What’s Written on the Body: Madness, Gender, and the Discourse of Suicide

This is a paper I wrote for my Shakespeare class. It addresses some issues that are very close to me. It’s pretty long, but I hope that those who are interested will enjoy it if they choose to tackle the whole thing.

What’s Written on the Body:

Madness, Gender, and the Discourse of Suicide

Madness and suicide in the plays of Shakespeare are common areas of study among scholars. However, as madness has begun to be “re-thought and re-gendered, certain kinds of disorders, particularly those associated with women” (Neely 76) need to be re-examined through the theoretical framework of post-structuralism and feminism. Hamlet and Macbeth offer complex and multifaceted textures for making sense of the madness that circumscribes the female body; the implications and the inevitable results. The representation of the female body as it is controlled through surveillance, domestication, sexual purity, and enforced passivity, remains, in Shakespearean Tragedy, a distorted discourse that climaxes with suicide. Suicide as a means of escape exploits the narrative of liberation. But the narrative of liberation itself is only necessary to a system constituted by the exercise of control through asymmetrical power relations. The symptoms of the alienated female body are discovered in the circumstances of its madness; and suicide, the inevitable expression of madness, can here be shown, to be the first word of interrogation and the ultimate negation of the feminine discourse.

Surveillance and quarantine bear the trace of synonyms such as: observation and domestication, examination and incarceration, supervision and confinement. As such, they are forces by which the intended result is to bring the female body under control. They function as means of self-discipline; discordant power relations constituted by the hierarchy of privileged masculine discourse. The male body is the dominant force that subjugates the language of the female body to passivity and purity. “Two ways of exercising power over men[1], of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 198). Supervision of the female body’s sexual relations—surveillance; the prevention of contact through evasion—domestication; expressions of power intent on controlling its subject, not through excessive physical force, but self-discipline—submission. “’Discipline,’” writes Foucault, “may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power…comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application” (Discipline and Punish 215). A relation of control, discourse, existing within the systems of surveillance and domestication, which writes itself upon, and is being written by, the female body, through uncompromised purity and passive submission.

In Hamlet, Ophelia is imprisoned in a system of self-discipline whose centralized watchword, purity, constantly surveills her movements as a subject and dictates her individual agency: purity guards Ophelia, and inversely, Ophelia guards her purity. Ophelia is to remain, for her brother Laertes, the unblemished virgin. The language of surveillance does not simply impose itself on her, but is one that she shares and participates in. Laertes says, ironically, that Hamlet, subject to the status of his birth, possesses a will that is not his own. He advises her to “weigh what loss your honour may sustain/If with too credent ear you list his songs,/Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open/To his unmastered importunity” (Hamlet 1.3.29-32). Laertes’s counsel, determined to protect Ophelia from the violation of her purity, is a warning to both avoid Hamlet’s passion and keep secret her own sexual desires; it is masked control, enacted through the method of terror: “Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,/And keep within the rear of your affection,/out of the shot and danger of desire” (Hamlet 1.3.33-36). The suppression of feminine sexuality is voiced by Hamlet as well. His prescription of control over her purity is expressed in his advice that she be “chaste as snow, as pure as ice” (Hamlet 3.1.136). Five times he commands: “Get thee to a nunnery” (Hamlet 3.1.122); a cloistered system that imposes the strictest limitations on the female body through the discipline of abstinence.

But the language of surveillance is not only imposed by speech that is externally written on Ophelia’s body, but it is a language that she herself assimilates and implements. When she is questioned by both her brother and father in regards to Hamlet’s advances, she surrenders the information, maintaining the illusion of her agency. It is her own language, emphasizing the forces of surveillance and self-discipline, which subject her to control. To Laertes’ counsel on the matters of Hamlet, really a disguised imperative soliciting fear as a means to control, Ophelia responds, “I shall th’effect of this good lesson keep/As watchmen to my heart” (Hamlet 1.3.45-46). To keep, from the Latin servāre, often translated: to guard, keep, save, or preserve; forms the root of the word observation. This observation is multidimensional; Ophelia speaks not only of surveillance, but the preservation of her virginity. This meaning is intensified by the word watchmen; signifying the gendered and physical presence of Laertes’ command. The language of surrender and submission are reinforced in Ophelia’s farewell to her brother. Laertes reminds her of his advice, to which Ophelia’s response fully discloses the nature of surveillance as bodily restriction and subjugation: “’Tis in my memory locked,/And you yourself shall keep the key of it” (Hamlet 1.3.85-86).

Lady Macbeth, in contrast to the surveilling of purity, is subjugated to feminine passivity. In contrast to the men in the play, who embody the agency to move without limitation through space, she is incapable of any significant action. Lady Macbeth’s subjection is achieved through the restriction of her movements, both on the lateral axis of physical space and the vertical axis of the hierarchal power of position. Lady Macbeth is domesticated; confined by the castle walls. For her, there is never a movement outward toward the realm on the outskirts of the play, where the festive and romantic are possible; never is there a freedom to enter the space that male characters are permitted to occupy. With one exception, Lady Macbeth is never seen, or spoken of, as occupying a space or role outside the castle walls. Where she does appear to escape the physical imprisonment, she reveals the omnipresent thumb that locates her body within an extensive power relation constructed by the castle. In the isolated circumstance in which Lady Macbeth appears outside the castle, her dialogue is immediately recognized as the language of submission: subsumed by the role of the hospitable female attendant: “All our service/In every point twice done, and then done double,/Were poor and single business to contend/Against those honours deep and broad wherewith/Your majesty loads our house” (Macbeth 1.6.14-18).The castle walls expand their boundaries to accommodate her movements and the fluctuation of her roles. The castle system, like all discourses, is organic; but more significantly, it is internal. The language of submission is written on the female body, not only by the external pressure of the masculine discourse; it is assimilated and implemented as a means of self-discipline to the desired end of bodily control.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their multi-volume history of women in literature, remind us that “the ‘ideal of contemplative purity’ is always feminine while ‘the ideal of significant action’ is masculine” (Gilbert and Gubar). Lady Macbeth, although not a representation of ideal feminine purity, is nonetheless excluded from the realm of significant action. Her methods of manipulation, although appearing subversive, can only effectively unmask the system that makes the female powerless to act in the first place. “[Lady Macbeth’s] breakdown embodied in sleepwalking is feminized and passive, in contrast with Macbeth’s excessive, enraged, bloody ambition” (Neely 85). The mere fact that the female body must manipulate and enact significant movement through the male body is not evidence of subversive liberation, but passive submission and perpetuation of the domesticated condition. Lady Macbeth, feeling the pressure of the masculine thumb that limits her participation in significant action, voices the only possibility of liberation from domestication: to be male. “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty” (Macbeth 1.5.38-41). Lady Macbeth then importunately demands “Come to my woman’s breasts,/and take my milk for gall” (Macbeth 1.5.45-46). Her speech trembles with the diction of the domesticated. Her petitions focus the object of subjection on her body; more particularly, the symbol of motherhood, her breast milk. It is her physical sex, her biological gender, and the space her body is required to occupy within the familial and societal hierarchies, which limit significant action and restrict the body to passivity.

The Weird Sisters in Macbeth seem to problematize the question of feminine significant action; they are met, and often appear, out in the “open place” (Macbeth n.1.1), free from the domestic; and reveal themselves as a coercive force directing the actions of Macbeth. It would appear that they are female characters who evoke the strong feminine qualities like those masquerading as males in Shakespeare’s comedies. However, they are still not participants in the significant action; their speech and the aesthetics of their spells and prophecies are only significant manipulations. The Weird Sisters do, however, demonstrate two critical dissimilarities between their femininity and Lady Macbeth’s. Using them, Shakespeare enacts the distinctions “between supernatural female witchcraft and natural alienation” (Neely 78). As supernatural beings, their agency is situated outside the system of the power that anchors the masculine discourse. The Weird Sisters give evidence to the existence of a traditional medieval hierarchy that privileged the immortal over the mortal. The affairs of powerless mortal bodies are subject to the mischief and distemper of the omniscient immortal spirits. Furthermore, the Weird Sisters do not experience the isolation and enclosure as does Lady Macbeth. The three sisters demonstrate a familial discourse whose actions are conceived through interrelation.

The differences between Ophelia and Lady Macbeth must be kept in view: Ophelia, the unmarried daughter of Polonius, surveilled and suppressed in her sexuality; and Lady Macbeth, the wife of Macbeth, domesticated and denied her agency. But commonalities exist across the categories. Ophelia is also domesticated, enclosed within the castle; free to move within the limits of its chambers but restricted from accessing the spaces that the male body is free to traverse: the guard platform, the castle’s battlements, the Danish Coast. The location of her death is ambiguous; her body is found in a “glassy stream,” a “weeping brook” (Hamlet 4.7.138&146), certainly not within any room in the castle, but not necessarily outside its walls. Additionally, Ophelia’s movements are further restricted. She is increasingly limited in her relation to other bodies. Polonius advises her to avoid Hamlet: “From this time, daughter,/Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence” (Hamlet 1.4.120-121). Ophelia’s domestication is the incarceration of the young virgin. Denied her is the world on the other side of the walls, and the denial of interaction with particular male bodies. Like Ophelia, the body of Lady Macbeth is circumscribed with the discourse of surveillance. The language administered by the Physician assigned to cure Lady Macbeth of her delirium is infected with signifiers of observation: “I have two nights watched with you,” (Macbeth 5.1.1) he says to Lady Macbeth’s attendant; “what at any time have you heard her say?” (Macbeth 5.1.9); “Observe her. Stand close[2]” (Macbeth 5.1.17); “What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands” (Macbeth 5.1.23); “Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her/to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly” (Macbeth 5.1.28-29); “do you mark that?” (Macbeth 5.1.35); “Look after her./Remove from her the means of all annoyance,/And still keep eyes on her” (Macbeth 5.1.65-67). Watch, observe, look, listen, record: this is a discourse of surveillance disguised as an examination; the quarantine enacted on the delirious female body for the purpose of bringing it under control. But the proliferation of particular discourses—surveillance and quarantine, examination and incarceration, observation and domestication, supervision and confinement, imprisonment, enclosure—all have in common the same problem: each erases and thereby conceals the instrument of power that makes them effective: alienation.

Finally, it is the alienation of the female body, through surveillance and the suppression of sexuality, and the subjugation of the body through domestication, which finds its inevitable expression in madness. Madness is, as a discourse of its own, the alienation of the body to others and to itself. The systems that seek to understand and explain it; the methods of examination and quarantine; methods which subsume and supplement surveillance and domestication; the inherent systems of power relations; each of them proliferating and concealing the distance and relation to their object of control. This alienation reaches its height in the madness of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth. Their madness is characterized by fragmented language and frenzy without action. Ophelia and Lady Macbeth both exhibit restlessness, agitation, shifts of direction and attention: the disorganization of the maddened female mind. Ophelia’s un-unified language, represented by variations of normal speech and song, all of which are fragmentary, meaningful in the sense that they are interrelated like the filaments of a web, each thread causing the other to stir. She speaks and sings principally about Hamlet: “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” (Hamlet 4.5.21); “how should I your true love know/from another one?—” (Hamlet 4.5.23-24). The dash here at the end of line 24 marks a disruption in continuity; Ophelia’s verse shifts attention away from Hamlet and, seeking to answer the question she proposes to herself, contemplates the absent figure of pilgrim: “By his cockle hat and staff,/and his sandal shoon.” (Hamlet 4.5.25-26). Queen Gertrude is dazzled by the unreason of her speech, “Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?” (Hamlet 4.5.27). Ophelia’s songs, quatrains and octaves of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter, seek to give form to the discourse of her grief, jilted love, sexual suppression and manipulation. Singing of the grief for her father: “he is dead and gone, lady,/he is dead and gone./ At his head a grass-green turf,/At his heals a stone” (Hamlet 4.5.29-32); and singing of her jilted love and the sexual suppression by men: “By Gis, and Saint Charity,/Alack and fie for shame!/Young men will do’t if they come to it,/By Cock they are to blame./Quoth she ‘Before you tumbled me,/You promised me to wed.’/So would I ‘a’ done, by yonder sun,/An thou hadst not come to my bed” (Hamlet 4.537-64). Ophelia embodies the madness of alienation, written upon her and written by her, as a result of the power relations that govern her through surveillance and subjection.

Lady Macbeth, through the gesture of hand washing, reveals a madness disguising itself in the gesture of sleepwalking; a madness submerged in delirium and denied any significant action. She can only perform her guilt; the bodily control exercised on her does not accommodate for the authentic expression of her subjugation. Her gestures reveal that “madness is exhibited by the body as well as in speech” (Neely 82). The Physician, in his examination and diagnosis, diminishes the authenticity of her delirium by prescribing to her the language of pageantry: “In this slumbery agitation besides her walking and other actual performances, what at any time have you heard her say?” (Macbeth 5.1.9-11). The Physician dismisses the role of her body in madness and instead privileges her speech. He describes Lady Macbeth’s delirium as “her very guise” (Macbeth 5.1.16). But the female body is not simply the apparatus that authenticates its discourse through the truthfulness of speech. The female body speaks and is spoken of; is written on and written about. It is an unvoiced discourse, the silence of alienation, which challenges, through movement and gesture, the privilege of male dominance.

Feminine madness reveals a knowledge that exists beyond the margins of the masculine discourse. It is hyperaware of the restrictions imposed on the body through asymmetrical power relations: the privileging of the masculine over the feminine. The impossibility of escape from those power relations is determined by the control of the female body through its biological, familial, and societal alienation. Juliet utters the only performable possibility of escape from the matrix of power and domination: “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (Romeo and Juliet 3.5.242). Suicide presents itself as the only option for Ophelia and Lady Macbeth. To die is to overstep the boundary of the masculine discourse: to embody liberation. But suicide as such is only an illusion. It is a paradox of silence and speech. The body of the self-executed female writes the history of sexual suppression and subjugation, but cuts itself off simultaneously from the discourse necessary to enact change through interrelation: madness “can manifest itself only by departing from itself” (Foucault, Madness and Civilization 107); it is “in a perpetual retreat where it is inaccessible, without phenomenal or positive character; and yet is present and perfectly visible” (Foucault, Madness and Civilization 107). Feminine suicide is nothing more than the manifestation of the absent discourse of the female body. But it is also, and not be taken as entirely positive, for it is the negation of the self, the presence of interrogation. The dominant masculine discourse which seizes power through the alienation of the female body to its own sexuality and to others is not simply under the forensic bulb of interrogation: it manipulates the results of its own answers. The masculine discourse is the knife and the fist that holds it to the wrist, the gun and the flexed finger tempted to pull the trigger, the murky stream and the water-logged garments that drown the body. Suicide is not liberation; it is the self-effacing body inherent in the systems of masculine domination.

It is no longer permissible to allow the writings of Shakespeare, or the suicides of great women such as Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath, to determine the course of liberation for the female body. The negation of the voice and the interrogation written on the body of the female suicide victim must be challenged: the systems of power and control overthrown by the positive presence of the feminine voice and the significant action of female body; no gender privileged by the omnipotent crown—no king and no queen.

[1] Foucault, in writing about the methods of control in relation to the plague-stricken town, is not gendering the usage of the word men. Here he means people; and for our purpose here we focalize its meaning on the body of the female.

[2] conceal yourself

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York:

Vintage, 1988. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Panopticism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

Neely, C.T. “`Documents In Madness’: Reading Madness And Gender In Shakespeare’s Tragedies And

Early Modern..” Shakespeare Quarterly 42.3 (1991): 315. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec.


Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan.  The madwoman in the attic : the woman writer and the

nineteenth-century literary imagination / Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar  Yale University

Press New Haven  1979

Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine E. Maus, and

Andrew Gurr. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.


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