Redefining Ophelia: Gender and Madness in the Public Sphere

I. Introduction

Past critics have deemed Ophelia an insignificant and marginal character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, functioning only to further define Hamlet. One such critic, Jacques Lacan, interprets Ophelia as a mere object of Hamlet’s sexual desire: she is essential only because she is inextricably linked to Hamlet. Literary criticism denies Ophelia a story and purpose of her own and instead, her character remains entirely dependent on Hamlet. Hamlet’s suffering and madness constantly takes front stage while Ophelia’s madness and death are attributed merely to the weakness and frailty of her sex. Feminist critics since then have responded to Lacan and other male critics and attempted to “tell” Ophelia’s story, independent from Hamlet and the male perspective; but what is Ophelia’s story, and does she even have one? As one feminist critic, Lee Edwards admits, “We can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet” (36). One could argue that Shakespeare’s own masculinity affected his constructions of the feminine and that the presence of female characters in his plays serve solely to reinforce stereotypes and...

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