Shakespearean Madwomen and the Gendered Portrayals of Mental Illness that Devalue Them

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Hitchcox, Sheridan
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University Honors College, Middle Tennessee State University
When people think of William Shakespeare’s greatest works, this most prominent tragedy comes to mind: Hamlet. The central theme within this tragedy is that of mental illness and hysteria. Primary male characters aside, how does this theme influence the creation of the female characters? And how does Shakespeare write the portrayals of these women within the context of his time? Mad characters are a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, because he was surrounded by misunderstood information regarding mental illness. While this simple, and misunderstood information inspired him, he created complex female characters in the place of simple portrayals. This thesis endeavors to provide an examination of how Ophelia, a mentally ill and victimized female character is portrayed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as compared to modern and contemporary understandings of mentally ill representations. By using historical context, understanding of floral symbolism, gender performance, and gendered language, I provide evidence to support my thesis that these female characters are victims of their circumstance and the expectations that bind them, rather than simply hysterical or cruel women who create plot points.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, hysteria, theatre, gender, women, madness, Ophelia