The portrayal of Elvira in I puritani follows the trope of the madwoman, which dominated the nineteenth-century European discourse on gender. Trapped in a man’s world, Victorian women often escaped into madness, which was viewed as the only permissible way for them to speak the truth and to solve the tensions and pressures of their untenable position. Within the sphere of art, drama and literature, crazed and suicidal heroines (Ophelia, Elaine, the Lady of Shalott) dominated the late-nineteenth-century artistic and literary scene.

The obligatory mad scene had its origins in a Renaissance theatrical convention of representing “mad women as erotomaniacs. This is based on masculine assumption that women are more inclined to go mad since they are closer to the irrational by nature, and that young women’s madness is, more often than not, caused by sexual frustration of unrequited love.”

Shakespeare’s Ophelia, particularly, was seen as the epitome of female madness. In the clinical context, Ophelia came to represent a peculiar female malady; a psychological predisposition, based on one’s femininity, toward madness and suicide. In 1833, George Farren considered Shakespeare’s description of mad Ophelia to be an ideal example of a clinical case of female insanity: “It is impossible to conceive of anything more perfect than the picture of disease given by Shakespeare in this scene of Ophelia’s. Every medical professor who is familiar with cases of insanity will freely acknowledge its truth.” For Farren, Shakespeare’s description of Ophelia’s insanity has a clinical quality.

Eventually, the interaction between clinical, literary, dramatic, and visual discourse became conflated, blurring the lines of causality: it was becoming less and less clear whether Shakespeare merely presented “the picture of [ feminine] disease” or whether he created the disease. Elaine Showalter (1985) suggests that “illustrations of Ophelia, notably a series of pictures produced by Delacroix between 1830 and 1850, inspired by Harriet Smithson’s portrayal, played a major role in the theoretical construction of female insanity”. Showalter continues: “Ophelia became the prototype not only of the deranged woman in Victorian literature and art but also of the young female asylum patient”.

Soon doctors began to diagnose some of their female mental patients with “Ophelia.” In 1859 Dr. Charles Bucknill, then president of the Medico-Psychological Association, wrote: “Ophelia is the very type of a class of cases by no means uncommon. Every mental physician of moderately extensive experience must have seen many Ophelias. It is a copy from nature, after the fashion of the Pre-Raphaelites” (Showalter, “Representing Ophelia”).

Actresses of that time, such as Ellen Tracy or Harriet Smithson, visited mental hospitals in order to study young mentally disturbed girls to prepare for their roles as Ophelia. In 1879, commissioned to do a portrait of Tracy’s mad Ophelia, the painter and printmaker Anna Lead Merritt visited Bedlam Hospital in search of a “real model” (Kiefer 2001: 18). But the most dramatic insertion of Ophelia into the clinical discourse was a series of photographs taken by Dr. Hugh Welsh Diamond (1809–86), a superintendent of female patients at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum in Springfield and a member of the Photographic Society of London. Beginning in 1851, Diamond took a series of photographs of young women to illustrate various cases of female insanity, while stylizing his patient to resemble Shakespeare’s heroine. For Diamond, Ophelia was an ideal madwoman. Shakespeare’s story provided the cause of madness and helped Diamond to write a psychiatric diagnosis and the story behind it (abandoned, traumatized, deflowered, and so forth).

The practice of diagnosing girls with Ophelia syndrome was widespread, and it also influenced Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–93) and his psychiatric research on female insanity. Lehman (1996) points out that “Dr. Charcot’s patients [like Diamond’s] were also coached for the cameras, and sometimes instructed to perform Shakespearian heroines while under hypnosis.” Freud was a student at Charcot’s clinic for four months in 1885 and 1886, and considered Charcot his greatest professional inspiration. To what degree were Freud’s own theories on femininity, female hysteria, and female masochism modeled on the image of Ophelia? Conflating the social and the medical, Freud medicalized femininity, creating an image of the feminine as intrinsically affected by the faults of her sex, and thus as prone to madness and hysteria.

Wanting to be as ethereally “sublime” as Ophelia and other popular madwomen, women of all walks of life began fashioning themselves as insane. As one of Paris’ first superstars, glorified specifically on account of her “heart-rending and graceful, simple and sublime” portrayal of mad Ophelia, Smithson “became the model for a Parisian fashion: a coiffure “à la Miss Smithson” was introduced, a coiffure “‘à la folle,’ consisting of a ‘black veil with wisps of straw tastefully interwoven’ in the hair,” reported Corsaire magazine on October 11, 1827 (Raby 1982). Loose hair on a woman was at that time a conventional theatrical sign for madness, and Smithson’s mad hairstyle was reportedly copied widely by the Parisian beau monde.

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera Blog (4/30/14).

Read more:

Farren, G. (1833). Essay on the Varieties in Mania, Exhibited by the Characters of Hamlet, Ophelia, Lear and Edgar. London: Dean and Munday.

Hamana, E. (1995). Whose Body Is It, Anyway?—A Re-Reading of Ophelia. In Yoshiko Uéno (Ed.), Hamlet and Japan (pp. 143–154). New York: AMS Press.

Kiefer, C. (2001). The Myth and Madness of Ophelia. Amherst: Mead Art Museum.

Kromm, J. E. (1994). “The Feminization of Madness in Visual Representation.” Feminist Studies, 20 (3), pp. 507–535. See also Chesler, P. (1972). Women and Madness. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Lehman, A. (1996). Theatricality, Madness and Mesmerism: Nineteenth-century Female Performers. (Doctoral Dissertation, Indiana University, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International

Raby, P. (1982). ‘Fair Ophelia’: A Life of Harriet Smithon Berlioz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Showalter, E. (1985). The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830–1980. New York: Pantheon Books.

Showalter, E. (1985). “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.” In Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (Eds.), Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (pp. 77–94). London: Methuen.

Steele, V. (1985). Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty From the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York : Oxford University Press.

Winslow, F. (1854). Recent Trials in Lunacy. Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, 7.