“A Document in Madness:” Representations of Ophelia as Lovesick Madwoman in the Mid-Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
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In the nineteenth-century in England, Shakespeare’s character Ophelia was the most represented subject of English literary painting. Elaine Showalter suggests that “the changing representations of Ophelia over the centuries…chronicle the shifting definitions of female insanity, from the erotomania of the Elizabethans and the hysteria of the nineteenth century to the unconscious incestuous conflicts of the Freudians.” Focusing on a period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, this project examines a dynamic relationship between medical narratives and those of fiction and painting in representing women and cultural ideas of madness. Artistic expressions of the time period both contributed to and mirrored changing perceptions of insanity, and more specifically, perceptions of the woman’s place within those new ideas. My examination of the eighteenth-century’s perception of terms such as spleen and vapors attempts a “meta-conversation,” following descriptive language that later came to define madness in the nineteenth century. I present my argument through the lens of a literary figure who acts as a metonym for women’s madness.