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Melancholy Virgins: The Case of Ophelia

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Melancholy is the most complex of emotions for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as it was for the ancients. The cold, dry temperament was considered the least desirable of the four, yet melancholy was also traditionally associated with genius and the life of scholarship.

In Hamlet, Ophelia becomes a classic case of the melancholy virgin because of her isolation at court, her overbearing father’s commands, and Hamlet’s withdrawal of attention from her.

right: Anonymous, Ophelia in Hamlet, late 19th – early 20th century. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library. In William Shakespeare’s time, audiences would have understood the madness to which Ophelia succumbs after being cast out by Hamlet as an overheating of the brain resulting directly from her social circumstances. Note her slumped posture and downward gaze. Instead of looking after the departing Hamlet, who has just angrily ordered her to “get thee to a nunnery,” she looks at the floor sadly.

Illustration of Ophelia shown in an interior space near windows on the right. A dog stands at her feet. A fragment of a man's face and body is show on the left suggests his leaving the scene. At the bottom of the illustration text reads: "OPH. O, woe is me! To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!#&34;

below left: John Hayter, Melancholy face of Ophelia, 1846. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

below right: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Quarto, 1637. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library. The pathos of Ophelia’s situation is clear even before her father’s murder at Hamlet’s hands. Lacking activity and the hopeful future symbolized by marriage, Ophelia succumbs to despair and eventually madness.

Portrait illustration of Ophelia with her eyes cast downward and her hair decorated with leaves and flowers.
Photograph of the play, Hamlet.
Photograph of the frontispiece from the book, Anatomy of Melancholy. At the center of the page is the title and other text framed by illustrations of nature scenes and men's portraits.

left: Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628. Courtesy National Library of Medicine. English Renaissance cleric and scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640), who wrote about the different types of melancholy, described the female melancholic—represented by virgins and widows—as special cases. According to Burton, unmarried gentlewomen with little to do are afflicted with a “torrent of inward humours.” Above all, they lack the social purpose conferred only by marriage.

Photograph of the book, A Niewe Herball. Page 149 on the right shows illustration of Viola tricolo and text describing its botanical characteristics and uses.

left: Rembert Dodoens, A Niewe Herball, 1578. Courtesy National Library of Medicine. The healing powers of violets described by Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585) were well known to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Madness of the kind Ophelia suffers after her father's death and Hamlet’s rejection of her would have been understood as a drying and overheating of the brain. The cooling properties of violets and their sweet scent—what we would call aromatherapy—would have been prescribed in her case. But there is no one in the Danish court to befriend and care for Ophelia. So it is ironic when in her madness she distributes flowers to the court and tells them, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.”

They are apt to loathe, dislike, disdaine, to be weary of every object, eath thing almost is odious to them, they pine away, void of counsel, apt to weep and tremble, timorous, fearful, sad, and out of all hopes of better fortunes. —Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1632 Red horizontal line

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