The character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often depicted as a rejected lover driven to insanity and to her own death by drowning. But while common interpretations have portrayed her as a dishevelled madwoman, East Asian interpretations have placed her as a strong symbol of female agency
There has always been a perceived affinity between Ophelia and East Asian women. In May 1930, Evelyn Waugh entertained the prospect of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong playing Ophelia: “I should like to see Miss Wong playing Shakespeare. Why not a Chinese Ophelia? It seems to me that Miss Wong has exactly those attributes which one most requires of Shakespearean heroines.”
Ophelia is a paradox in East Asian literature, drama and film. Even when she appears to depend on others for her thoughts like her Western counterpart, the figure of Ophelia in Asian rewritings signals a strong presence by her absence and even absent-mindedness. While Asian Ophelias may suffer from what S. I. Hayakawa calls “the Ophelia syndrome” (inability to formulate and express one’s own thoughts), they adopt various rhetorical strategies—balancing between eloquence and silence—to let themselves be seen and heard. Asian incarnations of Ophelias occupy a broad spectrum of interpretive range and possess more moral agency.
In conversation with and moving beyond the Victorian legacy, Ophelia has been reimagined in Asian culture as a filial daughter, river goddess, an ideal lover, and a mediator between human and spiritual worlds. As they race to “botch [her] words up” (Hamlet 4.5.10) and tell Ophelia’s stories, Asian artists present an Ophelia figure who is no longer just a “document in madness” (4.5.178). In fact, Ophelia is so central to the anxiety of modernity that she remains a focal point on the Japanese stage even when Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy was cut completely in early adaptations in Tokyo and elsewhere. The first production of Hamlet in Japan, a kabuki adaptation around 1890, and the first performance of Hamlet in Tokyo in 1903, both indulged in the spectacle of the mad Ophelia. Significantly, the 1930 Tokyo production became a landmark event in Japan’s theatre and cultural history because Orieko (Ophelia) was played by an actress (Madame Sadayacco) rather than the customary onnagata, or female impersonator. This Western performance technique was used to offer an Asian take on Ophelia, as the production was set in contemporary Japan.
The Victorian legacy has served as an iconic reference point for later artists and shaped Ophelia’s afterlife. Rhiannon Brace describes The Ophelia Project (2010) which she directed in London, as “a celebration of woman,” that drew upon “romantic images of women such as Millais’s Ophelia and other Pre-Raphaelite paintings [and their glorification of Nature] to create movement.” Natsume Sōseki created a painter obsessed by Millais’ Ophelia in his Kusamakura (1906), and one obsessed by the likeness of Ophelia herself in a portrait in Kojin, A Wanderer (1912-13). Lao She’s novella New Hamlet (1936) and Sherwood Hu’s film The Prince of the Himalayas (2006) were also inspired by this iconic painting, which was exhibited in Tokyo and Kobe in 1997-1998, and is well known to East Asian audiences. Ophelia, crowned by a floral wreath and floating in a lake, dominates one of the posters for Prince of the Himalayas, while Lao She’s novella creates an ironic distance from such unnatural naturalism and gendered poses that modern adapters have inherited from the pre-Raphaelite ideal.
East Asian rewritings transform Ophelia from “a document of madness” to symbols of purity and female agency, privileged sites of resistance of authority, and an icon of true love. These adaptations of Hamlet are preoccupied with their placement and displacement in relation to sources of authority. While her songs still occupy the centre of attention, Ophelia does not tend to stand in for lost girlhood or female madness in Asia. Instead, the strands of girl power and fragile girlhood coexist as Asian Ophelias lay claim to their moral agency by thinking and acting on their own behalf. However, they are simultaneously limited by the new cultural locations they seek to sustain. In some instances, the double bind of Confucian ethical codes and East Asian modernity contribute to contrasting interpretations of Ophelia that make her, at once, a powerful mediator and a symbol of the abject. In other instances, these powerful rewritings serve as inspiration for local artists and audiences, for spawning new images of modern women. In still other instances, the figure of Ophelia is pitched as a cross between a conscientious and filial Cordelia, an innocent Desdemona, a loyal subject, and a fearless and dedicated lover.
Though it is necessary to highlight the female agency in the local contexts, these examples do not seek to privilege any version of local feminism or to posit a nationalist category of “Asian” women. On the contrary, they slow us down, defamiliarise what has been assumed to be familiar, and help focus our attention as we “return” from translation and adaptation. They lead us back to Shakespeare’s plays with new paths for interpretation. The artistic achievements of these interpretations of Ophelia lie in the rich and complex pictures of love, social responsibility, and transcendence that they can offer. As much as Ophelia was freely appropriated as a privileged site of female agency in local contexts, writers and directors have also parodied the constructions of female madness and unrequited love through Ophelia. Indeed, as Elaine Showalter argues, there may be no “true” Ophelia for whom “feminist criticism must unambiguously speak.” A variety of images of East Asian women emerge through these rewritings.
Excerpted from Alexander Huang’s “The Paradox of Female Agency: Ophelia and East Asian Sensibilities,” in The Afterlife of Ophelia (New York: Palgrave, 2012).
Image from: http://www.lifeofguangzhou.com/node_981/node_989/node_996/node_1017/node_1045/img/2010/12/13/129222162082948_1.jpg
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