Applying Showalter’s Idea’s to Branagh's Film Version of Hamlet
Elaine Showalter begins her essay, Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, by criticizing analyses of Shakespeare's Hamlet that have virtually ignored the character of Ophelia in the past. The feminist critic argues that Ophelia is an important character in her own right, not just a foil to Hamlet. Further, she says that Ophelia's story is important to tell from a feminist perspective because it allows Ophelia to upstage Hamlet, and that this re-telling can be done by tracing the iconography of Ophelia in visual art, theater, movies, and even psychiatric theory.
Showalter's essay revolves around three linked themes. She believes that society's iconography of Ophelia demonstrates the cultural bonds between female sexuality and female insanity, and she thinks also that this iconography shows the historical exchange between psychiatric theory and the representation of Ophelia in culture. Finally, Showalter traces the ways in which actresses have portrayed Ophelia on stage throughout the evolution of the feminist movement.
By applying Showalter's ideas to Kenneth Branagh's film version of Hamlet, a feminist interpretation can be extracted from the movie. Not all of Showalter's points are relevant to the film, though. It is not possible to trace the historical representation of Ophelia in the movie because there is only one portrayal, but it is entirely possible to use Showalter's references about the association between female insanity and sexuality to interpret the film. If applied to Branagh's movie, this theme, as well as Showalter's ideas about the link between Ophelia's representation in psychiatric theory and popular culture, bring feminist insight to the film.
These themes of Showalter's are explained comprehensively in her essay, but they must be applied a step further when used to interpret Branagh's film. Instead of tracing the historical iconography of Ophelia in art, psychiatry, music and popular culture, it is useful to examine how the iconography of Ophelia in these genres influences Branagh's Hamlet. Of most importance though, is Showalter's proposal concerning the relationship between female insanity and sexuality. Many of Showalter's ideas about the ways in which Ophelia's sexuality and madness have been portrayed throughout the years can be applied to the patriarchal society that Branagh presents in his film in order to show the relationship between male suppression of female sexuality and female insanity. As a result, Ophelia, and her madness, frustration, and anger can be realized from a feminist standpoint.
An example of this male suppression of female sexuality can be seen at the beginning of the play in a scene in which Ophelia and her brother walk through a garden while discussing Ophelia's relationship with Hamlet (1.3.43-44). Laertes...