“Maddening Endurance”1 Post-modern Images of Ophelia’s Madness

Par Simonetta Falchi
Publication en ligne le 28 janvier 2010


“Mythologized over time, Ophelia has attained the status of a cult figure […] to such an extent that she has become a cliché” (C. Solomon Kiefer). After an excursus on the development of Ophelia’s literary myth, my paper will focus on the central function ascribed to Ophelia’s madness in H. Müller’s destruction and reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The new Ophelia (“the one the river didn’t keep”) refuses Yorick’s grave to accept his role as the Fool “who” – to say it with the words of Jungian analyst W. Willeford – “violate[s] the human image and who come[s] to a modus vivendi with society by making a show of that violation.” Consequently, Ophelia will “demolish the instruments of [her] captivity” and “go out on to the streets, dressed in blood”. Society’s attempt to inhibit her irrational power (secluding her in a mental hospital) will fail: Ophelia/the Fool will disown her old Self to turn into Elektra – mythical heroine of logic and revenge – thus obtaining the power to merge extremes (“long live [...] death”) and to silently communicate with everyone’s archetypal side through images. From the analysis of the text, supported by categories from depth psychology, I demonstrate that Hamletmaschine promotes Ophelia’s madness as a revolutionary gesture against the logic of oppression: a means to trigger chaos on stage in order to generate a new cosmos in the audience’s world of conventions.

[…] poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts

Texte intégral

1“Mythologized over time, Ophelia has attained the status of a cult figure […] to such an extent that she has become a cliché2”, as Carol Solomon Kiefer – curator of the exhibition The Myth and Madness of Ophelia – states. As a matter of fact, Ophelia, in popular culture, is much more than Laertes’s “rose of May” (IV.5.151) or Gertrude’s “poor wretch” (IV.7.180)3. Her name has been given to flowery patterns for bed linen, a butterfly (Catocala ophelia ophelia), a rose, an orchid — even a hurricane and one of Disney’s animated Gargoyle characters. Her fascination has been so powerful that many internet blogs – focused on distressed girls – are named after her, and there have been suggestions that Princess Diana’s death might have had its great impact on the public because her “tragic undoing4” fitted the Ophelia archetype.

2As Elaine Showalter has demonstrated, it may be hazardous to talk about “one” Ophelia, as the interpretations of Ophelia-like heroines in art, literature, and criticism have changed over the centuries according more to attitudes toward women and madness than to interpretations of the play Hamlet. In her words: “There is no ‘true’ Ophelia […] but perhaps only a cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more of the sum of all her parts5”.

3Starting from these premises, I shall here first recount the crucial moments in the development of this archetype through the centuries, showing how the visual dimension has been vital for Ophelia’s representation, and how, in the collective imagery, this character has been deeply associated with static portraits representing female despair and madness. The second part will then address the issue of how these sometimes contradictory and always iconographically powerful images made it possible for Ophelia and her madness to acquire a central function in the destruction and reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In his most cryptic yet powerful play, Hamletmaschine, as I will demonstrate, Heiner Müller promotes Ophelia’s madness as a revolutionary means to generate a connection between people and their unconscious in order to subvert the oppressive routine of ordinary life by the use of the language of images — a language that can defeat the logic of verbal language, too much abused by authoritarian regimes. Finally, this association of Ophelia with the communicative power of images will become a metaphor for theatrical fiction and the power (or inability) to trigger chaos on stage in order to generate a new cosmos in the audience’s world of conventions.

Ophelia: Images

4Ophelia has often been considered by critics merely as a source of information about Hamlet. Of her we only know that she is fair and that, after going mad, she dies by drowning, because Shakespeare’s text is vague with regard to her. But into this hollow space, into this absence – categories often used to refer to women in the patriarchal system of thought – even oxymoronic interpretations found their way: in Elizabethan times, Ophelia was classified as a typical example of erotomania or love-melancholy6, and, in Augustan England, she was censured for the bawdy language of her mad-songs. For this reason, she was often represented by singers who tried to spiritualize such lewdness with gentle tunes7.

5Romantic critics who, following Coleridge, believed Hamlet to be a hero who thought too much, considered Ophelia a heroine who felt too much, and avoided describing her, as she was considered “a character too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon8”. For Mallarmé and the French Symbolists, her being so blanche made her like a white page for male desire to write on. Although most critics neglected her importance in the play, and Lacan even disposed of her by naming her “a piece of bait9”, Ophelia has found her peculiar space in collective imagery and has become the most represented of Shakespeare’s heroines and the one “most persistently presented in terms of symbolic meanings10”.

6Painters have portrayed her in many of the circumstances described in Hamlet. Emblematic are her depictions in the tragic moments before her death, such as Dicksee’s (1875) despondent Ophelia, who sits on the riverside, and Westall’s (1793) mentally and physically unbalanced maiden, leaning to hang the garland on the willow tree, or Hughes’s (1852) touching infant Ophelia stepping into the water. Many artists, though, following the initiative of Delacroix and Millais, chose to represent the moment of her death. In Delacroix’s painting, Ophelia struggles to resist the cruel forces of nature by grabbing a branch, and, being bare-breasted, becomes “a symbol both of wounded, self absorbed sexuality and of the destruction of innocence by an indifferent world11”, while in Millais’s iconographically influential painting (1851-52), she is slowly drifting to her death in a “gesture of saint-like submission to death12”. Millais’s portrait has recently been evoked in Gregory Crewdson’s photography (2000-2001), Untitled (Ophelia), which “displays the same objectification of the female and the spectre of sexuality found in Millais’s painting13”, although the nature around her has been replaced by the domestic environment of female annihilation and the idea of suicide is suggested by a medicine-bottle on the table.

7Other typical portraitures of Ophelia are those involving her madness, whether portrayed in the outburst of its violence, as in Legat’s Act IV, scene 5, Elsinore. King, Queen, Laertes, Ophelia, & c. (1802), where Laertes desperately tries to hold back his sister, or, as in Charles Rolls’ engraving, The play scene from Hamlet (1842), only suggested by her dazed eyes. Mary Ellen Mark also conveyed the idea of madness through Ophelia’s eyes in Laurie in the Ward 81 Tub, Oregon State Hospital (1976), which evokes the famous tub episode of Millais’s painting14. The setting of this silver print in a mental hospital, also to be found in Hamletmaschine, is not uncommon in depictions of Ophelia, who, as argued by Elaine Showalter15, became a prototype for the insane woman especially in the nineteenth century, when madness was associated with females.

Ophelia: Subversive Heroine

8The fascination exerted by the panorama of Ophelia’s images, linked to femininity, female sexuality, insanity and representation, captured Heiner Müller’s fancy. Ophelia’s symbolic value is central to his Hamletmaschine, where, in keeping with many suggestions generated by centuries of paintings, literature and criticism, she becomes Hamlet’s counterpoint. Particularly, it seems that a strong impetus was given to Müller by 1970s feminist discourse, which, as argued by Elaine Showalter,

has offered a new perspective on Ophelia’s madness as protest and rebellion. For many feminist theorists, the madwoman is a heroine, a powerful figure who rebels against the family and the social order; and the hysteric who refuses to speak the language of the patriarchal order, who speaks otherwise, is a sister16.

9Müller’s Ophelia does in fact propose an opposition between the male and female universal, a dichotomy liable to be interpreted as an opposition between History and Myth, between intellectuals conniving with the dominant regime and victims of the same regime, and, finally, between the crystallised forms of Aristotelian classical tragedy and the unpredictable flowing experiments of a new theatre17. These are the main themes put forward by Heiner Müller in his most ambiguous play, where Ophelia emancipates herself from the frail Shakespearean character – the symbol of all victims – to become, by virtue of her madness, a pure subversive image in a mythic universe.

10“My main interest when I write plays is to destroy things18” said Müller, commenting on Hamletmaschine, and he was as good as his word in this play, where destruction echoes constantly and even reverberates in the structure of the play: the five acts19 into which the text is divided conjure up the Aristotelian rules of classical tragedy in order to subvert it, as is shown by the programmatic disruption of the three unities of time, space, and action20. Furthermore, it seems vital for Müller to destroy any illusion concerning the authority of intellectuals: great Shakespearean tragic heroes21 á la Hamlet22 – and even playwrights23 – cannot speak for their audience anymore in an unintelligible society ruled only by war, violence, and oppression. Only “mad” Ophelia, by being silenced and tormented herself, will paradoxically be able to find a new language to convey meaning, if not to other characters, at least to the spectators.

11The transformation of the Shakespearean frail maid into the rebellious female hero is obtained by means of a series of juxtaposed pictures: from Act I, where Ophelia is framed in Hamlet’s family album as an obedient daughter subjugated by male imagery, through Act II, where – as Leverenz noted – she does not go mad but gets mad24, and Act III, where she is domesticated by the cultural archetypes of family and religion, and reinserted into rational logic, to Act IV, where Ophelia’s mad attempt to create a suitable environment for rebellion is stopped by Hamlet’s reinsertion into the logic of violence until, in the bewildering Act V, Ophelia, referring to a mythic universe, acquires the language of madness, becoming a metaphor for anger and revolution.

12In order to understand how poor, fair, pious Ophelia turns into a subversive heroine and to safeguard the enjoyment of the images that Müller uses to represent this development, it seems appropriate to undertake a close reading of the diverse phases of her evolution, since the text is permeated with a jumble of intertextual, historical, philosophical, mythological and alchemical references that need disentangling in order to profit fully from them.

13In Act I, Family Album, Ophelia is merely evoked by Hamlet’s words25. In her first appearance, she is still the fair Shakespearean daughter who embodies the victim of male imagery, and “[she] shake[s] her arse, a tragic part” (88)26 to capture her oppressor’s favours. But at the end of the first act, Hamlet appeals to her with his prayer, “Let me eat your heart, Ophelia, that is crying my tears” (89)27, thus foreshadowing her revolutionary potential with symbolic words: to melt Hamlet’s pains into tears, Ophelia will have to draw on woman’s ability to melt man’s petrified rationality by virtue of her peculiar ability to feel (kept in the heart28 Hamlet longs for). Tears also introduce the isotopy of water, which, as Bachelard says, is

the element of young and beautiful death, of flowery death, and in the dramas both of life and literature, the element of a death with neither pride nor vengeance – of masochistic suicide. Water is the profound organic symbol of woman who can only weep about her pain and whose eyes are easily “drowned in tears”29.

14The scene in Act II set in a vaguely historical dimension30Europe31 of the Woman – starts destroying the traditional construction of Aristotelian classical tragedy: action, space and time are annihilated, and the author even questions the identity of the character, opening up the possibility that Ophelia’s role might be played separately by “Ophelia [CHORUS/HAMLET]”, or by the three of them together. Thus the statement, “I am Ophelia” (89)32, is the first part of her metamorphosis: Ophelia is now, at the same time, both the Shakespearean victim, representative of all the oppressed, and Hamlet, the representative of all those intellectuals who wish to identify themselves with these victims – to eat their hearts – in order to start a perfect revolution.

15Ophelia is therefore depicted in a shocking series of portraits of women who could not resist the abuses of patriarchal logic: “the one the river didn’t keep. The woman dangling from the rope. The woman with slit arteries. The woman with the overdose SNOW ON HER LIPS. The woman with the head in the gas oven” (83)33. It is this progression of portrayals of dead women that triggers Ophelia’s unexpected reaction: she does not lose her reason and let herself die – as she did in Shakespeare’s text – but, on the contrary, the new Ophelia resists because she recognizes the nucleus of her inner strength in her own body, the female body that can create life, and therefore the energy and vigour to react. Such awareness is reflected in the solipsistic image of nudity: “Yesterday I stopped killing myself. I am alone with my breasts my thighs my womb” (89)34. This degree zero soon manifests itself as the fertile start for a rebellion against the division of gender roles, as Ophelia declares: “I crash the instruments of my captivity the chair the table the bed. I demolish the battlefield that was my home. I tear the doors open to let in the wind and the scream of the world. I smash the window” (89)35.

16This wind that comes into Ophelia’s room is not the wind generally identified with the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is the fool’s wind, which, in Willeford’s words, “scatters things and meanings yet in the confusion reveals glimpses of a counterpole to spirit: nature with the purposes and intelligence of instinct, which, like spirit, cannot be accommodated to rational understanding36”. It is this wind that foments Ophelia’s revolt, which corresponds to the element of fire, represented by the blood on her hands while she symbolically destroys her abusers and the means of their domestic exploitation by saying: “I rip up the photographs of the men whom I loved whom I was used by on the bed on the table on the chair on the floor” (89)37.

17Ophelia then manifests herself as the Trickster, a mythological form of the fool, which, according to Kerenyi’s definition, is “the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries38”, by burning down her prison, which was once her home: neither an angel of the hearth nor a vestal any more, she uses the same fire she was meant to look after against the tradition that secluded her in her domestic role. Next, she liberates herself from the imposed masks she had to wear, “throw[ing] [her] clothes into the fire” (89), and then she digs out “the clock that was [her] heart from out of [her] breast” (89)39, subverting through this powerful image the idea of the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary, in order to show how, in a godless world, human life is determined not by absolute values but merely by relative conventions regulated by mechanical means: the warm beating of the heart that gives life its rhythm is opposed to the cold ticking of a clock. Ophelia’s rebellion against the conventions of space (burning down the home) and of time (digging out her clock-heart) entitles her to a place among those “relatives” of the fool, “who” – as Willeford observed – “in various ways violate the human image and who come to a modus vivendi with society by making a show of that violation40”. Ophelia will therefore begin her own fool-show and “go out onto the streets, dressed in blood” (89).

18Act III, Scherzo, transports the viewer into a completely different dimension, that of the underworld, with its setting in the “University of the Dead”, to indicate that Hamlet has started his katabasis41, into his own private Inferno of knowledge. Without a guide, Hamlet is unable to seize the symbolic meaning of the shadows he meets in the underworld – the Gallery of dead women embodied by Ophelia – and refuses to eat the forbidden fruit of revolution – Ophelia’s heart – when, in an Eve-like attitude, she tempts him to do so42.

19In a meaningless world, there is no chance either for a second Virgil – because, as pointed out by Hamlet in Act I, there is “no place for [Horatio] in my tragedy” (88)43 – or for the philosophers, who hide behind their lecterns, petrified like the erudition they embody. Horatio, dressed up as an angel with its face on the back of its neck (clearly a reference to Benjamin’s Angel of History), is therefore only able to lead Hamlet in a frantic dance, diverting him from his purposeful descent. Nor can Hamlet cry for Ophelia’s help, since she hides in the grave of his father, the Ghost of patriarchy, as is symbolic of her reinstatement in the rational logic of reproduction and preservation of the status quo.

20Act IV, Pest in Buda Battle of Greenland, presents us with the beginning of Hamlet’s struggle for revolution, which, as we can foresee, ends tragically with the ice age. The setting of the scene in “Room 2, destroyed by Ophelia” (90) seems to suggest that Hamlet takes his leave after her, but he is unable to free himself from patriarchal logic, and he eventually has to abdicate, claiming, “I go home and kill time, at one with my undivided self” (92)44. It might seem that his time-killing is like Ophelia’s clock-destruction, but in fact it is just the reverse: it shows by opposition that his unity, his inability to divide himself, is exactly what prevents him from understanding the tragedy of the victims. The word “understanding” itself should take us, once again, into the dimension of the underworld, where the “truth” is hidden and where the audience, not Hamlet, will be led by Ophelia in Act V. Hamlet’s “undivided self45” is, indeed, opposed to the innate duplicity of folly that secures its double to any fool and that, in the fool-show set up by Ophelia, is the audience itself: “the fool we see in his special relation to the dramatic convention is recognizable as a person, and he interacts with each of us, the part-fools who watch him46”.

21For this reason, Hamlet’s senseless wandering “FROM HOLE TO HOLE TOWARDS THE FINAL HOLE / IN APATHY” (93) concludes with the image of Ophelia in childbirth, apparently bent by the laws of reproduction and repetition of vital cycles, as she was in Act III. Yet her flesh looks green, the mercurial colour of new life, announcing that something relevant is going to happen. Subsequently, “JUST BEFORE THE THIRD CROW OF THE COCK / A [FOOL]47 TEARS / TO SHREDS THE JINGLE DRESS OF THE PHILOSOPHER” (90)48. The identity of this fool is undisclosed by the author, but since in the Shakespearean text Ophelia is buried in Yorick’s grave – symbolically acquiring his role – the reader (or rather the audience) might associate this fool figure with Ophelia and read this passage as if it were she, in her madness, who tried to free Hamlet, the intellectual philosopher conniving with the predominant logic of violence, from the fool’s hat, whose “bells see[m] a sign of freedom, though they may deafen him to the world he wants with part of his being to understand49”. But Hamlet steps, in his father’s armour, back into the logic of violence, and Ophelia is therefore dumbstruck, as if Heiner Müller wanted to obey Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s direction (III.2.36-42):

                                   . . . let those that play
Your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.
For there be of them that will themselves laugh to set
On some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too,
Though in the meantime some necessary question of the
Play be then to be considered. – that’s villainous and
Shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

22The Ophelia we find in Act V, Maddening Endurance / Inside the Dreaded Armour / Millennia , has nothing to do with the Shakespearean poormaid, apart from the bawdiness of her songs, which is amplified in the Müllerian monologue. Grotesquely bound to a wheelchair by two men, who, in surgeons’ gowns, wrap her in white muslin, she is secluded in a mental hospital, a metaphorical place where madness becomes rational, being called illness50. This attempt to reabsorb her new, subversive, “mad” power into phallocratic logic, like her being buried by the two clowns in Shakespeare, proves to be useless, for Ophelia will always be, in the collective unconscious, “an Ophelia who is never drowned […] a jewel intact despite disaster51”, as Mallarmé observed in his Divagations.

23In fact, the setting of the hospital under a mythic deep sea, in which “fish/wreckage/corpses and limbs drift by” (94), represents her being reabsorbed through madness into her natural element, water. From the water and madness that caused her “muddy death” (IV.7.181) in the Shakespearean text, she receives the energy to react and violently screams, “here speaks Electra”. This schizophrenic identification with the heroine of revenge indicates a mythical way of rebellion for all the victims who live “under the sun of torture52 (94) and will allow Ophelia to pronounce her sibylline monologue, where she claims to transform her fluidity, her milk, into deadly poison and to bury the world that she gave birth to “into [her] crotch” (94)53, the most obscure part of the self, which was feared so much in the past as to be described as “nothing54”. In her destructive fury, where, thanks to madness, all extremes merge, her final cry is “long live [...] death” (94), and her ominous promise, “when it walks through your bedrooms with butchers’ knives you will know the truth” (94)55.

24In the darkness of desperation, her white muslin makes her a source of light on stage; partly woman, partly machine, she is alone and shines brightly: in the wreckage left by History and patriarchal logic, she is like a light for the audience, after the powerful scream of denunciation, she wordlessly interrogates the audience’s thwarted feelings and, to say it with Hamlet, “the rest is silence” (V.2.342).

Conclusion: the Subversive Power of (Ophelia’s) Images56

25The paradoxical dark and hollow dimension in which Ophelia dwells in Hamletmaschine mirrors the situation of the post-modern individual: the text generates an apocalyptic context, yet it permits an infinitesimal sparkle of hope. Social relationships seem governed by a rigid schema of hierarchies, by transcendent categories such as “reason”, “scientific objectivity”, “symbolic logic57”, which achieve their goals by means of repression and conformism. There is not even room for human sympathy, because individuals do not have a way of communicating any more: Ophelia and Hamlet do not speak to each other; they only re-enact their monologues and live in two different parallel dimensions. Nothing seems to be able to keep together the bits of human disintegration; there is no place on earth where human beings can live free, there is no faith in any religion, or even in any supernatural world, because God manifests his ghostly presence only by his absence, in the “empty sky”(88)58.

26For these reasons, the only possible home for Ophelia is a mental institution under a “deep sea” (94), where, after a delirium of words that wound the audience with their fierce oracular delivery, she remains alone, silently seated in her wheelchair, motionless in her white muslin, a tableau vivant that does not need words – which are too heavily compromised by phallocratic logic – to communicate with the archetypal aspects of others. She conveys meaning to the audience by virtue of her unique iconographic power, which greatly influenced her fortunes over the centuries. She has adopted the language of images.

27The world of images is a complex one — it refuses codification — but it would be a mistake to define it as chaotic. Images were first studied by Karl Jung, who thought they represented the language of the unconscious. James Hillman, who has directed the Jung Institute in Zurich, considers them “the basic givens of psychic life, self-originating, inventive, spontaneous, complete and organized in archetypal patterns59”. By means of images it is possible to obtain a “sympathy of all things60” that does not need a supernal unifying principle. In Hamletmaschine, the only refuge seems to be the region of poiesis, of image-making: myth61.

28Ophelia not only takes refuge under the deep sea – the symbolical dimension of the female and unconscious – but she also declares, “Here speaks Electra” (94)62, Agamemnon’s daughter. As Hillman argued, stating a relationship with Greek mythology enables us

to revision our souls and psychology by means of imaginal places and persons rather than time. We move out of temporal thinking and historicity altogether, to an imaginal region, a differentiated archipelago of locations, where the Gods are and not when they were or will be63.

29The region of myth represents a new frontier for humanity eager for a second birth, whereby the opposites of reason and madness, single and community, society and nature, past and future could finally merge, beyond dual thinking.

30In order to complete this task, one must first learn how to recognise and interpret the images, like Hamlet64, who, while watching the Gallery (Ballet) of the dead women, feels an urge of rebellion – even if temporary. This meta-theatrical reflection on the role of the audience leads to the problem of reception: the spectators need to let the images operate freely on their unconscious. “Imaginative activity is both play and work, entering and being entered, and as the images gain substance and independence the ego’s strength and autocracy tend to dissolve. But ego dissolution does not mean disorder, since all fantasy is carried by a deeper, archetypal order65”. To be inspired by the shining image of white deranged Ophelia that stares at the onlookers from the “heart of darkness66” is precisely the direction that Heiner Muller gives his audience in order to generate a new cosmos.


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1  “Maddening Endurance” is the title of the fifth act of Hamletmaschine which will be analysed in the second part of this essay.

2  Carol Solomon Kiefer, The Myth and Madness of Ophelia, Amherst, Massachusetts, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, 2001, p. 11.

3  All quotations from Hamlet are from the Arden Shakespeare, Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, London and New York, Arden, 2006.

4  Carol Solomon Kiefer, op. cit., p. 11.

5  Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism”, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, New York, London, Methuen, 1985, p. 77-94, this quote p. 92.

6  Vieda Skultans, in English Madness: Ideas on Insanity, 1580-1890 (London, Routledge, 1979), p. 81, points out the striking contrast “between women’s melancholy and the contemporaneous affliction The Elizabethan Malady. Melancholy, when it affects women […] is not described in the attractive terms of other kinds of melancholy. The epidemics of melancholy which swept through the fashionable circle of London from 1580 onwards curiously bypassed women”. While in men melancholy was associated with poetic inspiration and wit (Hamlet himself being a prototype of similar heroes), in women it was seen as caused by biological, and emotional dysfunctions. Erotomania defines that form of female hysteria caused by the false but persistent belief that one is loved by a person, or the pathologically obsessive pursuit of a disinterested object of love, while love-melancholy signifies the delusional state caused by unrequited love. Ophelia’s identification with these diseases was so broadly accepted that many Victorian psychiatrists used Shakespeare’s description of her madness to define their patient’s status in their diagnoses. Dr. Hugh W. Diamond - resident medical superintendent of female patients at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum - who believed that a patient’s mental state was manifested in her physiognomy, even photographed some of them in Ophelia-like poses (with garlands in their hair and draped in a cloak) in order to illustrate erotomania.

7  See Elaine Showalter, op. cit., p. 82-83.

8  William Hazlitt, cit. in Elaine Showalter, op. cit., p. 84.

9  Jaques Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet”, in Yale French Studies, n° 55/56, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise (1977), p. 11-52, this quote p. 11.

10  Bridget Lyons, “The Iconography of Ophelia”, in ELH, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), p. 60-74, this quote p. 61.

11  Peter Raby, ‘Fair Ophelia’: A life of Harriet Smithson Berlioz. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, cit. in Carol Solomon Kiefer, op. cit., p. 22.

12  Carol Solomon Kiefer, op. cit., p. 22.

13  Carol Solomon Kiefer, op. cit., p. 32.

14  “The model was Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62), the quintessential Pre- Raphaelite muse, beautiful and frail [...]. Dressed in an embroidered gown, she posed in a tin bathtub filled with water warmed by small lamps beneath it. On one occasion, the lamps went out and the water turned cold. Rather than interrupt the artist, she remained in the chilly water and caught a cold severe enough to require the attention of a doctor”. Carol Solomon Kiefer, op. cit., p. 25.

15  Elaine Showalter, op. cit., p. 77-94.

16  Elaine Showalter, op. cit., p. 91.

17  See Arlene Akiko Teraoka, The Silence of Entropy or Universal Discourse: the Postmodernist Poetics of Heiner Müller, New York, Berne, Frankfurt am Main, Lang, 1985, p. 97.

18  “My main interest when I write plays is to destroy things. For thirty years Hamlet was for me an obsession, so I wrote a short text, Hamletmachine, with which I tried to destroy Hamlet. German history was another obsession, and I tried to destroy this obsession, too, that whole complex. I think my strongest impulse is to reduce things to their skeleton, to tear off their skin and their flesh. Then I am finished with them.” Heiner Müller, Theatremachine, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, p. 86.

19  Of these five acts, four are monologues played alternately by Hamlet and Ophelia, while Act III’s Scherzo is an Intermezzo often considered so deeply symbolic as to be almost unintelligible.

20  For a more thorough analyses of the programmatic destruction carried on in the text, and its refusal of the model of the bourgeois drama of the Enlightenment theorized by Hegel and Lessing, see Arlene Akiko Teraoka, op. cit., p. 81-88, and Simonetta Falchi, Ich bin nicht Hamlet. Ich spiele keine Rolle mehr,Amleto e la crisi dell’Intellettuale in Hamletmaschine di Heiner Müller, Sassari, Composita, 2006.

21  In “Shakespeare eine Differenz” (Heiner Müller, Material, Leipzig, Philipp Reclam, 1989, p. 106) Müller quotes a line of a punk song: “NO MORE HEROES, NO MORE SHAKESPEAROS” to underline the same concept.

22  In act IV, we learn from the stage directions that, while the first lines are pronounced by Hamlet, the second part is played by a Hamletperformer (an actor who plays Hamlet) who takes his character’s clothes off and says: “I am not Hamlet. I don’t have a part to play anymore” (“Ich bin nicht Hamlet. Ich spiele keine Rolle mehr,” 33). Müller refers here to T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (in Prufrock and Other Observations, London, The Egoist, 1917, p. 9, v. 111-119): “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At time, indeed, almost ridiculous- / Almost, at times, the Fool”.

23  In act IV the Hamletperformer symbolically tears up a photograph of the writer.

24  David Leverenz, “The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View”, in Signs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), p. 291-308, this quote p. 301.

25  “An epic, horizontal progression turns into a vertical one. All that is left of Shakespeare’s play went into this scene. The other scenes are variants, seen through different lenses or through the same lens viewing a different subject matter.” Carl Weber, “Heiner Müller: the despair and the Hope”, Performing Arts Journal, N°12 (1980), p.139-40, in Arlene Akiko Teraoka, op.cit., p.91.

26  “sie den Hintern schwenkt, eine tragische Rolle” (39). All quotations from Hamletmaschine are from Heiner Müller, Revolutionsstücke, Stuttgart, Philipp Reclam, 1995, p. 38-46. The English version used is Heiner Müller, Theatremachine, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, translated by Marc von Henning, p. 87-94.

27  “laß mich dein Herz essen, Ophelia, das meine Tränen weint” (40).

28  Genia Schultz (Heiner Müller, Stuttgart, Metzler, 1980, p. 50) observes that the desire to eat the beloved’s heart is most probably derived from John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and manifests Hamlet’s wish to identify with the object of desire. Moreover, Norbert Otto Eke (in his Heiner Müller: Apokalypse und Utopie, Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich, Schöningh,1989, p. 86) notes that Müller’s reception of Ford’s text was mediated by Artaud’s analysis in Le Théâtre et la Peste, which designated ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore as “Exempel für die absolute Freiheit in der Revolte”.

29  Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les rêves, translated by Edith R. Farrell as Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, Dallas, Pegasus Foundation, Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1983, p. 82.

30  The stage directions indicate the setting as an Enormous Room – a dirty and over-crowded room in the French lager La Ferté Macé in 1927, as described in e.e.cummings’s book of that name. Such a location refers to the concept of history as a mythic continuum of oppression and violence, as has been observed by many scholars of Müller’s work, such as Genia Schultz, op. cit., Norbert Otto Eke op. cit. and Arlene Akiko Teraoka op. cit.

31  It should be noted that Europe is named after Europa, the beautiful woman who, according to Greek mythology, was abducted by Zeus in the shape of a white bull: a woman, victim of men’s sexual appetites. With Zeus, Europa generated three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. After their death, the three of them became the three judges of the Underworld. The descent into the Underworld is a theme of paramount importance in the last part of the Hamletmaschine.

32  “Ich bin Ophelia” (40).

33  “Die der Fluß nicht behalten hat. Die Frau am Strick Die Frau mit den aufgeschnittenen Pulsadern Die Frau mit der Überdosis AUF DEN LIPPEN SCHNEE Die Frau mit dem Kopf im Gasherd” (40).

34  “Gestern habe ich aufgehört mich zu töten. Ich bin allein mit meinen Brüsten meinen Schenkeln meinem Schoß” (40).

35  “Ich zertrümmre die Werkzeuge meiner Gefangenschaft den Stuhl den Tisch das Bett. Ich zerstöre das Schlachtfeld das mein Heim war. Ich reiße die Türen auf, damit der Wind herein Kann und der Schrei der Welt. Ich zerschlage das Fenster” (40)

36  William Willeford, The Fool and His Scepter: A study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience, Evanston, North Western University Press, [1969] 1979, p.10-11.

37  “Mit meinen blutenden Händen zerreiße ich die Fotografien der Männer die ich geliebt habe und die mich gebraucht haben auf dem Bett auf dem Tisch auf dem Sthul auf dem Boden” (40).

38  William Willeford, op. cit., p. 123.

39  “Ich werfe meine Kleider in das Feuer. Ich grabe die Uhr aus meiner Brust die mein Herz war” (41).

40  William Willeford, op. cit., p. 13.

41  The katabasis, descent into the underworld, represented in classical epic convention a crucial moment in the formation of the hero. Dante’s Inferno represents a well known example of katabasis, but while for Dante there was a God to believe in and a meaning for life, for Müller the Father (Ghost) has abandoned his children and life is just the perpetuation of the endless cycle of violence: for these reason, while Dante ascended to Paradise, Hamlet freezes and steps in an empty armour.

42  “The fair Ophelia” is seen as a temptress also by Shakespeare’s Hamlet (III.1.87-153), who believes her to be a cunning prostitute who wants to deceive him: “I have heard of your paintings” (III.1.138). She is subsequently defined by him as a “nymph” – which at the time meant also “prostitute”. This is also why he invites her to retire “to a nunnery” (III.1.121, 153, 142, 138), which at that time meant both “convent” and “brothel”.


44  “Ich gehe nach Hause und schlage die Zeit tot, einig / Mit meinem ungeteilten Selbst” (44).

45  By the 1960s, we can find interpretations of Ophelia’s madness not as hysteria but as schizophrenia, as described in R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, in which he “argued that schizophrenia was an intelligible response to the experience of invalidation within the family network, especially to the conflicting emotional messages and mystifying double binds experienced by daughters”. Elaine Showalter, op. cit., p. 91.

46  Cited in William Willeford, op. cit., p. 66.

47  Von Henning’s translation has “clown” for the German “Narr”. In my opinion, in this context it is more appropriate to render “Narr” as “fool”, since the word “clown” holds conservative connotations in this Müllerian text.


49  William Willeford, op. cit., p. 23.

50  See Umberto Galimberti, “Anime che vivete dentro la notte. Noi davanti alla follia”, in La Repubblica, 13 Gennaio, p. 36-37, here p. 37: “La psichiatria, relegando la follia nell’ordine della malattia, istituisce se stessa non come cura della diversità, ma come quella cura che tutela i cosiddetti sani dalla loro paura della diversità” (“By relegating madness to the category of illness, psychiatry does not establish itself as the cure for diversity, but as that cure that safeguards the so-called sane people against their fear of diversity” – the translation is mine).

51  Gaston Bachelard, op. cit., p. 83.

52  “Unter der Sonne der Folter”(46). This quote from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon also appears in Müller’s Artaud-Fragment (1977): “Artaud ist Theater Medizin. Unter der Sonne der Folter, die alle Kontinente dieses Planeten gleichzeitich bescheint, blühen seine Texte. Auf den Trümmern Europas gelesen, werden sie klassisch sein” (“Artaud is theatre-medicine. His texts bloom under the Sun of torture, which enlightens simultaneously all the continents in these Planets. Read with regards to the European wreckage, they will become classics” – the translation is mine).

53  “Ich verwandle die Milch meiner Brüste in tödliches Gift. Ich nehme die Welt zurück, die ich geboren habe. Ich ersticke die Welt, die ich geboren habe, zwischen meinen Schenkeln. Ich begrabe sie in meiner Scham” (46).

54  In Shakespeare’s text:

55  “Es lebe der Haß, die Verachtung, der Aufstand, der Tod. Wenn sie mit Fleischermessern durch eure Schlafzimmer geht, werdet ihr die Wahrheit wissen” (46).

56 Image is here used in the sense of “both the raw materials and finished products of psyche […] the privileged mode of access to knowledge of soul”, James Hillman, A Blue Fire: selected writings, introduced and ed. by Thomas Moore, New York, Harper Perennial, 1989.

57  James Hillman, Oltre l’umanismo, Bergamo, Moretti & Vitali, 1996, p. 80.

58  “Leeren Himmel” (39).

59  James Hillman, A Blue Fire, op. cit.,p. 22.

60 Ibid., p. 294.

61  James Hillman, Oltre l’umanismo, op. cit., p. 29.

62  “Hier spricht Elektra” (46).

63  James Hillman, Pan and the Nightmare, Connecticut, Spring Publications, Inc. Woodstock, [1972] 2000, p. 6.

64  “Meine Gedanken saugen den Bildern das Blut aus (42).

65  James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, New York, Harper Perennial, 1975, p. 40.

66  “Im Herzen der Finsternis” (46).

Pour citer ce document

Par Simonetta Falchi, «“Maddening Endurance”1 Post-modern Images of Ophelia’s Madness», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°3 - 2009, mis à jour le : 03/12/2019, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=161.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Simonetta Falchi

Dr. Simonetta FALCHI currently holds a Research Fellowship – funded by the Fondazione Banco di Sardegna and by the Università degli Studi di Sassari (Italy) – to develop her research on “Matrix Characters in English Literature on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century”. In 2006 she defended her doctoral thesis on the rewritings of the myth of the Wandering Jew at the Università degli Studi di Sassari, where she also graduated in 1999 with a thesis on Heiner Müller’s rewriting of Shakepespeare’s H ...