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Introduction: The Afterlives of Ophelia

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Part of the Reproducing Shakespeare: New Studies in Adaptation and Appropriation book series (RESH)

Abstract

In the decades since Elaine Showalter’s groundbreaking essay “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism” appeared in 1985, Shakespeare’s probably most famous — or notorious — character’s representational life has witnessed even greater expansion.1 Building on what was already, by the mid-1980s, a substantial “afterlife” of the character, Ophelia’s name has been lent to countless more consumer products beyond those enumerated by Carol Solomon Kiefer in her catalogue for the 2001 exhibition The Myth and Madness of Ophelia and by Showalter herself, including the notable example of the Cannon Mills floral bedding named “Ophelia.”2 Between the sheets, since the mid-1980s Ophelia has also acquired an emancipated, Western-style sex life in films by Kenneth Branagh (1996) and Michael Almereyda (2000), her on-screen romances with Hamlet elaborated in titillating bedroom scenes that reveal her liberation from early modern patriarchal constraints on virginity. Plays and novels taking a sensationalist approach to the same topic have been written in her name (The Secret Love-Life of Ophelia); her rather more chaste and innocent girlhood story told; her French face profiled; her neoclassical, Romantic, Victorian, expressionist, surrealist, symbolist, modernist, cubist, postmodernist iterations depicted in the plastic arts; and her avatar created by online Ophelias to fit the “sim skin” of virtual reality communities.3

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Notes

  1. Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York and London: Methuen, 1985) 77–94. This version contains the original illustration plates discussed in the essay.

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  2. Carol Solomon Kiefer, “The Myth and Madness of Ophelia,” The Myth and Madness of Ophelia (Amherst, MA: Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, 2001) 11–39, written in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name.

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  3. The production of The Secret Love-Life of Ophelia, written and directed by Steven Berkoff, came to our attention in the form of a handbill posted in Islington, London, for a performance run at the Kings Head Theatre beginning June 26, 2001. The playbill promises Hamlet and Ophelia will “play out a passionate love affair.” On the afterlife of Ophelia in fiction written for young adults, see R. S. White, “Ophelia’s Sisters” in The Impact of Feminism in Renaissance Studies, ed. Dympna Callaghan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 93–113.

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  4. See, for instance, Johanna Drucker’s discussion of Crewdson’s image in Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005) esp. 1–5; 10–11.

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© 2012 Kaara L. Peterson and Deanne Williams

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Peterson, K.L., Williams, D. (2012). Introduction: The Afterlives of Ophelia. In: Peterson, K.L., Williams, D. (eds) The Afterlife of Ophelia. Reproducing Shakespeare: New Studies in Adaptation and Appropriation. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137016461_1

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