Madness and Medicine in Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen
In Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen, men fall into
passions while women fall into fits. Characters and critics alike deem
Palamon's and Arcite's violent protestations of love, and Hamlet's
melancholic self-absorption and feigned "madness," rational if unwise
behavior; yet despite assertions that they behave irrationally, perhaps
even pathologically, few have doubted the sanity of any of the male
characters. Interpreters have agreed quite unanimously, however, that
Ophelia and the Jailer's Daughter must be out of their wits. They
generally interpret the female characters, deploying various
constructions of female madness, as inarticulate: since their words and
actions are considered noninterpretable, they are read symbolically
rather than significantly.
Doctors concerned with psychological phenomena from Robert Burton to
Jacques Lacan have diagnosed Shakespearean characters with illnesses
ranging from melancholia to unresolved oedipal anxieties, but though
Lear, Leontes, and Coriolanus inspire a range of interpretations and
prescriptions, the diagnoses for Lady Macbeth, Cressida and Ophelia tend
to be far less varied or interesting. Elaine Showalter has demonstrated
in The Female Malady that while male mental illness historically
tended to be connected to spiritual or intellectual crises, the feminine
equivalent was usually diagnosed as a result of female physiology. In
"Representing Ophelia," she suggests that readings of Hamlet
facilitate such diagnoses: "Whereas for Hamlet madness is metaphysical,
linked with culture, for Ophelia it is a product of the female body and
female nature, perhaps that nature's purest form" (78). Showalter goes
on to argue that Ophelia has been the quintessential madwoman in both
medical and artistic discourse since the seventeenth century,
illustrating through numerous examples how the figure of Ophelia has
been appropriated by doctors, artists, actresses, and even women in
mental institutions seeking a model for communication.
The Two Noble Kinsmen has never received the attention of
Hamlet, but Eugene Waith points out that the character of the
Jailer's Daughter has been a principal reason for the play's sporadic
successes (The Two Noble Kinsmen 32). Nevertheless, the Daughter
rarely receives mention in discussions of literary women and madness--
rarely, moreover, in discussions of women and madness in Shakespeare,
although her behavior is as flamboyant and pathetic as Ophelia's. The
two characters' breakdowns appear remarkably similar, in spite of their
different class and family situations and the geographic and chronologic
distance between them.
But if, as Showalter argues, Ophelia became paradigmatic from the moment
of her entrance into culture, it stands to reason that the development
of the Jailer's Daughter was affected by the success of Ophelia and that
audiences watching The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1614 would have
recalled Hamlet's madwoman from 1601. It seems worthwhile, then,
to consider how the theatricality of the Jailer's Daughter's insanity
interferes with conclusions about biological female madness drawn in the
play. I wish to call into question the extent to which, by Renaissance
medical standards, Ophelia and the Jailer's Daughter might have been
considered "mad," and the degree to which their disorderliness follows
theatrical rather than medical conventions. Furthermore, I want to
explore the critical stake in using Ophelia as an example when
attempting to understand Shakespearean constructions of female sexuality
and sexual politics. Finally, it seems worthwhile to consider the
different readings of the plays engendered by interpreting the womens'
madness psychologically, theatrically, and politically.
I: What the Doctor Ordered
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word "madwoman"
did not enter written discourse until 1623 ("Madman," by contrast, dates
to the 1300s). This does not imply that female madness was unknown or
not discussed; quite the contrary. But the terms were different. Despite
their proliferation in various artistic media, relatively little medical
discourse about madwomen as such appears to have circulated before
1603. Nevertheless women and madness were linguistically linked
through the concept of "lunacy," which referred both to the changes
wrought by the moon's phases and to the menstrual cycle, and from the
warnings of ancient physicians that the female, being weaker in body and
mind than the male, was prone to a variety of mental instabilities. In
Elizabethan and Jacobean London, when these conditions could not be
attributed to fevers or amenorrhea they were sensationally linked with
In 1603, two important publications circulated widely among members of
the medical community and the public. One, chaplain Samuel Harsnett's
A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, was concerned
primarily with denouncing religious authorities who blamed sorcery
rather than sickness for their patients' ills. The other, doctor Edward
Jorden's "A Briefe Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the
Mother, written uppon occasion which hath beene of late taken thereby,
to suspect possession of an evill spirit, or some such like
supernaturall power, wherein it is declared that divers strange actions
and passions of the body of man, which in the common opinion, are
imputed to the Divell, have their true naturall causes, and do
accompanie this disease," presented a powerful scientific defense of
Harsnett's conclusions. Jorden's most controversial statement, "The
perturbations of the minde are oftentimes to blame for this and many
other diseases" (15), apparently caused a great deal of consternation
among his peers in the medical community as well as among his religious
As Michael MacDonald persuasively demonstrates, the publication of the
two texts (which "were almost certainly commissioned by the Bishop of
London") came in a year when Catholics and Puritans were winning
converts from the Anglican church in the aftermath of a famous case of
witchcraft. Mary Glover, a fourteen-year-old London girl "bewitched" by
a neighbor woman, suffering spectacularly from terrifying delusions and
talking through the nostrils, was "dispossessed" by Puritan ministers
through fasting and prayer (Witchcraft and Hysteria 2-3).
Harsnett argued for a biological basis for the disease, keeping within
Renaissance medical assumptions about female biology, and thus removing
the condition from the sphere of influence of Puritan ministers and
Catholic exorcists. Jorden also roundly condemned
...Papists...[who] if they do but see a maid or woman suffering from one
of these fits of the Mother...conjur[e] and exorcis[e] them as if they
were possessed with evil spirits... (2-3)
but he went a step further in blaming the victim's imagination rather
than her biology for this particular form of madness.
In addition to secularizing hysteria, Jorden resituated it. Ilza Veith
points out that he went beyond classical discussions of the condition in
that he rejected the "hyster" as its root (124). He blamed an overactive
brain, not an overactive womb, and pointed out that men as well as women
could suffer from fits of "the mother"--a concept he adopted from
Harsnett, whose medical discourses were a source for King Lear's
madness. Jorden did advocate prayer and fasting to treat hysteria,
but noted that they worked naturally--by focusing the mind--rather than
supernaturally. He also rejected the ancient notion that hysteria
resulted solely from women's sexual peculiarities. The Greeks had
believed prolonged abstinence caused physical changes in the uterus,
causing severe discomfort and eventually leading to its wandering freely
through the body, disrupting the normal functions of the heart and
brain. Because women were composed of cold and wet humours, rather than
the more desirable masculine hot and dry humours, the womb was
inconstant unless heated by regular sexual intercourse. It was generally
agreed by Renaissance physicians that one of the benefits of frequent
sex for women was the regulation of the menses, since intercourse was
believed to warm the blood and facilitate menstruation. Luis Mercado,
writing in 1579, gives what Ian MacLean characterizes as "an exhaustive
list of hysterical illnesses, many of them inducing lovesickness,
melancholia, listlessness and irrational behaviors," which might result
from amenorrhea (41). Mercado also pointed out that women's cranial
structure did not allow their humours to escape and hence subjected
female brains to 'passions,' giving women no hope for psychological
Jorden could not entirely dispel the ideas of the ancients, especially
since their prescriptions of frequent intercourse and childbearing fit
in nicely with the developing Anglican ideology of regular and enjoyable
marital sexual relations. Despite his emphasis on the mental causes of
hysteria and his indication that men could suffer from it, Jorden
attributed some of the symptoms of the condition to "the mother" itself,
arguing that since "it hath...a varietie of offices belonging unto it,"
it was more prone to certain disruptions (1). Twenty-five years after
Jorden's pamphlet, Robert Burton's celebrated Anatomy of
Melancholy argued that melancholy affected women through "one only
cause proper to women alone...those vicious vapours which come from
menstruous blood." By contrast, Burton identified hundreds of causes for
the disease in men, discounting the idea that mental illness in women
might result from temperament or overactive imagination; he was more
interested in the idea of woman as madness than in her illnesses.
Richard Napier, one London doctor, cited only 49 instances of sexual
disorders among his several hundred mentally disturbed female patients
(Mystical Bedlam 240-41). And although a great deal of
Renaissance popular discourse on women was devoted to what Thomas Arnold
would describe in 1806 as "insanity owing to concealed love [leading to]
that dreadful kind of insanity the furor uterinus [insatiability]"
(201), Napier and Jorden recorded few instances of women suffering from
that particular malady.
MacDonald indicates that Shakespeare knew well Reginald Scot's
Discoverie of Witchcraft, which came under scrutiny by Jorden and
Harsnett as they attempted to devise medical explanations for various
cases of possession described by Scot. Though Shakespeare created
Ophelia before the Mary Glover case became public, he must have been
aware of the controversy when it broke--MacDonald implies that no one
living in London could possibly not have heard about it. The
characterization of the Jailer's Daughter certainly seems to indicate
that Shakespeare or Fletcher had read Jorden as well as Harsnett. Jorden
wrote that young girls were mature enough to suffer from sexual
deprivation at eighteen--the exact age of the Jailer's Daughter, made
much of by the doctor in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Jorden also
described a symptom in a woman patient--"My selfe do know a Gentlewoman,
who upon the sight of one particular man would alwaies feele an uterin
affect..." (16)--which is echoed by the Daughter:
First I saw him;
I, seeing, thought he was a goodly man;
He has as much to please a woman in him--
If he please to bestow it so--as ever
These eyes yet looked on...
In spite of Shakespeare's evident familiarity with Renaissance notions
of madness, Ophelia and the Jailer's Daughter deviate in some
significant ways from textbook examples of hysteria. Claudius tells
Horatio to have Ophelia followed at 4.5.74, but does not suggest that
she be confined, which goes contrary to Jorden's recommendation. Though
Harsnett and Jorden propose a variety of treatments for hysteria,
Shakespeare seems to have ignored their recommendations: Ophelia is
never examined by a doctor, nor engaged in conversation in an attempt to
get her to name her pains, and despite being followed, she is not
prevented from harming herself. The Jailer's Daughter is given the
highly unorthodox cure of premarital sex. Though Jorden permitted
playacting of fantasies as a means to relief, he stressed that "all
occasions of breeding or increasing the disease, such as sweet favors,
pleasant meats and drinks, much rest and slothfulness, etc..." must be
avoided, since the ill person must feast "upon cooling things" (23-24).
His examples of cases of hysteria rarely included sexual symptoms, and
his references to genital contact are oblique; he does offer the amusing
history of a lady who was "cured" when a surgeon asked her to take off
her clothes during an examination, causing her to come to her senses and
berate him. (It is not clear whether Jorden himself was the offending
Though Jorden and Harsnett agree that mad women may injure themselves
through uncontrolled limb movements or frenzied behavior if left
unguarded, neither seems particularly fearful that such women will
commit suicide; but in the two plays, madness leads directly to suicidal
behavior. Ophelia does nothing to prevent her own drowning after falling
into the brook, and the Jailer's Daughter makes an attempt to drown
herself shortly after praying, "Let not my sense unsettle/ Lest I should
drown, or stab, or hang myself" (3.2.29-30). Though he did not apply his
theory to women directly, Burton warned that melancholic individuals
might attempt their own lives, and it seems likely, based on hundreds of
examples in literature, that it was widely believed women suffering from
extreme lovesickness might kill themselves; but lovesickness and
hysteria were different diseases, and the relationship between them is
unclear in the plays. Shakespeare appears to have been following
theatrical rather than medical tradition in plotting the women's
demises. In fact, Shakespeare seems to have followed theatrical rather
than medical convention in most of the representations of madness
manifested by the women, including stage directions concerning their
disorderliness and requiring that they sing bawdy songs, ignore direct
orders from superiors, and threaten their own lives.
To what extent, then, can Ophelia and the Jailer's Daughter be
considered "mad"? Certainly their disorderliness points to the failure
of their reason, for if witnesses believed the women were sane while
singing wanton songs, ignoring authorities, and speaking aloud their
sexual urges, the women's reputations would be destroyed utterly.
Ophelia is incapable of communicating effectively near the end of her
life, and the Jailer's Daughter, while articulate, cannot seem to
separate reality from fantasy. But if their "mad" words are examined
closely, they speak not merely to issues of gender and sexuality; they
also have social and political implications. If, as a result of their
mental instability, Ophelia and the Daughter are read as symbols rather
than as agents within the plays, these implications are lost. But if we
assume that their madness serves a purpose beyond a practical need to
further the plot, it becomes theatrical not only through what it shows
but through what it disguises. The stake in reading madness as divinest
sense, in these cases, is a challenge to the political systems
dominating the plays.
II: "Though this be madness..."
In Still Harping On Daughters, Lisa Jardine points out that
Ophelia is caught between nunneries--the convent and the whorehouse--
depending not upon her own actions, but upon Hamlet's interpretation of
his actions. Ophelia's performance of breaking off her relationship with
Hamlet, stage-managed by her father and the king, leads Hamlet to accuse
her of dishonesty. But it is unclear whether her sweet prince means that
she is dishonest in disavowing her true love for him or dishonest in
pretending that her love was ever "honest" to begin with. He exclaims
that "the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is
to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness." At 3.1. 90-163, then,
Ophelia is honest (chaste) or a bawd (whore) depending on how Hamlet
chooses to describe his own behaviour towards her. If he loved her,
declared that love to her, and she accepted his gifts and embraces, then
she is chaste. If he never loved her, but attempted to seduce her only,
then she is lewd and lascivious, because Hamlet trifled with her. (73).
Ophelia's actions verily signify nothing at this moment, though her
words are not yet full of sound and fury. Her witnessing of Hamlet's
"madness" presages her own, yet at no time afterwards does she find
herself so thoroughly unable to communicate as at 3.1. When she does "go
mad," her speech empowers her for the first time in the play; like
Hamlet, she grants herself the power to judge others.
Ophelia's seemingly insensible ravings in 4.5 closely resemble Hamlet's
"sane" speech in the previous scene. The Gentleman tells us she "says
she hears/ There's tricks in the world" (4.5.5), an echo of Hamlet's
vision of people dying "for a fantasy and a trick of fame" (4.4.61).
Both play at straws: Hamlet finds "quarrel in a straw/ When honour's at
the stake" (4.4.55-6), Ophelia "spurns enviously at straws" (4.5.6). The
obsession with trifles and trickery seems more justified in Hamlet,
preparing for a bloody fight, than in Ophelia, yet nothing the Gentleman
says particularly points to the conclusion that she has gone mad. Quite
...Her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection. They aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily. (4.5.7-13)
The Gentleman, Horatio, and the Queen fear Ophelia's sanity more than
her madness. The Gentleman prefers his belief that her words make no
sense to the alternative conclusion, that she intends the
interpretations her listeners draw. Her inchoate speech makes it
difficult for him to tell. That her free-wheeling signifiers could lead
to damage to the rulers' reputations is made clear through Horatio's
suggestion that "'Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew/
Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds" (4.5.14-15). The queen
seems certain that Ophelia wants something of her, at first refusing to
admit her, then asking what Ophelia would "have." Ophelia's words and
wanton sexual displays may recall the queen to her own lusts and guilt,
but the girl's symbolic potential alone cannot account for the queen's
nervousness. Rather, Gertrude seems to dread another verbal attack on
her character like Hamlet's at 3.4.
The audience has been warned before Ophelia's entrance that she is mad
and not to be taken seriously; the Gentleman's admonition that "her mood
will needs be pitied" is directed less to Gertrude, who already pities
her, than to the spectators. When Ophelia enters in the classical stage
guise of madness, hair down and ruffled, the audience is primed to
accept her as witless. Gertrude, however, is not. Her response to
Ophelia's ambiguous first question, "Where is the beauteous Majesty of
Denmark?" may sound defensive as well as puzzled, for the rightful
"Majesty of Denmark" has been murdered, and the next in line, Hamlet,
has fled the court, much to his mother's chagrin. Her alarmed "How now,
Ophelia?" indicates her hope that she has mistaken Ophelia's meaning.
Ophelia's sung subsequent question, "How should I your true love know/
From another one?", recalls the substitution of Claudius for the queen's
rightful "true love." The lyric tale of a late unlamented lover leads
Gertrude to demand why Ophelia has chosen that particular song and to
tell her "Nay..." Were the listener not dismissing her chants as the
ranting of a madwoman, Ophelia's demands that Gertrude "mark" her
meaning and the timing of the song might lead the listener to wonder how
much Ophelia suspected during the dumb-show which she claimed not to
Claudius wants to pass off Ophelia's behavior as brooding about her
father's death--thus displacing his own guilt onto Hamlet, Polonius'
killer--but she refuses to have her distress attributed to this cause,
demanding, "Pray let's have no words of this" (4.5.46). Claudius then
tries to press Ophelia to become her former self, but she refuses to
become the "pretty lady" he wishes to see, bursting instead into an
uncourtly song about a maid losing her virginity. As David Leverenz
argues, her bawdy song may criticize the mixed messages Ophelia has been
receiving from Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet about what kind of woman
she ought to be (117); her words offer implicit criticism of all the
love relationships she has witnessed, which label women either bawds or
passive models of chastity.
Ophelia's parting speech to Claudius sounds quite sane--dangerously
sane. She worries about a "him" whom "they would lay...i'th' cold
ground." Even if she refers to the dead "true love" of the first song
and not an actual person, her words recall the murdered king and the
conspiracy against Hamlet's life engineered by Claudius. She warns that
her brother will be told "of it"--though whether the "it" refers to an
actual plot or an imagined one is unclear--and exits thanking them for
their "counsel." The king's prompt admonition to have her watched--which
echoes his earlier orders concerning Hamlet--sounds more like the
fearful response of a guilty ruler than the concerned advice of a
surrogate father. His subsequent lines to Gertrude,
Divided from herself and her fair judgement,
Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts (4.5.84-6)
have a double significance: they may mean that without her judgement,
picturesque Ophelia is no better than a beast, but they may be
interpreted to indicate that in her present state, Ophelia sees the king
and queen as pictures, or mere beasts (Willbern 252). This may be taken
to mean that she recognizes Claudius as the figure represented in the
dumb-show, but moreover it indicates that Ophelia's "madness" allows her
to entertain thoughts about her rulers she otherwise would not allow
herself to have, removing the masks of convention which allow Gertrude
and Claudius to rule unchallenged. As Showalter explains, "The mad
Ophelia's bawdy songs and verbal license...give her access to an
entirely different range of experience from what she is allowed as the
dutiful daughter...her one sanctioned form of self-assertion as a woman,
quickly followed, as if in retribution, by her death" (81).
Showalter indicates that, just as patriarchal critics have an interest
in reading Ophelia as mad in order to represent her as ineffectual--a
reminder that for Lacan she is "O-phallus, a "lack" dead before her
death since she has ceased to signify--feminist critics have a stake in
reading her as mad, in order to demonstrate how thoroughly society has
oppressed figures like Ophelia. "Is she indeed representative of
Woman, and does her madness stand for the oppression of women in society
as well as in tragedy?" Showalter asks (78). Though this question is
compelling, I find it interesting that even a feminist critic insists on
reading the character "Ophelia" symbolically, rather than reading her
words. It would seem, then, that nearly everyone--the characters in
Hamlet, the Renaissance audience, contemporary readers--would all have
an interest in reading Ophelia as mad.
But is she? The play's ambiguity on this question permits a variety of
readings of her death. According to Renaissance medical discourse,
Ophelia is not necessarily hysterical; her symptoms could be attributed
to lovesickness, female melancholy, or simply excess temper. It is
interesting that in the world of Hamlet, where no one seems shocked by
the appearance of a ghost, witchcraft is never suspected in Ophelia's
decline. But even if we assume that Ophelia is mad, her "incapability of
her own distress" would seem unlikely. Other factors complicate the
ending Shakespeare plots for her.
Though Gertrude leads Laertes to believe Ophelia died alone, singing old
lauds until the waters sucked her down, the amount of detail of the
account indicates that somebody witnessed her death and reported it.
Strangely, Gertrude does not suggest that that witness tried to save
Ophelia; even if it were not true, it would seem fitting for Gertrude to
lie to the bereaved Laertes, to tell him everything possible was done to
save his sister. At any rate, it seems probable that Ophelia was allowed
to die to prevent her from further embarrassing herself and her rulers--
or that she wilfully committed suicide and Gertrude, fearing Laertes'
wrath, chose to portray the girl as mad rather than mistreated.
An alternate reading has been offered by Harold Jenkins, who emphasizes
that as the female of highest rank, Gertrude has a conventional
obligation to offer the account, "reaching chorus-like beyond the
dialogue." Jenkins implies that though the speech is out of character
for Gertrude, "the play expects [the audience] to accept" (546). And
audiences generally have accepted it. But if convention calls for a
stylish speech upon the death of a noble female character, convention
may also permit embellishment; moreover, since Gertrude wishes to leave
no doubt in Laertes' mind that Ophelia was completely crazed when she
died, she certainly might have made parts or all of it up. The speech
which stands of ultimate proof of Ophelia's madness may not be true.
Because her puzzling behavior makes her role in the drama difficult to
interpret, Ophelia at times seems less a character than a plot device--a
foil for Gertrude and Hamlet, a catalyst for the actions of Polonius and
Laertes. Her death is demanded by the plot, to give Laertes another
death to avenge and to provide Hamlet with his spectacular graveyard
speeches. As the various revenge plots build to a climax, her character
is hardly missed. At the end of the play, when most of the major
characters lie dead or dying, the question of Ophelia's madness or
sanity seems irrelevant to the conclusion.
Yet the rest, in this case, is not silence. Though the action of the
play might lose little with the loss of the mad Ophelia--just as the
action would hardly suffer in the absence of Hamlet's soliloquies--the
range of interpretations offered by the drama would be substantially
limited. Ophelia is the only character who directly challenges the
gender system, both through her words and through the transgressive act
of theatrical madness. Her demise, more than any other event, indicates
that something is rotten in the state of Denmark beyond the regal crises
of the moment. Something is rotten in the body of Denmark, where
sexuality and corruption cannot be separated.
III: "That we should things desire which do cost us/ The loss of our
Paul Bertram reports that comparisons of Ophelia and the Jailer's
Daughter probably began shortly after the first production of The Two
Noble Kinsmen and were cemented by eighteenth-century editor Thomas
Seward--who considered the latter woman a weak imitation of the former
(215). Observe the similarities between Gertrude's account of Ophelia's
death and the Wooer's narration of the Daughter's attempted suicide:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring to hand, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poorwretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (Hamlet 4.7.165-82)
In the great lake that lies behind the palace,
From the far shore, thick set with reeds and sedges,
As patiently I was attending sport,
I heard a voice, a shrill one; and attentive
I gave my ear; when I might well perceive
'Twas one that sung, and by the smallness of it,
A boy or woman. ... The place
Was knee-deep where she sat; her carelees tresses
A wreath of bulrush rounded; about her stuck
Thousand fresh water-flower of several colors,
That methought she appeared like the fair nymph
That feeds the lake with waters, or as Iris...
I made in to her.
She saw me and straight sought the flood. I sav'd her...
(The Two Noble Kinsmen 4.1.55-96)
The image of the Daughter unquestionably echoes that of Ophelia. One is
compared to a mermaid, the other a rainbow; both sing nonsense songs and
surround themselves with flowers. However, there are two significant
differences. The most remarkable is the absence of an I/eye in
Gertrude's narration, making it impossible to know whose metaphors shape
Ophelia or whether they can be trusted. But it seems a key difference
that the Daughter "straight sought the flood." While "Ophelia's suicide"
is a common theme in Hamlet criticism, it is misleading; nothing in the
play indicates that Ophelia at any point wants to end her life, and she
seems far happier, more at ease with herself, in her "mad" scenes than
at any prior point. This is not true of the Jailer's Daughter, who
becomes progressively more distraught as she loses her sense of reality.
Mad Ophelia may or may not be suicidal, but the Jailer's Daughter
Bertram finds the Jailer's Daughter an unremarkable double of Ophelia,
commenting on "the wan, curiously ineffective didacticism of [the
Daughter's] mad scenes...each time she appears the particular qualities
of tone and energy that her voice expresses are conditioned by her lack
of status" (231). Astonishingly considering the successful reception of
the Jailer's Daughter in production, Bertram finds her most effective in
her Wooer's description: "The single passage in which the daughter is
made to seem...unqualifiedly pitiable is, appropriately, the narrative
in 4.1 in which we see her through the eyes of her lover." Despite his
unsympathetic reading of the woman, Bertram recognizes that her will to
rise above her station, rather than an inexplicable lust for Palamon, is
the real source of her madness; Palamon is a symptom, not the cause. The
Wooer ultimately deserves her, not because he substitutes effectively
for Palamon, but because his words manifest the "chivalric" love she
desires in a way Palamon's never can.
Carol Thomas Neely writes that in romantic relationships in Shakespeare,
Petrarchan convention--"the attenduated, formulaic Renaissance version
of medieval courtly love relegated here to the period of courtship"--
dictate the lovers' actions, causing the men to idealize their beloveds
and the women to mock the men. But by debunking their idealization--
taking themselves off the pedestal--the women necessitate their own
domestication (6). The Daughter seems aware of the double bind: wanting
to be idealized by a courtly lover rather than handed over to a man who
woos her father more than herself, yet cognizant that her own class
position would make a mockery of any man's "courtly" love for her, she
rejects not love but the social frame which constrains it. This behavior
takes her outside not only society but also the self--structured around
her gender, class, and familial role--which interacts with that society.
She goes mad.
The Daughter's crisis is precipitated by her father's plans to wed her
to a man she scarcely seems to notice; when she first enters the play,
carrying rushes for the chamber of Palamon and Arcite, she pointedly
ignores the Wooer, who has been bargaining for her with her father. Her
attention rather falls upon a nobility of spirit she can never hope to
achieve or share in: "It seems to me [Palamon and Arcite] have no more
sense of their captivity than I of ruling Athens" (2.1.38-9). Her
comment upon exiting--"Lord, the diff'rence of men!", which most critics
take as a comment on the difference between Palamon and Arcite--probably
refers to the inferiority of her father and lover compared to the two
nobles, not that of Arcite to Palamon. She does not express a preference
for Palamon until after Arcite's banishment, and her desires may result
simply from his presence.
Unlike the men, who argue against all probability that one or the other
will have Emelia despite Theseus' disfavor and their own misfortune, the
Daughter understands from the start that her love for Palamon is doomed:
Why should I love this gentleman? 'Tis odds
He never will affect me. I am base,
My father the mean keeper of his prison,
And he a prince. To marry him is hopeless,
To be his whore is witless. Out upon't,
What pushes are we wenches driven to
When fifteen once has found us! (2.4.91-7)
But ultimately she refuses to accept the impossibility of the
relationship, just as Palamon and Arcite alike refuse to consider the
stupidity of fighting over a woman who does not know they exist. As
Richard Abrams describes her decision, "Craving the glamour of
association with a gentleman too dear for her possession, the Daughter,
fallen from both sexual and social innocence, hopes to raise her status
by 'venturing' boldly" (154). The plan backfires, and she finds herself
worse off than before, having risked her father's life and the Wooer's
love for a man in love with someone else. Obsessed with her physical and
emotional poverty, and only too aware that even admission to hell costs
a silver coin (4.3.18-20), she lets herself fantasize in repayment for
everything of which society has robbed her. She imagines a "noble" end
"dying almost a martyr" for her actions (2.5.16-17), tries to put on
airs, orders the audience to listen to her, and ignores her superiors--
her father, the Wooer, the doctor--when they attempt to return her to
Most interpretations of the Jailer's Daughter have focused on how her
sexual repression aggravates her class and familial repression and
ultimately leads to her madness, but such a reading ignores the
divided attitudes the Daughter--and, indeed, the play--present
concerning sexuality. Nearly every critic of the drama has discussed the
homoerotic relationships between the characters: Every one of the ten
essays in Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen
makes some reference to the love between Palamon and Arcite, who declare
that should they be forced to spend a lifetime in jail, they would
become "one another's wife, ever begetting/ New births of love..."
(2.2.80-81). Palamon sees Emilia, in fact, at the moment Arcite declares
that "after death our spirits shall be led/ To those that love
eternally" (2.2.116-17), a dramatic reminder of compulsory
heterosexuality at the moment the pair contemplate passage into Elysium
in the manner of lovers. Palamon and Arcite are certainly not alone in
the play in enjoying homosocial relationships; both Hippolyta and Emilia
worry more about the feelings of other women than about pleasing men,
and Theseus--the instrument through which marriage becomes compulsory
for Hippolyta and Emilia--chooses to go off to battle in the company of
other men rather than consummate his own marriage.
Thus, in a perverse twist, the Daughter and her Wooer represent
traditional, chaste heterosexual love more completely than any other
characters in the romance. Yet even the Daughter manifests a deep
ambivalence at the thought of sexual intercourse. When she believes that
she has finally gotten what she wanted--Palamon as a lover on her own
terms--the thought of consummating the relatioship frightens her, and
her last words in the play, following a series of announcements that she
must lose her maidenhead "by cocklight," reflect not her eagerness but
Daughter: And shall we kiss too?
Wooer: A hundred times.
Daughter: And twenty.
Wooer: Aye, and twenty.
Daughter: And then we'll sleep together...
Wooer: Yes, marry, will we.
Daughter: But you shall not hurt me.
Wooer: I will not, sweet.
Daughter: If you do, love, I'll cry. (5.2.109-113)
Palamon's miserable lament to the body of Arcite, "O cousin,/That we
should things desire which do cost us/The loss of our desire!" (109-11)
describes the Daughter's madness more thoroughly than any theory about
her verbal, sexual or social repression. Her hopeless desire for
Palamon--really a hopeless desire for a kind of love which she knows not
to be real--leads to a frustration which goes beyond gender and class
constraints. She desires that desire work differently, and her inability
to make it so drives her outside reason in her unreasonable world.
She can accept the Wooer as a substitute Palamon, finally--not only, as
Abrams argues, because he (along with the gift of a dowry from the real
Palamon) offers her bourgeois comforts, but because he does not fit into
the strictures of desire she expects. He loves her, neither as an
idealized woman to complement a noble self-image such as Palamon seeks,
nor as the means to a dowry which she thought he sought. He loves her,
knows her, is gallant enough to save her even in madness--unlike the
noble Palamon, whose love is less for his lover than for his conception
of himself as a lover. The play thus demonstrates that, though Palamon's
clothes fit him ill, the Wooer can fill Palamon's shoes better than
Palamon himself. The sense that the Wooer is the sort of love the
Daughter wanted all along allows her, and the audience, to forgive him
the trick by which he wins her. The surrogate Palamon is acceptable as
well to the demands of the drama, which require that the Daughter's
sexuality be provided for within the restraints of marriage and of her
The theatrical device of the bed-trick works in the play largely because
of the overt theatricality of the rest of the drama. Not coincidentally,
the Jailer's Daughter first appears "mad" in public, at 3.5, during a
May Day festival with elements of Saturnalian reversal. She encounters
several countrymen and wenches, who then encounter Theseus and his
company in the woods--as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a place
where Theseus' formal control wanes. Under these conditions, though the
schoolmaster cheerfully calls her "a madwoman," nobody really recognizes
her as mad. She fits perfectly into the festivities, which require a
She-Fool--another image of a madwoman--to dance the Morris. As Natalie
Zemon Davis explains, in festive inversion "the disorderly woman
could...sanction riot and political disobedience" (131). It is of
particular interest here that Davis demonstrates a link between the
Morris Dance and the image of the disorderly woman, since the role of
Maid Marian in the dance was usually performed by a man: "The most
important English examples of the male as grotesque female were the
Bessy and Maid Marian...[who] presided with Robin Hood over the May
games. If in this capacity she was sometimes a real female and sometimes
a disguised male, when it came to the Morris Dance with Robin...the
Marian was a man. Here again the Maid's gestures or costume might be
Rather than substituting a maid with a man playing a maid, as in a
traditional Morris dance, the play substitutes a maid for a man playing
a maid. The Daughter thus fluidly transgresses gender limitations, with
the full sanction of a noble audience; even her lower-class position
appears liberating in contrast with Hippolyta and Emilia, who can only
witness the freedom celebrated by their social inferiors. On this day
when society permits itself rebellion against its own artificial
hierarchies, the Daughter's verbal and venereal freedom earns her
accolades rather than treatment. Only afterwards, when she fails to
recognize that the holiday is over, does her failure to curb her desires
attract the worry of witnesses.
Susan Green points out that while Theseus, the signifier of social
hierarchy as well as its upholder in the play, defers desire into
language through rituals such as weddings, contests, and organized
celebrations, the Daughter cannot deflect her feelings in the same way
(130). Theseus externalizes passion in the formal constraint of
marriage, frustration in the formal constraint of war, fear in the
formal constraint of public prayer. The Daughter conversely internalizes
the passions of others: she feels Palamon's imprisonment and becomes
imprisoned herself in love with him, she sees a shipwreck and identifies
it with the wreck of her hopes. The difference between Theseus' ability
to name and control desires and the Daughter's failure to do so
represents the difference between sanity and madness in the play.
The relationship between the Jailer's Daughter and Theseus is worth
exploring because both serve as playwrights and stage managers within
the play, furthering the link between psychology and performance. But
while Theseus employs theatrics for the purpose of control, the Daughter
uses them to escape constraints. Theseus' audience become involved in
his play because of the persuasiveness of his power--Hippolyta, Palamon,
Arcite, and Emilia have little choice but to obey his plans, though they
have some abilities to affect his intentions--but the Daughter's
audience responds to the power of her persuasiveness, allowing
themselves to be drawn into her fantasies because they cannot break
through them to affect her. Green argues that the daughter gives "others
the illusion that in acting out her fantasies, she will be restored to
their world, where dowered maidens marry within their class..." (130),
but this is an inadequate explanation for the degree of involvement the
Daughter's actors permit themselves. The Daughter's performance of her
search for Palamon is another form of Saturnalia, and the participants
escape along with her momentarily from their assigned positions. The
Doctor even acknowledges that social constraints may be unhealthy,
admonishing the Jailer that premarital intercourse would be far
healthier for his daughter than uncontrolled lust (5.2.16-26). Theseus,
who demands the death of one of Emilia's lovers in order to preserve the
decorum of both, would scarcely agree. His devotion to maintaining
order--man over Minotaur, ruler over subject, human over fairy, reason
over passion, laws over lusts--has been his life's work. He disrupts his
wedding to go to war over proper order for the dead.
Though her discourse may be read to have political implications, like
Ophelia's, the Daughter lacks the onstage audience which Ophelia's class
and position gives her access to. She never interacts directly with the
nobles. She never speaks to Arcite, but points to him from a distance
until discouraged by her father from even looking at the noblemen. Even
her exchanges with Palamon take place between scenes. Though she and
Theseus share the stage briefly during the festival her disorderliness
never threatens him directly--and one of her earliest lines in the play,
a sad recognition that she can never be ruler of Athens, falls on deaf
ears. Though she releases Palamon from jail for personal reasons, her
actions have political consequences of which she is aware, as her "Let
all the Dukes and all the devils roar;/ He is at liberty" at 2.6.1-2
makes clear; her first thoughts upon releasing him thus turn to the
unfair system which constrained Palamon than to the man himself. But she
cannot bring the political into her sphere even through this
transgression, for Theseus decides to forgive the Jailer and the
Daughter--news conveyed by a mean messenger--without exploring the
reasons for her crime. The daughter's sorrowful lament over her lack of
a dowry at 5.2 is never heard by Palamon; her agency has no effect on
his decision to provide for her. Only through her performances, first of
the Morris Dance in front of the nobles and later through her "search
for Palamon" with her father, uncle, and lover, can she influence the
men who control her.
By Renaissance medical standards, is the Jailer's Daughter mad? The
answer would seem to be a resounding yes...followed by a moment of
hesitation. Without question she demonstrates many of the symptoms of
hysteria. Though most of Ophelia's symptoms may be seen as performative,
the Daughter's mad monologues often lack an onstage audience. Her fear
of losing her wits is genuine, and no doubt is cast upon her intentions
during her suicide attempt. Yet it takes much longer for the characters
to suspect her hysteria, because her gender, class, and position
conspire with the theatrical conventions of the May festival to disguise
it. The Daughter's madness, perhaps more than Ophelia's, casts a shadow
beyond the medical to challenge political, social, and theatrical
constructions of gendered madness. Though she cannot affect her rulers
directly, she can rewrite the script for her life provided by others and
force them to participate in her transgression.
The performances of Ophelia and the nameless Daughter demonstrate how
thoroughly Renaissance medical texts ignored the sociopolitical
implications of madness for women, despite an obsessive interest with
religious concerns. Though he liberated women from the discourse of the
wandering womb, Jorden failed to consider the social reasons for
madness, which permitted political communication and challenge by women
who otherwise would lack voice. The playwrights seem far more sensitive
to the voices of women than the doctors, too conscious of the demands of
the church to hear the pleas of their patients. In demystifying female
madness, the doctors reduce its theatrical potential; but in
Shakespeare, the demystification is not quite complete, and the
disorderly words of the hysterical woman may be less indeterminate than
* * * *
1 I am indebted for innumerable suggestions and bibliographic references
to Jane Kromm, Michael MacDonald, Carol Thomas Neely, and the
participants of their workshop "Reading Women and Madness in Medical,
Dramatic, and Visual Texts" at the symposium "Attending to Women in
Early Modern England," held at the Center for Renaissance and Baroque
Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, 8-10 November 1990.
2 I am following the assumption, described in detail by Eugene M. Waith,
Stanley Wells, and others, that Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated as
claimed on The Two Noble Kinsmen Waith hypothesizes that "the
most likely division of labor is the following: Shakespeare: 1; 2.1;
3.1-2; 4.3; 5.1 & 3-4, Fletcher: 2.2-6; 3.3-6; 4.1-2; 5.2" (22). For a
more complete discussion of the probable authorship of the play, see G.
Harold Metz and Charles Frey.
3 Sidney and Spenser borrow classical images of mad women in The
Arcadia and The Faerie Queene (Ann Thompson points out that
Mopsa, the jailer's daughter in Book 4 of The Arcadia, may be a
source for the one in The Two Noble Kinsmen); Beaumont, Fletcher,
Rowley, and Middleton dramatize such women in several plays
(particularly relevant is the predicament of Beaumont and Fletcher's
Viola in The Coxcomb); and the popular figure of "frenzy,"
envisioned as a woman tearing at her hair, appears many times on canvas
and in sculpture between 1580 and 1650. See Michael MacDonald, Elaine
Showalter, and Jane Kromm for visual illustrations.
4 For a discussion of Harsnett and madness in King Lear, see
Stephen Greenblatt's "Shakespeare and the Exorcists." For a more
complete discussion of the role of Jorden's pamphlet in medical and
religious discourse, see MacDonald's Witchcraft and Hysteria in
Elizabethan London. Shakespeare may also have known Timothy Bright's
1586 Treatise of Melancholy and Thomas Wright's 1604 The
Passions of the Minde in Generall, two widely circulated texts
5 MacLean explains in detail Renaissance understandings of ancient
medicine. See The Renaissance Notion of Woman 28-46.
6 See Burton First Part., Sect. 3, Memb. 1, Subs. 1. I have used Dell
and Jordan-Smith's 1927 edition because the editors translated the Greek
and Latin passages and notes.
7 I thank Karen Di Nal for suggestions about the "sanity" of Ophelia's
8 Luce Irigaray has commented on the perverse logic of madness as a
means of expression for women denied speech, pointing to celebrated
female religious ecstatics' successful entrance into discourse. See
This Sex Which Is Not One, Catherine Porter, trans. (Cornell:
Cornell UP, 1985)
9 See Roberts and Green particularly. Even casual reference to the
character, as in S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: His Life, His Language,
His Theater, tend to discuss the Daughter so.
10 "Nominally she still seeks Palamon, but the object of her quest has
become generic, permitting a final substitution" (Abrams 155).
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