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Ophelia’s Mother: The Phantom of Maternity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Rebecca Potter and Elizabeth Ann Mackay

In a play of illusion and allusion, doubling and doubt, Shakespeare’s Hamlet constructs one of the most troubling images of motherhood in literature. Much intriguing and valuable critical attention has been paid to the figure of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and her literary significance in exposing patriarchal undercurrents embedded in Western ideologies of motherhood. And Hamlet is perhaps the Shakespeare play most obsessed with the mother and how maternity is made ‘visible, dramatized, and problematized’, how the mother’s desire and agency ‘manifests itself in opposition to the hero, serving as the prologue to his doom’, and how the mother’s failure to fade into the background brings about her own doom (Rose 1991, 305). Perhaps this is because Gertrude is a character about which so little is known or certain, and yet it is this very ambiguity that creates crises for Hamlet, as he draws attention to his mother and her sexual desires as the cause of his grief, attempting to make his mother

R. Potter (*)

English and American literature, University of Dayton, Dayton, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

E.A. Mackay

University of Dayton, Dayton, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_8

knowable by filling in the gaps in her character, by imagining her as frail yet malevolent, as distant yet clinging.

But if we read beyond Gertrude’s maternal role in the play and, instead, read for Hamlet’s maternal subtext, a different story of motherhood emerges. This story is, as Adrienne Rich put it, a ‘great unwritten story’, that of an absent or lost mother, of her nurturing and natural power and agency, and of her relationship to her daughter (1986, 225). Indeed, Hamlet’s ‘great unwritten story’ of a mother and her daughter is the story of Ophelia's mother whose absence is made palpable as a hidden presence, and whose agency is in fact generated through being a mother absent to her daughter.1 In the space of this mother's absence, an image of motherhood emerges that stands (not surprisingly) in contrast to Gertrude, the mother present in the play. Thus, in this chapter, we attempt to trace Ophelia’s mother and the ‘imprint of her mothering’ (Kahn 1986, 33-49) on Ophelia, whose conduct stands in stark contrast to the ineffectual discourses around her. That sense of a mother’s imprint resonates even more fully in Ophelia's death, where the trope of the mother emerges again as an ordering principle that stands in contrast to the chaos to which the daughter finally succumbs. Through both manifestations, whether as Ophelia's natural mother who forms her daughter's conduct, or as nature-as-mother who gives form to matter, the absent mother wields an ordering presence that ‘words, words, words' fail to achieve (2.2.192). Ophelia's tragic decline into madness and death intensifies the sense of a mother whose absence is in part the cause of Ophelia’s fate. What the mother has formed socially by shaping the conduct of her daughter, and materially through the birth of her daughter, is undermined, and finally destroyed by bad advice, false promises, ineffectual speeches, that are proffered as surrogates for the mother figure, yet woefully lacking. An inverse to Gertrude’s maternity, Ophelia's mother is made poignantly absent through the process of her daughter's disintegration as a phantom reminder of a mother not there.

Representations of maternity and mothers in Shakespeare’s plays provide a necessary backdrop for thinking about the phantom mother in Hamlet. Notably, mothers are conspicuously absent from the list of some of Shakespeare's most lively and popular heroines in the comedies and romances, such as The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and The Tempest.2 Often, when mothers are physically absent, Shakespeare uses maternity as a discursive metaphor, particularly in histories such as in Richard II, in which John of Gaunt’s speech about the greatness of the English nation is also a speech about their great mother England:

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,/This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,/Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,/... This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,/Dear for her reputation through the world,/Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—/Like to a tenement or pelting farm (2.1.50-60).3

The vocabulary of John of Gaunt’s speech, where England is imagined as a ‘breed[er]’ and ‘nurse’ with her ‘blessed plot’ and ‘teeming womb,’ reminds us that maternity is embedded in depictions of nature, or rather, mother nature or mother earth. The ‘teeming womb of royal kings’ implies a very material connection between place, land, nature and the material subjects—living bodies—that originate from them. It reveals how the ‘mother’ as a trope of nature holds a meaning that goes beyond the symbolic. Such a representation of the mother as a natural force usually falls between two lines of thought in Shakespeare’s plays: the positive, bountiful, and productive nature John of Gaunt describes or the threatening and utterly destructive nature King Lear imagines her to be:

Hear, nature; hear, dear goddess, hear:/Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend/To make this creature fruitful./Into her womb convey sterility./Dry up in her the organs of increase/... If she must teem,/Create her child of spleen, that it may live/And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!... How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child. Away, away! (1.4.237-252)

The destruction that Lear invokes is more than symbolic in that nature is both a ‘mother godddess’ and physical force, which would render Lear’s daughter sterile, and ‘dry up in her the organs of increase.’ The fertility of Lear’s daughter mirrors the fertility exhibited by nature itself, which can be alternately barren and bountiful. Lear evokes nature to curse his daughter not only within the same maternal context, but to curse her with the burden of motherhood. In Hamlet, Ophelia’s missing mother becomes visible to readers, first, in metaphorical, discursive traces reminiscent of Richard II and King

Lear, what other critics identify as a maternal subtext.4 Through such a subtext, Shakespeare subtly weaves in an invisible, incorporeal mother’s presence. For example, it is remarkable that ‘mother’ is repeated almost 40 times in the play. The play’s vocabulary of delivery, conception or conceiving, and breeding also subtly cues audiences to a maternal presence, yet one vastly different from Gertrude’s. This maternal presence is also revealed in representations of nature and the natural world, which is especially important, because such discourse marks Gertrude as one of the most ‘unnatural’ figures of the play. Indeed, Gertrude’s maternity is constantly interrogated by Hamlet, who calls her, by turns, ‘good mother’ (godmother) (1.2.77) and ‘aunt-mother’ (2.2.358), as if to suggest that she is not his real or biological mother. Hamlet’s derision of Gertrude is expressed through terms that mark her as alien to motherhood; however, his critique primarily concerns her conduct. She has performed the role of wife and mother badly, from her marriage to Claudius ‘to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets’ (1.2.156-7), to her immodest deportment as a ‘wanton’ queen—‘O shame, where is thy blush?’ (3.4.72)—and even Hamlet’s rude treatment of her to which Gertrude responds, ‘What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me?’ (3.4.38-9). These behaviors all underscore how Gertrude fails to model good conduct and thereby presents a breach of order that threatens chaos. Hamlet makes the point clear that his mother’s conduct is a threat to the realm (and his succession): ‘Rebellious hell,/If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,/To flaming youth let virtue be as wax/And melt in her own fire’ (3.4.72-5). The repudiating quality of these maternal discourses, then, begin to find a place for a nurturing, natural and ‘true’ mother in the play that is invoked as a missing presence.

If Gertrude represents a failed or unnatural mother, then, in contrast, the imprint of the natural (yet absent) mother is revealed in Ophelia’s actions and in her verbal exchanges with her father and brother. Noticeably, in the first half of the play, Ophelia performs traditional duties expected of women, duties that are typically taught by mothers, according to male conduct writers of the period, as well as those mothers who wrote and published advice books for their daughters.5 In Act 2, for instance, Ophelia tells Polonius that while she was ‘sewing in [her] chamber,’ she was ‘affrighted’ by Hamlet’s sudden appearance there (2.1.78-86). That Ophelia mentions the act of sewing here, as well as keeping herself to her private chamber, evokes early modern conduct writers’ advice to mothers, who are enjoined to teach daughters to keep themselves ‘within the doors,’ ‘hidden in some honest labor,’ so as prevent daughters from ‘gadding or gambolding from alehouse to alehouse, or from tavern to tavern in any lewd or light company’ (Batty 1581, 55v). Additionally, in Act 3, Ophelia reads to keep herself busy, doing so at her father’s command to ‘read on this book’ (3.1.46-7). As Eve Rachel Sanders has argued, instruction in reading was the special province of mothers, who taught daughters to read to keep their minds busy, focusing on God and serious subjects of intellectual study rather than on idle gossip or frivolous desires (1998, 13). Through instructions and by setting examples that shaped daughters, mothers’ imprints were exhibited particularly in their daughters’ conduct. Therefore, young women could fashion themselves into the chaste, pious, obedient women they were expected to be, according to conduct writers like Thomas Salter, who tells mothers that the ‘wise Matrone shall reade or cause her Maidens to reade, the examples and lives of godly and vertuous Ladies’ (1579, B2v-B3r). These ‘virtuous ladies’ are also forming agents whose force is illustrated through their effect upon a matron’s daughter. Even as she reads and sews, Ophelia also performs her duties of obedience and proper speech, duties that, according to conduct writers, were both taught to and modeled by mothers. A mother must, above all things, ‘be a good pattern’ for her daughter; as she played the obedient wife to her husband, by doing so in front of her daughter, the mother taught the appropriate ‘submissive obeyance’ of women (Gouge 1622, 279). Ophelia, then, enacts expectations of girls taught by their mothers. Indeed, for early modern conduct writers, the daughter was an exact reflection or copy of her mother’s instructions, and would remain so, presumably, even when the mother herself was gone, an absence or loss described in both male-authored conduct books and in mothers’ advice books, where mothers often are positioned as absent or as to be absent, a position that, Rose argues, suggests that mothers must ‘erase... themselves as authoritative agents’ and present themselves as ‘logically doomed’ in order to paradoxically assert their instructions (1991, 312-313).

Ophelia’s conduct demonstrates the mother’s imprint in substantive ways, yet in the space of her mother’s absence, it is Polonius who now delivers instructions to his daughter. Polonius tells Ophelia, ‘I’ll teach you’, urging her to ‘think yourself a baby/That you have ta’en [Hamlet’s] tenders for true pay,/Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,/Or.. .you’ll tender me a fool’ (1.3.105-9). Here, Polonius’ advice appears in ways similar to the maternal advice in conduct- and advice-books; his instructions negate and usurp what was the early modern mother’s primary duty to instruct her daughters in moral and domestic behaviors. Just as Kahn argues about fathers in King Lear, in Hamlet, Polonius seems to coopt maternity, not only ‘eclipsing’ the mother’s instructional agency, but also appearing to eclipse the ‘mother’s role in procreation’ (Kahn 1986, 242). We can see this best in his long-winded rhetorical style and innumerable speeches, where Polonius employs dila- tio, the ‘swelling style’ or ‘increasing discourse’, which, as Patricia Parker has argued, links his speech with other rhetorical ‘fat ladies’, figurative language devices that are depicted as ‘pregnant mothers’ in texts (Parker 1987, 14). According to Parker, dilation or copiousness is an expansive rhetorical device that generates ‘its matter or materia’ in such a way that it becomes the ‘rhetorical counterpart of the command [for people] to increase and multiply’ (1987, 13-15). Not only does Polonius’ advice, then, take up the mother’s duty to instruct, it also, rhetorically, bears the imprint of the mother. Put differently, such uses of copia is the play’s discursive means for making Ophelia’s absent mother visible and present.

In Ophelia’s responses to her father and brother, we can see other ways in which her mother’s teaching or ‘imprint’ manifests itself, since Ophelia clearly knows how to behave and speak appropriately according to her audience and circumstance. For example, in another case, Laertes delivers advice to Ophelia that, like Polonius’ instructions, attempts to coopt the mother’s advice, thereby acting as Ophelia’s mother, which paradoxically draws attention to the mother’s absence. In a lengthy, censorious speech regarding Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet and its effects on her public reputation, Laertes’ advice, in its rhetorical excesses, imitates his father’s rhetorical style, deploying his own dilations—‘if [you] lose your heart, or your chaste treasure ... fear it, Ophelia, fear it’ (1.3.1-44). Yet rather than taking her rhetorical cues from her father and brother, Ophelia’s responses are simple, appropriately short, and obedient. Promising her brother that she will heed his advice, Ophelia says that she will keep it ‘in [her] memory locked,/And [he] shall keep the key of it’ (1.3.85-6). Believing that Ophelia seems ‘somewhat scanter of [her] maiden presence’, Polonius commands her to ‘set [her] entreatments at a higher rate’ (1.3.121). In response, Ophelia simply promises, ‘I shall obey’ (1.3.136). Here again, Ophelia clearly understands the expectation of young women’s ‘keeping’, and, just as Polonius commands, Ophelia obediently reports Hamlet’s ‘affright’ of her and ‘repel[s] his letters and denie[s]/His access’ to her (2.1.109-111).6 Both the men’s uses of the ‘swelling style’ and Ophelia’s responses to them thus work on a similar logic as conduct- and mothers’ advice-books, as they simultaneously exploit and deny the maternal imprint.

Paradoxically, such exchanges between Polonius and Ophelia continue to animate the missing mother of the play. Even as Polonius’ advice appears to demonstrate a father’s absolute control over a daughter, in fact, it augments maternal absence and how such absence acts as a device or trope that creates order in the play. For, despite all of the ways Polonius seems to be a concerned father in the play, he consistently offers inappropriate advice, contradicts his own instructions, or perverts maternal instructions, and thereby coopts the mother’s instructions badly. Noticeably, Polonius inappropriately describes his own sexual desires and proclivities to his daughter, even as he exhorts her to stay away from Hamlet, so that she can protect her chastity and public reputation (1.2.115-7). While Polonius initially commands Ophelia to protect her honor and to keep herself ‘scant’, he also implies that by doing so, she can ‘sell’ herself to Hamlet at a better ‘rate’ than what she’s currently offering. And in Acts 2 and 3, Polonius completely reverses his advice to better position himself as the valued confidant of the King and Queen. Assuring Gertrude and Claudius that he has given Ophelia ‘precepts’ and therefore has made sure ‘that she should lock herself from [Hamlet’s] resort,/Admit no messengers, receive no tokens’ from Hamlet (2.2.142-4), Polonius also promises to ‘loose’ his daughter to Hamlet when it serves his own agenda (2.2.163). In his scheme with Claudius to catch Hamlet’s conscience, or rather, as Claudius puts it, to ‘judge/And gather by him, as he is behaved,/If’t be th’afflication of this love or no/That thus he suffers for’, Polonius deliberately puts Ophelia in Hamlet’s way as sexual bait (3.1.36-9). The lack of attention paid to Ophelia’s reputation in these moments demonstrates not only Polonius’ instructional inadequacies, but makes the missing mother’s absence all the more felt.

As Mary Beth Rose has pointed out, in Shakespeare’s rather extensive work, much of which illustrates family intrigue, the conspicuously absent mother cannot be completely accounted for by historical context. For while early modern marriages appeared to deny an independent legal personhood to women, as their identities were meant to be subsumed under those of their husbands’, in conduct literature and in practice, the mother was the central figure of authority in the domestic family unit, chiefly responsible for guiding and censoring wayward children, and particularly central to a daughter’s education and well-being (Rose 1991, 293-304). Rose argues that Shakespeare’s stage is a site for playing out emerging debates and anxieties concerning gender hierarchies and especially anxieties about motherhood. In the silence created by a missing mother, plays like Hamlet create lacunae, or empty spaces, which patriarchal models of family order attempt to fill, and yet, such moves are problematic because they are continually threatened and even undermined by ‘invisible’ maternal practices. For instance, in Hamlet, although the father is meant to be the representative voice of the family, the language used is from the mother’s tongue. Language is also figured as maternal— as Polonius and Laertes’ ‘pregnant’ speeches illustrate—so that rhetorical figures like copia appear to form, shape, or order discourse in the same ways that a mother’s instruction (or, as we will discuss later, a mother’s womb) shapes and orders her children.

Ophelia’s responses to her father and brother show that a mother had formed her conduct in ways suitable to a young woman in her position. She models the behaviors that women’s proper conduct should take, as they are described in Renaissance conduct literature. Thus, the play reveals that Ophelia’s instruction could not have come from Polonius, nor Laertes, nor even Gertrude, since all three characters perform as ‘unnatural mothers’. The contrast between Ophelia’s behavior as a proper, well- schooled, young woman and that of those unnatural maternal figures around her leads the audience to uncover Ophelia’s maternal subtext. It is not the mere absence of a mother, then, but the force of ineffectual ‘mothering’ that heightens the audience’s awareness of Ophelia’s missing mother.

Thus far, we have been arguing that in the first half of the play, Ophelia’s conduct reveals a mother’s imprint, one that expresses itself through the daughter’s actions, an adherence to practices marking the dutiful daughter that establishes Ophelia’s good character. Strikingly, in the second half of the play, as the formative presence of the mother fades both in its material influence on Ophelia’s conduct and in its impotent reflection in Polonius’ rhetorical dilations, the daughter begins to show signs of mental disintegration. ‘What is the matter’ with Ophelia becomes a more central theme. Thus, in Act 4, when Ophelia enters the court unkempt, her attire in disarray, singing bawdy songs about sexual liaisons, an absent mother further reveals itself through Ophelia’s physical change and mental disintegration. In the space that the mother’s absence has left vacant, a different form of ‘the mother’ emerges, one that is itself materialized through Ophelia’s madness.

Indeed, it is in Ophelia’s madness that the play most explicitly represents Ophelia’s ‘mother’, a mother that, as Lear puts it, ‘swells upward toward [the] heart’ (2.4.56). In Hamlet, Ophelia, like Lear, suffers from hysterica passio, a disease commonly called ‘the mother’ in early modern England since it was believed to be caused by a woman’s wandering womb ( hyster) and included a number of symptoms, such as convulsions, mad rages, disorientation, and garrulousness (Haslem 1995). Like Lear, Ophelia’s hysteria stems from a ‘searing sense of loss at the deprivation of the mother’s presence’ (Kahn 1986, 248), which is revealed in Ophelia’s speeches and other characters’ reactions to her madness. Of her speech, Horatio reports that Ophelia’s words are only ‘half sense’, ‘unshaped’, ‘nothing’ (4.5.5-13). Gertrude worries that, in speaking, Ophelia will ‘strew/Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds’ (4.5.14-15). Laertes’s lament about Ophelia’s madness—‘this nothing’s more than matter’ (4.5.172)—is perhaps the most telling reaction. The attention to hysteria, then—a ‘document in madness’, as Laertes puts it (4.5.175)—is also a document of what is the matter, indeed the mater, of this play. For Ophelia, it becomes increasingly apparent that what is the matter concerns mind and body, both configured in decidedly maternal ways. In fact, just as the play repeatedly calls attention to ‘mother’ in its vocabulary, so too does it call attention to the ‘matter’ (repeated 27 times) that haunts the play, never articulated but nevertheless shaping events. More specifically, the query, ‘what’s the matter?’ (asked no less than six times in this play) suggests precisely what is at stake in Hamlet7 As the play unfolds, it deliberately draws together and makes plain an etymological relationship linking matter, mater (mother), and matrix (womb) (Butler 1993, 31).8 Both Hamlet and Laertes’ insistence that Ophelia is ‘nothing’ also subtly reminds us, as Hamlet crudely tells Ophelia in Act 3, that she is a product of her mother’s ‘no-thing.’ And while such language is meant to downgrade and deny the mother’s power, like Polonius’ domestic and moral advice to Ophelia, it has the opposite effect, revealing maternal agency to be all the more present and active. For only when Ophelia becomes troubled with ‘the mother’ does Laertes mention a mother, his (their) lost mother, in describing his grief: ‘That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,/Cries cuckold to my father, brand the harlot/Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow/Of my true mother’ (4.5.114-7). Here, Laertes suggests that if he were not to feel grief and rage at the sight of his now-mad sister, such ‘bastardy’ would label his father a cuckold and his mother a harlot. Yet he also points to the injustice of this notion, providing another instance when Gertrude, called a harlot by her son, is negatively compared to Ophelia’s absent mother. Laertes’ outburst thus has two effects. He is possessed by ‘the mother’ of hysteria, and in that state, he invokes an image of his absent mother as a constant woman: chaste, with ‘unsmirched brow,’ and ‘true’.

In this scene, as in Ophelia’s death, the play begins to link Laertes and Ophelia’s ‘true mother’ with mother nature, who will welcome Ophelia in the grave. Upon hearing of his sister’s death, it is Laertes who explicitly refers to his hysteria as a product of nature’s agency. Nature, whose ‘custom holds/Shame say what it will’ (5.1.159-60), forces Laertes to perform her ‘custom’ or practice that his body cannot resist, causing him to weep, a hysteric outburst of emotion that he vainly tries to resist. Moreover, both Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death by drowning and her subsequent burial use imagery that presents nature as a maternal figure, one to which Ophelia returns. When she falls ‘in the weeping brook’, as ‘one incapable of her own distress’, she is pulled by her soaked garments ‘to a muddy death’ (5.1.146, 149, 154). The brook itself seems to weep for Ophelia, who, like an infant, is incapable of responding to her danger. Gertrude describes Ophelia’s sinking into the water as a kind of return to the mother’s womb: ‘like a creature native and endued/Unto the element’ (5.1.150-1). That return to the mother is also reflected in Ophelia’s burial, as the priest voices his objections to her receiving a Christian service and Laertes retorts: ‘Lay her i’th’earth,/And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/May violets spring’ (5.1.222-4). The Christian union with God cast in doubt, Laertes’ mention ofviolets underscores her return to earth, and nature who will welcome and honor her by enabling violets to spring from such a ‘fair and unpolluted’ child. In hysteric grief, Laertes seeks to join his sister when he leaps into the grave, shouting: ‘Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead/Till of this flat a mountain you have made/To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head/Of blue Olympus’ (5.1.235-7). His reference to Pelion and Olympus imagines his leap into the earth as an attempt to follow his sister to Hades, the resting place of the dead. Hamlet then attempts to outperform Laertes, jumping into Ophelia’s grave as well, commanding the gravedigger to ‘throw millions of acres on us, till our ground/Singeing his pate against the burning zone,/Make Ossa like a wart’ (5.1.265-8). Hamlet and Laertes both seek to follow Ophelia’s body into the underworld below

Pelion and Olympus, where they would be united with her in death.9 Their rash actions assert an autonomy that resists the loss of identity death brings. Noticeably, Laertes also imagines himself to follow Ophelia to the underworld, where presumably his deceased mother also resides.

In his response to Ophelia’s burial, Laertes simultaneously envisions her body returning to an earthly womb (the grave) and to her dead mother (who waits in the underworld). The gravedigger, on the other hand, articulates a very different notion of bodies: Ophelia’s burial is configured as a kind of material transformation that presages a disintegration of form. Asked by Hamlet if a man or woman is to be buried, the gravedigger says the corpse is ‘one that was a woman, sir, but rest her soul, she’s dead’ (5.1.126). Thus, death deconstructs Ophelia’s body completely, erasing any form or imprint it once exhibited, since in death, the material body ‘returneth into dust, the dust is earth’ (5.1.193-4). The gravedigger articulates a burgeoning early modern view of nature, a view based on an atomistic understanding of earth as comprised of elemental matter from which nature creates new and various subjects.

The gravedigger reflects this new learning that preoccupied early modern natural philosophers, a line of thinking later articulated by Francis Bacon’s copious work, but which was also the subject of Bacon’s numerous predecessors. Their approach was characterized in part by a fascination with the constancy of nature’s laws as demonstrated in the consistency of material form and its response to specific actions.10 The French natural philosopher, Jean Bodin captures this in his 1597 work, Universae Naturae Theatrum, when observing how fire burns the same in Persia as for the Celts. Such a phenomenon proves for Bodin that ‘in nature nothing is uncertain’ (Blair 1997, 21). To examine forms in nature was to detect the maternal subtext apparent in the natural world. Like the good mother shaping her daughter, nature’s shaping power was revealed only after formation had taken place, when a thing, like fire, for example, reflected its ‘natural imprint’. Bodin and his contemporaries thus saw the question, ‘what is the matter’ as the means for defining the connection between the form of a thing and what caused it to take that particular form or shape (Bodin 1597, Sig. 4r; trans.; Blair 1997, 21-2).11

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet appears to be that kind of natural scientist when he contemplates the bodily remains unearthed by the gravedigger. In this scene, Hamlet considers how such figures as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar are an accidental assemblage of materials emerging from a universe in constant flux, now seen in their return to dust and clay. Once powerful men, they are now ‘earth’ that, on the one hand, could take on a living form that awes the world, yet on the other hand, could break down into substances that could ‘stop a beer-barrel’ or ‘keep the wind away’ (5.1.193, 197). Yet more specifically, Hamlet seems to adopt the dangerous position that Bodin and others saw in taking atomistic understanding to an extreme, a view that ignored how nature is a force of proper order and form. Eric Langley casts Hamlet’s atomism as impacting both his understanding of death and of language, which devolve to a point of fragmentation: ‘nothing, in this world, comes from nothing, and all will ultimately join the fluxion’ (2014, 163). However, the character of Ophelia complicates this nihilistic vision, even though the tragic conclusion of the play may justify it, folding into it another Renaissance idea of the mother figure, and mother nature as a force of order and cohesion: when Hamlet gives agency to earth as a creative force, whether as an Alexander or a plaster of clay, the use is positive: ‘O, that that earth which kept the world in awe/Should patch a wall t’expell the winter’s flaw!’ (5.1.198-9).

Ophelia’s burial is a return to ungendered matter and the graveyard scene reminds the audience that Ophelia’s body is a material substance that will soon revert to elemental dust, losing its form until nature forms it again. The graveyard scene thus juxtaposes two conceptualizations of nature: a holistic and an atomistic model for the natural world. This juxtaposition is manifest in the ways Ophelia responds to the forces around her, both biological and social forces that impact her mentally and physically. The imprint of nature upon matter parallels the way that the mother’s imprint shapes a daughter’s conduct; just as nature’s actions upon matter are positively or negatively construed in term of order and chaos, the form a daughter’s conduct takes indicates the mother’s active and formative presence. Thus in her hysterical madness and death, Ophelia illustrates the consequence of a mother’s absence—that is, what it means to lose the ordering force that both the ‘true’ mother and mother nature represent. Ophelia’s decline proceeds in steps, first, in her mental confusion, and finally, in her ultimate physical decomposition in death. The absent mother’s trace continually strikes through the troubled efforts of the play’s main characters to establish the order and legitimacy they seek and fail to find. As the play itself follows a course of madness and death, chaos emerges as a loss of order, and of form, symbolized in the absent mother.


  • 1. Coppelia Kahn takes up how the ‘absence of the mother points to her hidden presence’ in King Lear, which underscores a critique of the limits of patriarchal power.
  • 2. This absent mother is related to the mothers who might physically appear on Shakespeare’s stage, but appear ‘absent’ because they are usually in the background, lost in ensemble casts, have the smallest of roles, or have no speaking parts, as in Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, or The Winter’s Tale. On absent or lost mothers in Shakespeare, see Kahn (1986); Rose (1991); and Schotz (1980).
  • 3. All references to Shakespeare’s plays are taken from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., edited by Stephen Greenblatt (2008).
  • 4. On Shakespeare’s maternal subtexts, see Bono (2006); Hidalgo (2001), and Kahn (1986).
  • 5. While all conduct books of the period address parental duties generally, several books were written specifically for women raising daughters, notably, Juan Luis Vives’s (2000) The Instruction of a Christian Woman, Edmund Tilney’s (1568) The Flower of Friendship, and Thomas Salter’s The Monument of Matrones. Advice books written by mothers to daughters— such as Frances Aburgavennie’s (1582) prayer book or Elizabeth Russell’s (1605) A Way of Reconciliation of a Good and Learned Man—are notable conduct books as well.
  • 6. On women’s duty of ‘keeping’ in early modern households, see Korda (2002), especially her introductory chapter.
  • 7. ‘What’s the matter?’ is a question asked throughout Shakespeare’s dramatic canon and, perhaps on the surface, is not unusual in Hamlet. However, as a reading of a Shakespeare concordance would reveal, it is a question that is asked with more frequency in plays with ambiguous maternal characters, including Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline. We argue, then, that there is something even more telling about the appearance of this question where a missing mother is at stake.
  • 8. On puns of matter/mater and nothing/no thing in Hamlet, see Adelman (1992, 255, n. 36) and Parker (1993).
  • 9. Even before her burial, the play associates Ophelia with a positive, generative nature figure by using language choices that are often set against Laertes’ and Polonius’ language of machinery or economics. Hers is an organic world; for example, in one of her longest monologues before her madness, Ophelia asks Laertes to avoid hypocritical advice, otherwise, like an ‘ungracious pastor,’ he will ‘show [her] the steep and thorny way to heaven/ Whilst... Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads/And recks not his own rede’ (1.3.48-51). Other characters describe Ophelia in such natural terms, discursively aligning her as nature’s child. Specifically, Laertes, in advising Ophelia to protect her chastity, describes her ‘chaste treasure’ as a ‘violet in the youth of primy nature’ (1.3.7). When Ophelia goes mad, Laertes says she is ‘the rose of May,’ noticing, too, that she has a newfound power through which she can turn ‘thought and affliction, passion, hell itself’ into ‘favor and prettiness’ (4.5.156, 183-184).
  • 10. Two aspects of natural science in Renaissance Europe bear on this discussion, particularly in regards to Francis Bacon’s work. Michael Clody (2011), Guido Giglioni (2014), Eric Langley (2014) and Julianne Werlin (2015) address the convergence of the mother nature metaphor in Bacon’s work, his rhetorical use of it, and the tensions that usage has in capturing an atomistic view of the natural world. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (2011) provides an excellent historical account, and has been significant in inspiring interest in the topic.
  • 11. According to Sandra Harding (1986), the shift toward an atomistic view of nature that is promulgated by Bodin’s later contemporaries, such as Francis Bacon, replaces the view of nature as ‘an active power in the universe [that] was associated with the alive nurturing mother earth with a material nature of ‘passive, inert matter and indifferent to explorations and exploitations of her insides’ (1986: 114-115, emphasis added). Carolyn Merchant points to the language of the Renaissance new science as displacing the organic and holistic representations of natura as an active and powerful agent of God, inviolate and maternal (Merchant 2006, 2008).

Works Cited

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Adelman, Janet. 1992. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. New York: Routledge.

Batty, Bartholomew. 1581. The Christian Mans Closet. Wherein is Conteined a Large Discourse of the Godly Training up of Children, translated by William Lowth. London: Thomas Dawson & Gregorie Sexton.

Blair, Ann. 1997. The Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bodin, Jean. 1597. Universae Naturae Theatrum. Frankfurt: Wechel.

Bono, Barbara J. 2006. ‘“The Chief Knot of All the Discourse’: The Maternal Subtext Tying Sidney’s Arcadia to Shakespeare’s King Leah”. In Gloriana’s Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, edited by

S. P. Cerasano and Marion-Wynne Davies, 105-127. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge.

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Cryptography, Secrecy, and Alterity in Francis Bacon’. Configurations 19: 117-142.

Giglioni, Guido. 2014. ‘From the Woods of Experience to the Open Fields of Metaphysics: Bacon’s Notion of Silva’. Renaissance Studies 28: 242-261.

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Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. 2008. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 2011. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W.W. Norton.

Harding, Sandra. 1986. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Haslem, Lori Schroeder. 1995. ‘“Troubled with the Mother”: Longings, Purging, and the Maternal Body in Bartholomew Fair and The Duchess of Malfi’. Modern Philology 92: 438-459.

Hidalgo, Pilar. 2001. Paradigms Found: Feminist, Gay, and New Historicist Readings of Shakespeare. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kahn, Coppelia. 1986. ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear’. In Rewriting the Renaissance, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickars, 33-49. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Vives, Juan Luis. 2000. The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth-Century Manual, edited by Charles Fantazzi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Werlin, Julianne. 2015. ‘Francis Bacon and the Art of Misinterpretation’, PMLA 130.2: 236-251.

Rebecca Potter is Associate Professor for English and American literature and Director of the Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Dayton. She has written on topics ranging from early modern poetry to contemporary environmental writers. Her work has appeared in Sign System Studies, Pedagogy, Studies in Literature, and together with Margaret Strain is co-editor ofDegree ofChange: The MA in English Studies, recently published by NCTE Press. She is currently completing a book, The Cassandra Effect, which intersects narrative and eco-criticism.

Elizabeth Ann Mackay is an Assistant Professor in the University of Dayton’s English Department, where she teaches courses in early English literature, Shakespeare, early modern women writers, and composition. She is currently completing a book project that explores early modern mother-daughter instructional relationships and how maternity intervenes in the traditions of intellectual education, pedagogy, and rhetoric; other scholarly projects attend to intersecting representations of early modern rhetorics and women, particularly women writers of the period.

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