English Faculty Publications


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

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Source

The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead


Shakespeare’s Hamlet constructs one of the most troubling images of motherhood in literature: the character of Gertrude, a too-present mother. Much critical attention has uncovered how Gertrude’s characterization exposes patriarchal undercurrents embedded in the Western ideology of motherhood. This chapter, however, seeks to unearth the mirror, or double to Hamlet’s mother, the mother of Ophelia, never mentioned, never referenced, and never invoked, yet made present through absence as her daughter’s tragedy unfolds. Ophelia’s interactions with Laertes, Polonius, Hamlet and Gertrude bring into sharp relief the specter of the mother-not-there. She is constructed as the deus ex machina that fails to appear; that could have offered protection, true guidance, wisdom, all that Ophelia needed to survive the violence and chaos around her. Like a mirror, Ophelia’s mother functions as a similar yet antithetical image to Gertrude. ‘Mother’s reason’, equated with nature’s reason, is set against woman’s appetite. The analysis is extended to larger considerations of how ‘mother’s wisdom’ is imagined through the negated mother of Ophelia, through connections to other expressions of ‘mother’s reason’ in Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who characterize nature as embodied motherhood and yet absent. Ophelia’s death implies her attempt to join an absent mother configured as nature. This interpretation is underscored by the graveyard scene, which questions whether Ophelia will return to her father in heaven, and challenges her receiving a Christian burial as a suicide. In the scene, her grave remains empty.

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Palgrave Macmillan

Place of Publication

Cham, Switzerland



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