocently, she must suffer the warnings of her simple brother, Laertes, and her pompous father:

Think how her whole nature must again have shrunk and quivered, while listening to the cautious and worldly platitudes of her father, which follow! Then, to be commanded to deny herself to the one being dear to her, and with whom she had sympathy: what a feeling of degradation as well as anguish must have been behind the few words she utters! "I shall obey, my lord."…

At the same time, she loves and is beholden to her father, and his murder destroys the last semblance of sanity she has:

Ophelia’s whole world is shattered after her father dies, because of her previous conflicting loyalties to her father (who had never approved of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia) and Hamlet now having killed him. After her father’s murder she talks a lot of death, and her madness is apparent when she sings in a completely crazed way.

These critics conclude that it was the absolute purity of Ophelia and the shocking transition from her idyllic rural upbringing to the venality of the court that were at the root of her madness – i.e. anyone so pure, angelic, and innocent, had to become mad as a defense against the world she saw.  It was the only logical reaction.

I tend to agree, especially after having read Tennessee Williams.  Laura (The Glass Menagerie), Alma (Eccentricities of a Nightingale/Summer and Smoke), and Blanche (A Streetcar Named Desire) are all seeking to create a distance between themselves and the polluted, venal world around them, and their madness is that refuge.

Jameson again:

Of her subsequent madness, what can be said? What an affecting, what an astonishing picture of a mind utterly, hopelessly wrecked! - past hope - past cure! There is the frenzy of excited passion - there is the madness caused by intense and continued thought - there is the delirium of fevered nerves; but Ophelia's madness is distinct from these: it is not the suspension, but the utter destruction of the reasoning powers; it is the total imbecility which, as medical people well know, frequently follows some terrible shock to the spirits. Constance is frantic; Lear is mad; Ophelia is insane. Her sweet mind lies in fragments before us - a pitiful spectacle! Her wild, rambling fancies; her aimless, broken speeches; her quick transitions from gaiety to sadness - each equally purposeless and causeless; her snatches of old ballads, such as perhaps her nurse sang her to sleep with in her infancy - are all so true to life that we forget to wonder, and can only weep. 

Despite the dated notions of “shock to the system” and “the frenzy of excited passion”, Jameson is very modern in defining madness.  Lear was mad, Constance frantic, but Ophelia insane she observes.  This insanity is a disassembling of a pure spirit in the face of the madness around her.  She is Laura, Alma, and Blanche.  She has retreated, not railed and raged.

In a previous post on Richard III and Lady Anne’s willing capitulation to Richard, I referred to one of my favorite movies, The Hustler with Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott.  For years (the movie was made in 1961 and I saw it first that year) I had been perplexed at Sarah’s sleeping with Bert and then her suicide.  Yes, she had been betrayed by Fast Eddie and seen him destroyed by the amoral and depraved Bert; but she could have walked away.  Only after I reread Richard III and seen many interpretations of it, did I conclude why Lady Anne, at least in part, married Richard; and why Sarah sleeps with Bert and then kills herself.  Lady Anne and Sarah, in their tragic mimicry of perversion sleep with the most depraved human beings they can imagine.  Sarah, in a total rejection of Bert, depravity, and the world, exits it through suicide.  

In conclusion, I feel that Ophelia became insane because she was an impossibly pure and innocent woman, living an Eden-like existence and then – in her eyes – thrown into an equally impossible hell.  She is responsible for her own death.  The world of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Laertes for better or worse, was the normal world – a world Shakespeare described from his earliest play, Henry VI and continued through his Histories and beyond.  Ophelia is not a tragic figure in the classical sense as is Hamlet – a great man brought down by hubris and a tragic flaw – but a tragic figure nonetheless; for the fall from innocence into the frightening world of madness is a sorry end indeed.

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