2/Ophelia in the films of Kozintsev, Zeffirelli, and Branagh
Ophelia in Kozintsev, Zeffirelli, and Branagh/7
Empowered by Madness: Ophelia in the Films of Kozintsev, Zeffirelli, and Branagh
Feminist intervention in theatre studies in recent years has initiated new ways of reading and interpreting Shakespeare’s plays by shifting the focus from conventional text-centered analysis to seeing the play as a sign-system and reading these signs within the context of performance. This shift of emphasis in interpretation has brought up a new concern with theories of representation, especially, in Elaine Aston’s terms, “on the construction of ‘woman’ as sign: an approach in which feminism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics […] [is] being used to understand how women are represented in cinematic texts and other cultural contexts” (35). This new concern has foregrounded the female performer as a speaking subject on the stage or “as potential creator of an ‘alternative’ text” (32) and “opened up the possibilities of analysing the female performer as the author of a potentially subversive theatrical site/sight in mainstream historical stages” (32). Theoretical discourses of representation in Shakespeare Studies, as well, in recent years have been reshaped owing to the views of such theorists as Elaine Showalter, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. They reject the values of the phallocentric system and react against the woman’s position as “Other” to Man, represented either as a nonspeaking subject in patriarchal discourse or as an object of the “male gaze,” emphasizing instead the significance of “writing the body” to constitute a language unique to the woman. In this essay, three different interpretations of Ophelia in three films shot between the years 1964 and 1996 will be discussed both in relation to one another and in relation to the feminist discourse of representation that opens up new ways of reading Ophelia.
Until the impact of feminist criticism on the reading of most canonical texts, mainstream critics of Shakespeare drew attention almost exclusively to the submissiveness and madness of Ophelia. In 1817, for example, William Hazzlitt, spoke of Ophelia as “a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon” and called her “a flower too soon faded” (Camden 247). Thirty years later, Strachey claimed, “in the study of Ophelia’s character […] there [was] more to be felt than to be said [...] because she [was] a creation of such perfectly feminine proportions and beauty” (Camden 247). Even Bradley at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote that in Ophelia’s story there is “an element, not of deep tragedy, but of pathetic beauty, which makes the analysis of her character seem almost a desecration” (160).
In other words, for years she was either “the fair Ophelia,” “chaste treasure,” or “minist’ring angel,” having all the qualities appropriate for an ideal, innocent, young virgin or, because of her madness, she was described as a...