On Ophelia, Who Never Got to Be a Hoyden

Today’s Guest Hoyden is longtime Hoydenizen orlando.

(TW for descriptions of staged violence and rape.)

The casual use of violence perpetrated on the female body in telling a story about a man’s experience will not be news to most people here, but it might be enlightening to look at it in the context of what is often considered to be one of the great works of humanist literature, one that still carries more cultural weight than possibly any other, and is often claimed to speak to all people, everywhere. Hamlet: perhaps the most analysed, theorized and variously interpreted play ever written. A few years ago now the Royal Shakespeare Company, which puts on Hamlet every couple of years, staged a production starring Toby Squires, and directed by their then new Artistic Director, Michael Boyd. A very prominent academic wrote a piece in the Guardian on Squires’ performance, that was so dripping with unexamined, knee-jerk misogyny that it prompted me to wonder: why do the awful things done to this inoffensive, comparatively bland (among Shakespeare’s female characters) young woman get accepted so casually?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-1852), detail

Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia in Millais' famous painting

Act III scene 1 is a particularly famous scene as it contains both Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy, and the passage where Ophelia, prompted and observed by her father and the king, attempts to return to Hamlet the remembrances he has bestowed on her, and experiences the brunt of one of his more colourful temper tantrums. It is usually referred to by commentators as the ‘nunnery’ scene, as it contains the famous injunction to ‘get thee to a nunnery’. There is no indication in the text that Hamlet harms Ophelia physically in this scene, no stage direction and no line that specifically requires such an action for it to make sense. If anything the text suggests a Hamlet who is trying to remove himself from Ophelia’s company, not run her to ground. He says ‘farewell’ three times, as well as repeatedly saying ‘go’, ‘go to’ and ‘go they ways’. Nevertheless, the scene is often staged with Hamlet tipping over from verbal abuse of Ophelia into physical.

Not all Ophelias are hit by their Hamlet. The ones that are, however, create a particular space for thoughts about how the audience is being asked to relate to the action on stage and the characters whose stories they are following. Because violence is not textually prompted, those productions that show Hamlet as violent towards Ophelia must have reasons for doing so that are peculiar to the production – its philosophy or its dramaturgy, its thematic interests or its theatrical ones.

To start with a slightly older production, that gives some insight into the process of staging a relationship between characters, Frances Barber wrote an account of playing Ophelia for the Players of Shakespeare series of books, describing her experience in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1984 Hamlet (directed by Ron Daniels with Roger Rees as Hamlet). At the RSC she was working within an artistic structure that placed great reliance on the text as authoriser of performance choices (there was much talk during this period of ‘letting the text speak for itself’ and ‘the text and nothing but the text’ and so on). Barber took this philosophy at face value and brought her textual analysis of the role to rehearsal, whereupon she came into conflict with the director, who was not prepared to incorporate her understanding of her lines. Daniels told Barber: ‘Frankie, you can’t play her as a feminist, it’s not in the text’. Barber pointed out exactly where it was in the text, but was overruled. She was not attempting to challenge the system, rather to work within it as it was presented to her, but the system defeated her due to its safety valve of maintaining the director as the second line of authority: the arbiter of the text’s authority.

When this production came to the ‘nunnery’ scene, even Barber accepted without question that Hamlet would be violent towards Ophelia, and that the violence stemmed from sexual contact between them. Although she describes having decided that ‘Ophelia should stand up to Hamlet in this scene’, she spends more time focussing on her ideas of Ophelia’s sense of guilt. She describes the way she would unbutton the high, Victorian neck on her dress to return to Hamlet a locket (his ‘remembrance’), which he finds ‘an irresistible sexual provocation’.

Roger wanted to show Hamlet’s disgust at his own ardour, and did so by physically rejecting me, throwing me about the stage, and finally to the floor. He even went as far in one rehearsal as slapping my face (which gesture unfortunately remained for the 150 or so performances of the play).

When speaking her lines lamenting Hamlet’s loss of reason,

‘I wanted to convey not only her horror as she realises the consequences of this, but also to suggest that she is in some way to blame. I looked down to see the neck of the dress open, and guiltily buttoned it up as I exited’.

For a woman to accept responsibility for a man’s sexual neuroses and even his violence towards her is a common pattern, but it doesn’t sit comfortably with Barber’s initial assessment of the character as ‘perceptive’ and ‘feminist’. That she doesn’t say that Ophelia ‘feels’ that she is to blame, but rather that she ‘is’ suggests a capitulation to the power structures Barber initially wanted to challenge especially as, considering the concealing, corseted dress she was wearing, it seems that she would have been an irresistible sexual provocation to this Hamlet had she presented herself to him in a burqua.

In a scene showing an intense emotional exchange between a man and a woman the many additional choices about how to stage it that extend beyond the script, which is only the raw material, will reveal the production’s attitude to the man and woman being presented, including whose experience is being regarded as important. With this in mind, one of the most high-profile Hamlets of modern times shows how a staging decision can very quickly make clear which of the characters’ experience is being given weight. In 1997 Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a movie version that gained some of its profile by billing itself as including every line of Hamlet’s various texts in an amalgamated whole. Running over four hours, Branagh did not cut down the script as most productions do, but of course he did more than just include all the lines. Powerful suggestions are made by design, camerawork and the physical staging choices and, in addition, there was an interpolation of numerous flashback scenes, so that this is not a production that makes any claims to let the text speak for itself.

The ‘nunnery’ scene takes place in a long room made of mirrored doors. One is a two-way mirror, and it is from behind this that Claudius and Polonius watch the scene. When Hamlet guesses that they are listening he grabs Ophelia and drags her down the length of the room opening and checking behind the many doors, eventually pushing Ophelia’s face up against one of them, which happens to be the one concealing her father and the king. With the staging choices it makes, Branagh’s movie displaces Ophelia as an actor in this scene and makes her a prop. The scene is not about this poor female body pressed against the glass, it becomes about the desire and inability of the man behind the glass to reach her. With the camera watching from behind Polonius’s shoulder, the audience is being shown his point of view of his daughter, and the man who currently has complete power over her. Ophelia is not being negotiated with by Hamlet, she is being used by him as a negotiating tool.  Eve Sedgwick coined the term ‘homosocial exchange’ to describe behaviour where a relationship that is apparently between a man and a woman is in reality a relationship between a man and another man, where the woman is the currency being passed between them. This is how we are being shown this Ophelia. Turned away by and from Hamlet, so she cannot address him directly, but separated from her father by the glass so she also cannot address him directly, she is no longer a participant in the conversation, but instead is the shared territory in a conversation that is really happening between Hamlet and Polonius. By the end of the scene Polonius and Claudius have run away, leaving Ophelia abandoned to speak her soliloquy to herself.

Branagh appears to be looking for a visual image that will startle an audience out of a sense of familiarity. A more extreme use of violence to make this scene look new was employed in Calixto Bieito’s 2003 production for the Birmingham Rep, that was performed at the Edinburgh and Dublin Festivals. During the ‘nunnery’ scene, Hamlet pushed Ophelia into a chair and raped her. In a subsequent interview Bieito said of this choice,

‘When Hamlet rapes Ophelia it is to destroy her because he feels she is a liar. But she’s still in love with him. She is, in fact, a victim – of the powerful liars in the ruling older generation’ (Independent Review, 19th August 2003).

This reflects conventional wisdom on the use of rape as a tool to establish power, and its relationship to the desire to obliterate the feared ‘other’, but the use of the original text trivialises the action. As Branagh erased Ophelia as a person by refusing her a role in their discourse, Bieito did it by dislocating her physical experience from her verbal response. Ophelia cannot perform an appropriate proportional reaction to what she has just experienced, the words are simply not there for it. Nor does her father have anything remotely appropriate to say.  Of course they don’t: their lines weren’t written to respond to anything like what has just happened here. So we see a father who has just watched his daughter raped respond by suggesting that the young man’s mother should invite him to her room, and the audience is being asked to accept an Ophelia who would have nothing more personal to say than ‘Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’. The regret expressed in her speech is that she has seen and heard a ruination of an ideal man. With no comment to make about having physically felt anything herself, Ophelia is being press ganged into the corps of those who don’t care what has been done to her body.

A number of the reviews mention this scene, though none labels it a bad idea. One described Bieito as having ‘sexed-up’ the play, a rather insensitive choice of expression, and praised it as an

‘authentically Shakespearean experience that really recognises the play’s here and now feel’ (Kenneth Spiers, Scottish Daily Mail, 22nd August 2003)

When all the comments are taken together, what they suggest is an overwhelming offhandedness about what is happening to Ophelia in this production. None of the commentators have been prompted by what they saw in this scene to really think through what it is to be a rapist, what it is to be raped, how someone would respond to such an experience, what audience identification in this context would imply.

If Hamlet is going to be violent towards Ophelia, perhaps it is better that he be a Hamlet like this one who is unequivocally a vicious, self-centred thug, rather than one who continues to try to charm the audience. Violence that seemed to be there for the sake of style, and reflections on it that were perhaps not thought through to their logical conclusion, were also apparent in the 2003 the Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Michael Boyd. In it Hamlet, played by Toby Stephens, choked Ophelia and dragged her around during the ‘nunnery’ scene while she screamed and struggled. The matter at issue, however, is not this in itself, but rather how it is used as a component in the creation of a persona for Hamlet. It appears to have been used as a means of enhancing Hamlet’s charisma rather than tarnishing it. Despite his description of this Hamlet as an ‘appalling misogynist’ Gary Taylor found him ‘the most inspiring in thirty years of theatregoing’. In a blazingly woman-hating article for the Guardian he recounted going to see the play with a female friend, and his surprise at her comment that she ‘wouldn’t kick Toby Stephens out of bed’; and he asked the question why such a Hamlet as this, or a pop star who sings anti-women lyrics, should continue to attract female devotees. Instead of reflecting on what societal messages have caused women to so thoroughly internalize misogynist perspectives, his conclusion is that women realise how contemptible they are, and admire a man prepared to treat them accordingly:

That is why so many women love Eminem or Stephens’s Hamlet. They take their misogyny as entirely justifiable contempt for all those other women who really are whores and bitches. That’s why a well educated Englishwoman wouldn’t kick Toby Stephens out of her bed. Because he’s the sort of man who might kick her out of it. (‘Prince Charmless’, Guardian G2, 26th July 2004)

A misogynist is resurrected as a hero, because the brutality Ophelia receives at his hands can be attributed to her provocation of his contempt. Taylor expects us to add this Hamlet’s misogyny to the list of things we admire about him. He saw Stephens’s Hamlet as a ‘versatile, heroic, mistreated young man’. I wrote a letter in response to the Guardian at the time, but it was not published, nor did I see any letter or responding article published by them in the following weeks.

The trend that these examples seem to illustrate between them is a casualness about the uses to which a female body in performance can be put, where woman’s role as a receptacle for male anger is not brought out as an issue, but rather rendered invisible through acceptance. Each production tells us that we should not pause too long to consider what it might mean to a young woman to be physically abused, as Ophelia is a mere facilitator of a story that remains exclusively Hamlet’s. Misogyny and relationship violence exist in the world, and are therefore valid, even worthy, topics for portrayal and examination on stage; the problem arises when they are not given the space and the seriousness to actually be analysed, but are rather used as a gimmick, a trick for escalating the ‘power’ of a scene, or a striking visual motif. The creators of such performances align themselves with those who would trivialise relationship violence, rather than those who would critique it. If a production chooses to include physical male violence towards women, why are we not able to assume that it will have something to say about male violence towards women? The importance of these themes surely gives us permission to demand that, if those who stage Hamlet honestly wish to lay claim to this play as an expression of our most fundamental humanity, they should be treated with credibility and care.

Image Credit: LizzieSiddal.com blog – image chosen by tigtog because the way that Elizabeth Siddal’s story and own work is romanticised and played down compared to the drama of her role as “muse” for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seems to just fit so perfectly, and not just with the story behind this painting.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, violence

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19 replies

  1. This is a truly fascinating post. Especially as this is an area I know so little about I loved every word. Thank you.

  2. Yes fascinating, meaty post. More please!

  3. Brilliant post, thank you! The character of Ophelia has always fascinated and troubled me, especially given the status of Hamlet as a ‘universal’ play. Your analysis of Brannagh’s Ophelia is particularly interesting. On one hand I really appreciated his willingness to confront the way in which Ophelia is manipulated by the men around her, but I can equally see your point, that he exaggerates Hamlet’s violence against her far beyond what the text directs.

  4. I found the insights from Frances Barber especially illuminating. It doesn’t surprise me at all that she’d at least attempt to keep the bastards honest.
    I ended up with a severe mistrust for other reasons over my main teacher/director at drama school’s attitude to women as characters, writers and actors, but at least he didn’t add an “edgy” moment of non-textual violence to his interpretation of Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia.

  5. Thank you! This was fascinating reading.

  6. Thanks Orlando, this was really thoughtprovoking.

  7. I’m wondering if many here have read/seen ‘Ophelia thinks harder’ by Jean Betts, a New Zealand playwright? Its a feminist farced based around Hamlet, with Ophelia as the main character, and utterly hilarious. I’d highly reccommend it.

  8. Really interesting, I echo everyone’s comments about great post.
    One thing occured to me though, when I read this:

    If Hamlet is going to be violent towards Ophelia, perhaps it is better that he be a Hamlet like this one who is unequivocally a vicious, self-centred thug, rather than one who continues to try to charm the audience.

    Isn’t that kind of buying into the stereotype that it’s only people who you’d immediately spot as an arsehole who are violent towards women (and in particular, who are rapists), when in fact that’s not the case? Or am I missing the point?

    • Isn’t that kind of buying into the stereotype that it’s only people who you’d immediately spot as an arsehole who are violent towards women (and in particular, who are rapists), when in fact that’s not the case? Or am I missing the point?

      I think the key phrase in orlando’s point is “continues to try to charm the audience”. Since the audience is supposed to be privy to his most private thoughts and motivations, it should be clear to the audience that he’s a vicious arsehole even though he successfully charms the other characters.
      But I may be misreading here.

  9. Brilliant post. Makes me want to write a punk song about Ophelia where she runs away and starts a rebellion with the nuns.

  10. Thank you everyone, for the kind feedback. And especially thank you tigtog, for all the formatting you did on this (I didn’t realise it was going to be so much work), and for choosing the picture. It’s shameful, but I had no idea that painting was of a traceable person.
    Rebekka, one of the main things I do when I’m analysing a performance is try to distinguish who on stage is being supported by the framing of the action in such a way that the audience is being asked to identify or sympathise with them. I might rephrase that passage if I write up a formal version of this to make it clear that what I am criticizing is the expectation that we will maintain a sympathetic connection with someone who behaves that way.

    • I had no idea that painting was of a traceable person

      I didn’t either until last year, when I saw a BBC drama about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which I thought struck a very nice balance between the Romanticism with with the PRB were viewed by themselves and by their fans and the self-destructive selfishness and indulgence that went along with it all, especially with Dante Gabriel Rosetti (and there wasn’t nearly enough Christina). Great cast, and it inspired me to do some more independent reading about the PRB afterwards, and why hasn’t it all been made into an opera?

    • try to distinguish who on stage is being supported by the framing of the action in such a way that the audience is being asked to identify or sympathise with them

      I wonder, with the continuing problem of Hamlets playing even his soliloquys and private moments purely as the traditional tormented psyche who elicits audience sympathy, whether part of it isn’t just that directors like that simplicity, and most actors are going to instinctively play the role so that they do get audience sympathy in those moments, because actors are people too (we hate being hated) and one needs to be very determined in one’s craft to truly pull off a repellent anti-hero with full commitment. Unless both the Hamlet and the director are on board with playing the soliloquys rather more like they would traditionally play Richard III or Iago (both normally played by much older and more experienced actors) I bet it wouldn’t work, so I suspect most productions simply aren’t capable of being that ‘brave’.

  11. I’ve been looking and looking for a very tattered old book of comic verse which I stole inherited from the parents. Nothing doing, so I’ll try to rely on memory, ahem,
    “The ..[something something] Elizabeth Siddal
    Lay in a bathtub up to her middle
    (But richly gowned)
    To show what she would look like drowned,
    [something something something]
    It’s enough to congeal ya,
    Posing for Ophelia”.

  12. Tigtog, I think I saw the problem you identify play itself out in a production of Troilus and Cressida. I am convinced that Joseph Fiennes was deliberately and brilliantly showing Troilus to be unheroically flawed: self-absorbed, narcissistic and ultimately unworthy of Cressida, but he got mostly terrible reviews from critics who thought he must have been playing a conventional hero and doing it badly. The perils of artistic audacity!

  13. Brilliant from top to bottom. Thank you! It’s amazing to me how far people can stray from what is and is not supported by the text, without even realizing it. What might be discovered and illuminated in performance by examining and questioning this now-traditional approach, and going back to the text for an alternative?
    And I must add my thanks to Tigtog as well, because this post came to my attention via my Google Alerts for Lizzie Siddal, about whom I’m developing a one-woman show. 🙂 Hooray for serendipity! (And as much as I love DR in all its irreverent, historically-cavalier glory, any Christina would have been nice to have! Gabriel’s family was incredibly integral to his life, but the show’s version appears to have sprung full-grown from a fairy ring for the express purpose of making a bunch of friends and driving them all nuts. But I digress.)

    • @Valerie Meachum

      this post came to my attention via my Google Alerts for Lizzie Siddal, about whom I’m developing a one-woman show. 🙂 Hooray for serendipity!

      Good luck with the show, and I do so hope that it’s festival-friendly and you might be able to get it showcased at an Aussie festival once it’s ready. I’d love to see that.

  14. Oh, orlando, you really are a theatre person after my own heart.

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