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The Madness Of Ophelia Essay

1925 words - 8 pages

   In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince Hamlet may act like he is "mad north-northwest", but it is his lover, Ophelia, who is truly mad.  Both lose their fathers at the hands of others and both have loved ones that seem to have turned against them.  Unlike Hamlet, who has revenge, Ophelia ends up having nothing to hold onto.  Her sanity breaks and sends her into a downward spiral, while Hamlet's remains intact.  In this paper, I will show that it is the manipulation by and loss of the two men Ophelia loved most-Hamlet and her father, Polonius-which leads to her madness.

            There have been many theories offered-especially by psychoanalysists-concerning the cause of Ophelia's madness.  Freudian theorists like Theodor Lidz attribute it to Ophelia's incestuous feelings for her father and her desire for Hamlet to take her away from, or even kill him.  When this actually does occur, Lidz says Ophelia's incestuous feelings drive her mad.  Victorian theorists claimed that Ophelia was a hysteric.  They defined hysteria is a mental breakdown during adolescence, when a girl suffered from sexual instability.  This mental illness was applied to anyone who showed what psychiatrists thought were "Ophelia-like" behaviors, "the same young years, the same faded beauty, the same fantastic dress and interrupted song" (Shakespeare, 230).  Modern day theorists have attributed Ophelia's madness to schizophrenia, which puts the madness into a biochemical framework.  Schizophrenia has been argued to be "an intelligible response to the experience of invalidation with the family network, especially to the conflicting emotional messages and mystifying double binds experienced by daughters" (Shakespeare, 236).

            These theories are lacking because they categorize Ophelia's madness statements as either nothing or purely incestuous.  While the statements seem incomprehensible, there is something behind them.  "A document in madness," as Laertes calls them (Shakespeare, 4.5.176).  References to Hamlet's love and rejection, Polonius's death, Biblical stories and symbolic flowers-all of which I'll more fully explain later-show that Ophelia-while divided from her mind-is emotionally aware of the causes of her insanity.  She is actually expressing her feelings about the treatment of her by Hamlet and Polonius and her love for them.


            Ophelia's love for both Polonius and Hamlet serves as the foundation for her collapse.  Ophelia loves her father but it isn't incestual.  When we first meet her in Act I, Scene 3, and for the rest of the play, she is very obedient and respectful toward her father.  It could be argued that this is solely because of patriarchal society.  If her submission to him was based solely on societal pressures, she would not have sung about him with such love during madness scenes; how in "his grave rain'd many a tear" (Shakespeare, 4. 5.166).   Ophelia also has feelings for Hamlet when we first meet her in Act I, Scene...

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