On the Frontiers of Psychiatry: Ophelia and the Jailer’s Daughter

by David P. Gontar (November 2013)


This article examines common themes in a pair of Shakespeare’s works, one famous (Hamlet), the other (The Two Noble Kinsmen) still largely unknown. As each features a female character who experiences a mental or emotional breakdown, they have attracted the attention of scholars and health care professionals concerned with what in the 16th and 17th centuries was called “madness.” Beyond cognitive dysfunction, Ophelia and the Jailer’s Daughter share other significant markers and characteristics, including imagination, youth, romantic interests, dominating fathers and  absence of a female parent. Ophelia, it will be recalled, loves Prince Hamlet, and the “Jailer’s Daughter” (she has no other name in the play) adores a Theban soldier named Palamon. As each of these relationships comes undone, the female partners are incapable of restoring their equanimity, descending instead into chaotic behavior and unintelligibility. Some writers have proposed that, despite their raving, both Ophelia and the Jailer’s Daughter seek to somehow criticize or amend oppressive social institutions and customs which may have prompted or exacerbated their misery. To this counterintuitive reading objections are raised. Close inspection shows such psychic symptoms are not well explained as oblique messages about social and political problems, but rather represent efforts by traumatized women to shield themselves from facts too painful to be assimilated.

Familiarity with these plays is presumed. The Two Noble Kinsmen is derived from the The Knight’s Tale in Chaucer, who reworked the story told by Giovanni Boccaccio in his Italian epic Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia.


1.  Ophelia

What makes Ophelia lose her bearings? It is surprising how little insight is displayed in modern criticism on this point. The child of an overbearing court sycophant, she has fallen under the spell of Prince Hamlet, the supposed son of the late King. Though we are given no information,  there is no hint of divorce; we must infer that Polonius is a widower. How has Ophelia been affected by this implied privation? Polonius stands resolutely opposed to her relationship with Hamlet, who is beginning to show signs of imbalance. He has stressed that her social station is far beneath  Hamlet’s — (“Lord Hamlet is a Prince out of thy star” — II, ii, 142) — as she is a commoner, while he is a noble, and a distraught one at that. Yet Hamlet has favored her  —  and the match could in theory succeed. In a dramatic confrontation, Hamlet seems to fall apart right before her eyes, and he speaks to her in a grossly abusive manner. (III, i, 93-164) Yet in the very next scene, at the presentation of The Mousetrap, he can flirt with her so flagrantly in front of the entire court audience that she must find herself utterly humiliated. (III, ii, 106-122) A bit later in the same scene, Hamlet proceeds to make a fool out of her father (III, ii, 364-370) and, shortly after that, dispatches him by stabbing through the arras where Polonius is hiding in Gertrude’s chamber. No sooner has Hamlet disclosed to Claudius the location of her father’s remains in the most demeaning of terms (IV, iii, 19-37) than Ophelia’s disintegration commences. The next time we see her, she is wandering in a dither. (IV, v) After this, she drowns, joining her unmentioned mother in death, a possible suicide. (IV, vii, 135-156)   

Shakespeare gives us more than enough to grasp the meaning and causes of her madness and untimely death. For what do we expect when one’s daffy boyfriend kills one’s remaining parent, the man who warned us to stay away from him? Isn’t this enough to send a girl over the edge?

How does the absence of a mother fit this scenario? Would she not have offered solace, counsel and reassurance to Ophelia? Might not a genuine maternal embrace have acted as a buffer between slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and her child? Even more than most of us, Ophelia suffers a deficit of love and affection. At no time does anyone seem to embrace her and assure her that she is ok and that all will be well. 

A father is not a substitute for a mother. Without the female spouse, the father-daughter relationship can assume an undesirable propinquity and intimacy, issuing in compulsive control by the isolated male parent. Love that should be directed to a wife gets deflected to the child, who is not in a position to deal with it. In the case of Polonius we find a meddling and overly directive father.


And then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens . . . .
(II, ii, 143-145)

 It is well known that fathers who seek to govern a daughter’s choice of mate are often acting out proscribed consanguineous impulses. In place of possessing the daughter, a paternally chosen surrogate may suffice. Shakespeare alludes to this, e.g., when in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander upbraids Demetrius about the interference of Hermia’s father Egeus, saying: “You have her father’s love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia’s. Do you marry him.” (I, i, 93-94) The point is clear: the personal involvement of Egeus is felt as hyperbolical and inappropriate, signifying a paternal figure too invested in his daughter’s love life. As Egeus identifies with Demetrius he can approve a match for Hermia with him. But the implications are pathological. By removing the imago of Ophelia’s mother from Hamlet, Shakespeare underscores such excessive paternal inclinations. She is situated in a zone of tyranny — and danger.

At the end of the play, when Hamlet leaps after Laertes into Ophelia’s grave, he wildly shouts his feelings for her:


I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.
(V, i, 266-268)

But can this young genius be so obtuse as to fail to understand what’s happened to her? Is it possible he’s forgotten how shamefully he treated her, how he snarled and showed contempt? Doesn’t he know he just ran through her father with a ‘bare bodkin’ and left the corpse slumped in gore in Elsinore? Does he consider that she is now parentless? After hacking down Polonius, does he ever reflect how it might affect this woman for whom he professes such tender regard? Evidently not. Wouldn’t our hero want to approach her and beg forgiveness? Thus the original parapraxis of the overlooked and absent mother metastasizes into the forgetting of her daughter, the woman Hamlet fancies he loved more than could forty thousand brothers. Mother, father — and then Ophelia herself —  slip away, as if all had never been, sucked down in the “weeping brook” of unconsciousness. (IV, vii, 147)

Act IV, scene 5 is revealing. Ophelia’s madness is first confirmed by Gertrude. Horatio informs her that Ophelia is murmuring about her father. (IV, v, 4) Ophelia sings demented ditties about a dead man and desertion by a lover. Claudius enters and comments that in her desultory utterances Ophelia is bewailing her father’s death, (IV, v, 44) yet in his mindlessness asks Gertrude “How long hath she been thus?” (IV, v, 66) “O, this is the poison of deep grief!” he exclaims. “It springs all from her father’s death.” (IV, v, 74-75) With everyone aware that Ophelia is beside herself at the loss of her father at the hands of the young man whom Claudius calls “my son,” no one can muster a syllable of sympathy for her. No one speaks to her of her trauma. This conspiracy of silence is as damaging as the injuries she has undergone. But the mouths of Gertrude and Claudius are sealed by guilt. Were they to say anything, too much of the truth would come tumbling out.  

Here is Gertrude’s revealing soliloquy as she awaits the appearance of Ophelia.


To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is,
each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.
(IV, v. 17-20)

Fully half the riches of Shakespeare lie in nuggets like this.

Madness in his plays is often represented as the horrified soul’s flight from realities too painful to be acknowledged. Putting aside arid, hair-splitting debates about whether Ophelia is “insane” or not (which mimic the equally vacuous arguments about Hamlet’s own insanity), we can acknowledge that the freight of agonies weighing down on Ophelia is crushing. Can the man who loved her more than forty thousand brothers and wooed her with affection, gifts and poetry be the same chap who curses her to her face (“Get thee to a nunnery”) and then butchers her father? The court is indeed a wilderness of tigers, and not a single individual comes forward to commiserate with her, perhaps the unkindest cut of all. It would be surprising under such circumstances if she did not become unmoored.

 2.  The Jailer’s Daughter

It is now generally conceded that it is the picaresque subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter that carries the action of The Two Noble Kinsmen forward. The love-hate relationship of Palamon and Arcite is a stiff tableau which requires the raw energy of subalterns to attain its adventitious and ironical end. In the main plot, two curiously effeminate Theban warriors (forerunners of the Sacred Band of Thebes) are captured in battle by Duke Theseus. Lodged in a cell in Athens they spy from their window the young and dazzling Amazon Emilia and are inexplicably smitten by her, leading to armed struggle for her favors. Each has his own tutelary deity. The patron of the chaste Emilia is, of course, Diana (the principal deity of the Shakespearean pantheon). Arcite prays to Mars for victory, while Palamon is protected by Venus. In the final battle, personally choreographed by Theseus, Arcite defeats Palamon. But as each god has its prerogatives, the ultimate triumph is a compromise or mixed blessing. Thrown from his prancing steed, Arcite is wounded and dies. Thus Emilia, who had prayed to Diana to continue in her chaste band, is awarded to Palamon as his shaken bride. Venus prevails. 

In the midst of these preposterous goings-on we meet the Jailer’s Daughter, who tends the prisoners in their confinement. Like Ophelia, this nameless teenager has no mother, and, like Ophelia, she goes berserk. The proximate cause is her gratuitous desire for Palamon, whom she worships as god on earth – though he is barely distinguishable from his cousin-in-arms. And, like warriors bleeding in armed combat, modern critics have in argument over this child’s amour spilled their precious ink, largely in vain.  

In the iconography of The Two Noble Kinsmen, two goddesses contend, Venus and Diana. Emilia represents Diana; the Daughter’s passionate craving for Palamon recalls the boundless desire of Venus for Adonis as set forth at length by Shakespeare in his best-selling poem of 1593. And as Venus’s ardor for the narcissistic lad is not gratified, neither is the Jailer’s Daughter’s love for Palamon returned. The difference is that mortal Adonis is beneath Venus (in every sense), while noble Palamon towers above the plebian Daughter. 

In this narrative, we have the Jailer taking the part of the manipulative Polonius. He has arranged for yet another nameless character, the Wooer, to marry his daughter. In flight from destiny, the Jailer’s Daughter latches on to the resplendent Palamon. Unfortunately, she is barred from her hope, not, as in the case of Ophelia, by her beloved’s growing dementia, but by the fact that Palamon is wholly infatuated with another woman, the demigoddess Emilia. His commitment to winning her is the absolute which the passion of the Jailer’s Daughter reprises. And the crux of the matter is that Palamon’s ardor for that other woman is at no time acknowledged, discussed or considered by the Jailer’s Daughter. As a submerged taboo, the realization that Palamon is entirely and forever unavailable cannot be digested. The rival woman, a necessary blank, recapitulates that other tabula rasa in her mind, her seemingly forgotten mother, whose absence places her squarely in the possession of her father, the appropriately denominated “Jailer.” 

As one scans the text, it is hard to see how the Daughter cannot perceive that Palamon is preoccupied with Emilia. As long as they are in their cell together, Arcite and Palamon are feuding over her, threatening one another, and waiting for the opportunity to engage in armed combat for her, never once considering whether their claims over her would be welcomed. Does the Daughter not attend on them and learn what’s going on?

Let us listen to the silly colloquy and subsequent falling out of these sententious soldiers, and then reflect on the significance of the Daughter’s characterization of their plight.


Yet, cousin,
Even from the bottom of these miseries,
From all that fortune can inflict upon us,
I see two comforts rising — two mere blessings,
If the gods please, to hold here a brave patience
And the enjoying of our griefs together.
Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish
If I think this our prison.


Certainly, ’tis a main goodness, cousin, that our fortunes
Were twined together. ‘Tis most true, two souls
Put in two noble bodies, let ’em suffer
The gall of hazard, so they grow together,
Will never sink; they must not, say they could.
A willing man dies sleeping and all’s done.


Shall we make worthy uses of this place
That all men hate so much?


How, gentle cousin?


Let’s think this prison holy sanctuary,
To keep us from corruption of worse men.
We are young, and yet desire the ways of honour
That liberty and common conversation,
The poison of pure spirits, might, like women,
Woo us to wander from. What worthy blessing
Can be, but our imaginations
May make it ours? And here being thus together,
We are an endless mine to one another:
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are in one another, families —
I am your heir, and you are mine; this place
Is our inheritance: no hard oppressor
Dare take this from us. Here, with a little patience,
We shall live long and loving. No surfeits seek us —
The hand of war hurts none here, nor the seas
Swallow their youth. Were we at liberty
A wife might part us lawfully, or business;
Quarrels consume us; envy of ill men
Crave our acquaintance. I might sicken, cousin,
Where you should never know it, and so perish
Without your noble hand to close mine eyes,
Or prayers to the gods. A thousand chances,
Were we from hence, would sever us.


You have made me —
I thank you, cousin Arcite — almost wanton
With my captivity. What a misery
It is to live abroad, and everywhere!
‘Tis like a beast, methinks. I find the court here;
I am sure, a more content; and all those pleasures
That woo the wills of men to vanity
I see through now, and am sufficient
To tell the world ’tis but a gaudy shadow,
That old Time, as he passes by, takes with him.
(II, ii, 55-104)

PALAMON (contd.)

Is there record of any two that loved
Better than we two, Arcite?


Sure there cannot.


I do not think it possible our friendship
Should ever leave us.


Til our deaths it cannot.
(II, ii, 112-115)

And it is at the very apogee of this absurd and delusive rapture that Palamon — and then Arcite — notice Emilia strolling in the garden below with her maid.

Instantly these two male lovers who have just declared their eternal bond with one another are at each other’s throats.


What think you of this beauty?


‘Tis a rare one.


Is’t but a rare one?


Yes, a matchless beauty.


Might not a man well lose himself and love her?


I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew my eyes for’t. Now I feel my shackles.


You love her then?


Who would not?


And desire her?


Before my liberty.


I saw her first.


That’s nothing.


But it shall be.


I saw her too.


Yes, but you must not love her.


I will not, as you do, to worship her
As she is heavenly and a blessed goddess!
I love her as a woman, to enjoy her —
So both may love.


You shall not love at all.


Not love at all — who shall deny me?


I that first saw her, I that took possession
First with mine eye of all those beauties
In her revealed to all mankind. If thou lov’st her,
Or entertain’st a hope to blast my wishes,
Thou art a traitor, Arcite, and a fellow
False as thy title to her. Friendship, blood,
And all the ties between us I disclaim,
If thou once think upon her.


Yes, I love her —
And if the lives of all my name lay on it,
I must do so. I love her with all my soul  —
If that will lose ye, farewell, Palamon!
(II, ii, 153-180)

Now it is precisely this situation which confronts the Jailer’s Daughter hour by tedious hour as she tends this pair in her housekeeping rounds. Of this she gives ample testimony.


These strewings are for their chamber.  
‘Tis a pity they are in prison, and ’twere a pity they should
be out. I do think they have the patience to make any
adversity ashamed; the prison itself is proud of ’em,
and they have all the world in their chamber.


They are famed to be a pair of absolute men.


By my troth, I think fame but stammers
’em — they stand a grece above the reach of report.


I have heard them reported in the battle to be the only doers.


Nay, most likely, for they are noble
sufferers. I marvel how they would have looked had
they been victors, that with such a constant nobility
enforce a freedom out of bondage, making misery their
mirth, and affliction a toy to jest at.


Do they so?


It seems to me they have no more
sense of their captivity than I of ruling Athens. They
eat well, look merrily, discourse of many things, but
nothing of their own restraint and disasters. Yet
sometime a divided sigh — martyred as ’twere i’th’
deliverance — will break from one of them, when the
other presently gives it so sweet a rebuke that I could
wish myself a sigh to be so chid, or at least a sigher
to be comforted.
(I, iv, 21-45)

In other words, the Jailer’s Daughter is well acquainted with these fellows. The very ambience of their relationship, the surreal strategy they concoct, are as familiar to her as her own garter. What is that “divided sigh” that breaks forth from these jealous souls if not the emblem of their enmity? And yet, she seems entirely unaware that both these dreamers are completely captivated by Emilia. Is that plausible? How could she know so much, yet so little about the man at the very center of her universe?


Why should I love this gentleman? ‘Tis odds
He will never affect me. I am base,
My father the mean keeper of his prison,
And he a prince.
(II, iv, 1-4)

He has as much to please a woman in him —
If he please to bestow it so — as ever
These eyes yet looked on. Next, I pitied him,
And so would any young wench, o’my conscience,
That ever dreamed or vowed her maidenhead
To a young handsome man. Then I loved him,
Extremely loved him, infinitely loved him . . . .
(II, iii, iv, 9-15)

And so it is that this eros-obsessed young lady uses her access to the prison to help Palamon escape, only to find that, once freed, he shows no interest in her. Though she has told him to meet her behind a sedge, he fails to appear. For this she has not a glimmer of an explanation.  


He has mistook the brake I meant, is gone
After his fancy. ‘Tis now well nigh morning.
No matter — would it were perpetual night,
And darkness lord o’th’ world. Hark, ’tis a wolf!
In me hath grief slain fear, and, but for one thing,
I care for nothing — and that’s Palamon.
I reck not if the wolves would jaw me, so
He had this file. What if I hollered for him?
If he not answered, I should call a wolf
And do him but that service. I have heard
Strange howls this livelong night — why may’t not be
They have made a prey of him? He has no weapons;
He cannot run; the jangling of his gyves
Might call fell things to listen, who have in them
A sense to know a man unarmed, and can
Smell where resistance is. I’ll set it down
He’s torn to pieces: they howled many together
And then they fed on him. So much for that.
Be bold to ring the bell. How stand I then?
All’s chared when he is gone. No, no, I lie:
My father’s to be hanged for his escape,
Myself to beg, if I prized life so much
As to deny my act — but that I would not,
Should I try death by dozens. I am moped —
Food took I none these two days,
Sipped some water. I have not closed mine eyes
Save when my lids scoured off their brine. Alas,
Dissolve, my life; let not my sense unsettle,
Lest I should drown or stab or hang myself.
O state of nature, fail together in me,
Since thy best props are warped. So which way now?
The best way is the next way to a grave,
Each errant step beside is torment. Lo,
The moon is down, the crickets chirp, the screech-owl
Calls in the dawn. All offices are done
Save what I fail in: but the point is this,
An end, and that is all.
(III, ii, 1-38)

This way madness lies, of course. But what set us on this track towards ultima Thule? Willful ignorance, apparently. What woman, intrigued by a man, fails to inquire about his marital or relational status? Is Palamon married? The Jailer’s Daughter never wonders. Is he betrothed? Involved? A committed bachelor? Pining after someone else? Uninterested in the opposite sex? Questions unasked cannot be answered. Yet we must inquire: Why would a woman switch off her radar and sail into a cliff of indifference  –or repugnance–  unless there were something she dimly suspected but didn’t want to confront? The Jailer’s Daughter has already revealed to us in her conversation with her father that when it comes to Palamon and Arcite she has an uncanny VerstehenTwelfth Night, II, v, 37-38) Aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore, love can level ranks, and therefore, one has a fighting chance. But if the obstacle should turn out to be a heart brimming with love of another, a competitor whose beauty and demeanor threaten to eclipse the sun, the predicament is hopeless and the entire fantasy comes crashing down around a maiden’s ears. This must not be seen, not admitted. And in fact, as a worker in the municipal administration of Athens, the Jailer’s Daughter is well aware of Emilia, and in her interminable blabber as the play winds down actually mentions her. (IV, iii, 12) What to do, then, with this toxic specter of that other woman, as unsettling as Sylvia’s portrait was to Julia? (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, V,  ii, 195-202) As with Ophelia, there is a convenient site, which is the place where that absent and unmentionable woman dwells who is the Daughter’s Mother. Conceal the ‘other woman’ there and she is just a blank. But, of course, once she is effectively repressed, there is no longer any reasonable or rational explanation why such a man, given the signal, would not at  least play the rogue. For despite their pious rhetoric, both Palamon and Arcite are experienced womanizers. They are accustomed to boasting of their conquests. (See, III, iii, 28-38) In that case, madness and suicidal ideation were merely postponed, not avoided. When self-deception fizzles, we have only lunacy to protect us from the less flattering aspects of life. Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois is fashioned of the same fraying cloth.

However, unlike Ophelia, who does perish as a passive suicide, the Jailer’s Daughter survives. In her distraction it becomes possible for her to accept the Wooer as “Palamon.” As her condition is utterly broken otherwise, this ruse is acceptable to her father, who promoted the Wooer all along. So far as the audience can tell, this Wooer and the Jailer’s Daughter become a couple, under the pretence that the man is Palamon. It is interesting to note that The Two Noble Kinsmen contains Shakespeare’s most detailed presentation of the treatment of mental illness. Unlike Ophelia, the Jailer’s Daughter has a physician (though she seems unaware of him — he advises the Jailer and the Wooer). The reader will recall there was a doctor in Macbeth, too. He admits that Lady Macbeth exhibits a strange somnambulism, but confesses: “This disease is beyond my practice.” (V, i, 56) King Macbeth challenges him.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the fraught bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon her heart?

To which the physician replies,

“Therein the patient must minister to himself.”
(V, iii, 42-48)

The doctor in The Two Noble Kinsmen, however, is made of sterner stuff, though at the outset he echoes his colleague in Macbeth: “I think she has a perturbed mind, which I cannot minister to.” (IV, iii, 56) Shortly thereafter, however, we hear one of the most extraordinary prescriptions in annals of psychiatry. Informed that prior to her obsession with Palamon, the Daughter was engaged to the Wooer, who still cares and yearns for her, and is willing to do anything to help and possess her, the doctor gives this advice.


That intemperate surfeit of her eye hath
distempered the other senses. They may return and settle
again to execute their preordained faculties, but they
are now in a most extravagant vagary. This you must
do: confine her to a place where the light may rather
seem to steal in than be permitted; take upon you,
young sir her friend, the name of Palamon; say you
come to eat with her and to commune of love. This
will catch her attention, for this her mind beats upon —
other objects that are inserted ‘tween her mind and
eye become the pranks and friskins of her madness.
Sing to her such green songs of love as she says
Palamon hath sung in prison; come to her stuck in as
sweet flowers as the season is mistress of, and thereto
make an addition of some other compounded odours
which are grateful to the sense. All this shall become
Palamon, for Palamon can sing, and Palamon is sweet
and every good thing. Desire to eat with her, carve
her, drink to her, and still intermingle your
petition of grace and acceptance into her favour. Learn
what maids have been her companions and playfreres,
and let them repair to her, with Palamon in their
mouths, and appear with tokens as if they suggested
for him. It is a falsehood she is in, which is with
falsehoods to be combated. This may bring her to eat,
to sleep, and reduce what’s now out of square in her
into their former law and regiment. I have seen it
approved, how many times I know not, but to make
the number more I have great hope in this. I will
between the passages of this project come in with my
appliance. Let us put it in execution, and hasten the
success, which doubt not will bring forth comfort.
(IV, iii, 67-98)

In other Shakespeare plays such a device would be termed a “bed-trick.” But the doctor’s objective is different, as it is therapeutic and aims at a change in the patient. Here the person duped is the woman, not the man, as we find in All’s Well That Ends Well (Bertram) and Measure for Measure (Angelo). More importantly, the purpose in the instant case is not to gain advantage over someone by deceit but to actually minister to a mind diseased and restore as much functioning as possible, in the hope of establishing a viable relationship.  

Although it is plain that this treatment has a sexual dimension, it is equally evident that it is not a coarse regimen of sex, or a crude attempt to cure hysteria or psychosis through lubricity. What is sought, rather, is the fostering of an atmosphere of emotional intimacy which may or may not issue in sexual activity. In other words, though the doctor’s treatment plan contemplates the prospect of a physical consummation, to describe the remedy as “sex” is no more accurate than thinking reductively of marriage as intercourse. What the doctor recommends is the creation of a relationship of trust, security and love, not mere copulation. In that respect, it bears resemblance to the psychotherapeutic environment. If she wants to hear you sing, advises the doctor, sing for her. (V, iii, 13-14) “You should observe her every way,”  he counsels. (V, iii, 14) And so the Wooer, disguised as Palamon, and the Jailer’s Daughter, prepare to spend the night together. As Act V, scene 4 unfolds, the Jailer’s Daughter, reassured by the Wooer’s gentle demeanor and obvious love for her, finds the courage to express her wish for physical gratification. (V, v, 88; V, v, 110) This is then immediately connected by her to marriage and raising a family. “We shall have many children,” she declares with evident satisfaction. (V, v, 94)    

The final dialogue is poignant and positive.

WOOER  (to the Jailer’s Daughter)

Come, sweet, we’ll go to dinner,
And then we’ll play at cards.


And shall we kiss too?


A hundred times.


And twenty.


Ay, and twenty.


And then we’ll sleep together.

DOCTOR  (to the Wooer)

Take her offer.

WOOER (to the Jailer’s Daughter)

Yes, marry, will we.


But you shall not hurt me.


I will not, sweet.


If you do, love, I’ll cry.

The reader may compare the treatment regimen in The Two Noble Kinsmen with the medical counsel in The History of King Lear (Quarto edition), Sc. 21, 13-80. The Jailer’s Daughter, then, is more fortunate than sad Ophelia, who finds herself totally isolated in the cruel court of King Claudius. She has no loving suitor and no social safety net, complete with medical staff, to rescue her, as does the Jailer’s Daughter. As such, she is lost. Considering the tenderness of the Wooer, coupled with the support of the Jailer and the family physician, even though it seems at the conclusion of many Shakespearean comedies that the festive unions cannot endure in light of past trauma, in this case we can offer a cautiously favorable prognosis. Of course we do not know exactly whom the Daughter thinks she is marrying. To assert that it is ‘Palamon’ may be a tad naive. But it is plainly the doctor’s reasonable hope that as the visage of the Wooer gradually replaces that of Palamon, the Daughter may learn that genuine love carries with it a greater chance of happiness than the fantasy of stealing a foolish god from his elusive goddess. 


3.  The Voice of Literary Criticism

It is instructive to examine the way in which these two characters are approached by the academic literary establishment. We will entertain views which emanate from the University of Chicago, and also from a workshop “Reading Women and Madness in Medical, Dramatic and Visual Texts” sponsored by the symposium “Attending to Women in Early Modern England,” held at the Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, 8-9 November, 1990.

The writer is Michelle Erica Green, M.A. Her article cited above, “Mythogyny: Madness and Medicine in Hamlet and The Two NobleKinsmen” appears online. Ms. Green’s Notes and Works Cited provide a comprehensive and thorough overview of the scholarly literature on the subject.

After providing some historical background on women’s emotional illnesses in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as taking account of certain theological and political writings, Green turns to our most renowned literary treasure, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. As Laertes and Hamlet leap into Ophelia’s grave, let us leap in medias res into Green’s discussion.

What we find is an interpretation of Ophelia as a socially oppressed young Elizabethan female who feigns madness in order to deliver subtle comments on court intrigue and politics in Denmark. She is not concerned with her never-mentioned mother or murdered father, but with the transmission of encrypted editorials. In the scene in question, Ophelia makes her first appearance since seeing the production of “The Mousetrap” which dramatized the killing of Gonzago. It was then that Hamlet had treated her so disrespectfully in front of the royal family. Ophelia then disappears momentarily. The next significant event is the Closet Scene, in which Hamlet excoriates his mother and in the process kills Polonius in her room, Act III, scene 4. Claudius in Act IV, scene 3, extracts from Hamlet the location of Polonius’s body. But there is no funeral or ceremony, no formal burial or anything of that nature. There is thus no reliable way in which grieving can occur. The chief advisor to the King departs without mourners or remembrances. Claudius seizes on the violent death of Polonius to order Hamlet to his pre-arranged doom in England. (IV, iii, 39-45) And in the very next substantial scene Ophelia returns, having just learned of her father’s untimely demise. She is in shock.

What say the scholars?

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. The queen [now lower case ‘q’] seems certain that Ophelia wants something of her, at first refusing to admit her [!], then asking what Ophelia would “have.” Ophelia’s 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 lime Hamlet’s at 3.4.

It is thus stated as a plain fact by Ms. Green that Horatio is afraid that Ophelia is sane. But that bizarre statement is not supported by the text, nor by what he says. What he says is that she is “importunate” and “distraught,” and “will needs be pitied.” He then declares that Ophelia speaks much of her father. (IV, v, 4). Not surprising, is it? But what IS surprising is that Michelle Green would attribute Gertrude’s words to Horatio. For it is not Horatio but Gertrude who utters: ‘Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.” (IV, v, 14-15)  It is true that in some nineteenth century editions of the play this line was attributed to Horatio, but for him it makes no sense, and in both the standard  RSC edition and in Taylor and Wells, the line clearly belongs to Gertrude. Worse, Green introduces a new character, the “Gentleman,” to whom she attributes the entirety of Horatio’s eleven line speech. (IV, iii, 4-15) Yet no “gentleman” appears until the messenger arrives with news of Laertes’ arrival and fomented rebellion. (IV, v, 97-106) If a scholar wanted to lay emphasis on a certain line which most authoritative editions give to Gertrude, it is her fundamental responsibility to discuss the situation and explain to the reader why she attributes the line to Horatio. But there is no clue in the subject article that the author is aware of any textual discrepancy at all. 

Gertrude fears Ophelia in her madness, not her supposed “sanity.” Recall that it was in her son’s rage in her bedroom, remonstrating with her, that he slew Ophelia’s father. That is the guilt Gertrude feels. Psychotics are frequently glib and loquacious and liable to say anything. Gertrude’s fear, then, is that a babbling Ophelia may possibly go about Denmark blurting out that her son Hamlet is behaving crazily in Elsinore and has just assassinated the avuncular figure of Polonius. In fact, the people, with Laertes, are already up in arms about this and supporting Laertes as their new leader. This is why Claudius has just commanded Hamlet to depart for England, the rationale being that it is for his own safety. Gertrude does not know that her husband has arranged for her son’s death in England. Furthermore, Ophelia has no information about any murder of old King Hamlet the Dane, and can hardly be understood to be sending camouflaged messages in a false madness to comment on Claudius’s crime. And as most commentators do not associate Gertrude with the poisoning of her spouse, what guilt over that deed might Gertrude have? For Michelle Green, Ophelia is not a wretched young lady who has lost a father through a bloody crime perpetrated by her own lover, but rather a befuddled automaton spitting out “free-wheeling signifiers” related to questions no one raises about the royal succession, primogeniture, paternal authority and other aspects of Elizabethan culture.   

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 more of this.” (4. 5. 46, emphasis added).

 First of all, Claudius’s words, “Conceit upon her father,” which appear to draw forth Ophelia’s objection, are an aside to Gertrude. (IV, v, 44) Ophelia cannot be presumed to have heard them.

Horatio tells us before Ophelia enters that she is wailing about her father. She is not “brooding” about her father’s death, but is in the throes of grief so severe it is trenching on hysteria. “Brooding” is a word better applied to Hamlet in Act I, whose rumination over his own father’s’ death is tied in with his uneasy sense that something is amiss in Denmark. But there is a new King on the throne treating him with kindness, and he has no idea his supposed father has been murdered. There is no evidence that Claudius is trying to “pass off his guilt” to Hamlet since no one except Hamlet and Horatio know what Claudius has done, and Ophelia is well aware of Hamlet’s responsibility for her father’s death.

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; her words offer implicit criticism of all the love relationships she has witnessed, which label women either bawds or passive models of chastity.

The problem with feminist criticism is that it becomes a kind of literary cosmetics, far more interested in its own tropes and strained ideological agenda than the texts it takes up to exploit. If Ophelia had any knowledge of Claudius’s murder of his brother the King, and sought to convey coded commentary on that, why would she sing an “uncourtly” song about a maid losing her virginity? Is Ophelia in a state of grief over a slaughtered father or is she engaged in the “criticism” of social mores in Denmark’s upper social echelons? She is not a doctoral candidate at an Ivy League academy penning a thesis on the treatment of women in Scandinavian countries. A few hours ago her only parent was hacked down by the man who was wooing her so ardently before he returned to Wittenberg. The King has recovered the body and hastily cast it in the earth (IV, v, 82). Are there not reasons for her tears and despair? They are plainly reiterated in the anger displayed by Laertes when he comes home from France. As for sex, we must ask again, are Ophelia’s songs theoretical indictments of male hegemony — or expressions of personal distress? The note of bawdry was struck by Prince Hamlet personally the last time we saw Ophelia, at the performance of The Mousetrap. What did he say?


Come hither, my good Hamlet. Sit by me.


No, good-mother, here’s mettle more attractive. (He sits by Ophelia)

Polonius (aside)

O ho, do you mark that?

HAMLET (to Ophelia)

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?


No, my lord.


I mean my head upon your lap.


Ay, my lord.


Do you think I meant country matters?


I think nothing, my lord.


That’s a fair thought to lie between a maid’s legs.


What is, my lord?




You are merry, my lord.
(III, ii, 104-116, following the RSC edition)

Now we hear Ophelia in extremis descanting on the theme of a lass betrayed by a man who has taken her virginity. Is this dispassionate social criticism or an outpouring of feelings about herself? Can we not detect Prince Hamlet humming in the background? At The Mousetrap Hamlet drew unseemly and unexpected attention to his affair with Ophelia, the girl who angered him so recently by trying to break up with him. (III, i, 95-97) Now their liaison, lying in uneasy suspension, is suddenly ruptured by his killing of Polonius. What must her feelings be now? No attention to any of this is paid by Michelle Green. But the issue is significant. What evidence is there that Ophelia has not already yielded herself to the Prince of Denmark? None. If that was not a realistic prospect, why did she receive admonitions from her father and brother to resist his advances? If she and Hamlet engaged in sexual relations, would she advertise this to her father? No, he would have no way of knowing. Thus the songs Ophelia sings in her delusive state about a maid being wronged point squarely at herself and the betrayal she has experienced at Hamlet’s hands, a betrayal we can see emerging in his disgraceful behavior towards her at The Mousetrap. For the frankness of his sexual mockery implies intimate contact between them, and he is in subtle form humiliating her on account of her attempted abandonment of him.   

Green then states that Hamlet has “fled the court, much to his mother’s chagrin.” What could this mean?   Everyone knows he’s being shipped to England on the rationale that his homicide might trigger a reaction amongst the people. His nonchalance when interrogated by an angry monarch about the whereabouts of the body reflects a complete lack of interest in “fleeing” anything. 

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 magnitude of such misunderstanding suggests the delusion lies in the critical exegesis, not the character being scrutinized. Claudius has rushed “hugger-mugger” to unceremoniously dump the body of Polonius in a nameless pit. (IV, v, 82), something of which Ophelia is painfully aware. “I cannot choose but to weep to think they should lay him in’ th’ cold ground” means, “I weep to think you bury my father bereft of any fitting rites.” Can anything be more purblind than the failure to apprehend this? The ‘it” which Green finds so mystifying is the death of Polonius, an inference any fourth grader could accomplish. And her brother is indeed told of “it” and reacts as one might expect.


O thou vile king,
Give me my father.


Calmly, good Laertes.


That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow
Of my true mother. 
(IV, v, 114-118)

(Here is the one oblique reference to the presumed mother of Ophelia.)


What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like? —
Let him go, Gertrude. Do not fear our person.
There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will. — Tell me, Laertes,
Why thou art thus incensed.  — Let him go, Gertrude. —
Speak, man.


Where is my father?


(IV, v, 119-126)

What is true of Laetres is true of his sister. Their principal and shared concern is their father’s fate. Ophelia’s situation only differs in its complexity, for she has been affianced to the man who killed their father, and thus her lamentations are filled with anguish over her treatment at the hands of his slayer, Hamlet.

Green’s conclusion sounds as though it was composed by a politically-minded space alien unacquainted with literature and life on Planet Earth.

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.

To this we might reply, Ophelia is a major character in Shakespeare who undergoes most egregious losses and injuries. She is not well understood as a crypto-suffragette, or undergraduate victim of date rape at Harvard, but as a vulnerable girl destroyed by a court bastard (Hamlet) and his lethal adversaries. Her madness is the consequence of having been compelled to reject the most dazzling courtier of Europe, who wooed her with all his eloquence, and then most likely seduced her, and embarrassed her publicly at the court theater. This he followed by murdering her father. As there is no reconciling the love and hate in her heart, Ophelia’s inner equilibrium, her very sense of self, is destroyed. Thus she perishes.

We can now turn briefly to Ms. Green’s exposition of The Two Noble Kinsmen. She contends unpersuasively that while Ophelia’s madness is a mere mask, the Jailer’s Daughter is indeed crazy. The challenge is to find the cause, and thus the meaning. As there are many species of mental illness it isn’t easy to base a diagnosis on a mere reading of a work of fiction. Ms. Green, however, is undaunted. She earnestly assures us on the basis of literary commentaries she has perused that the Jailer’s Daughter has lost her mind. The reason is in plain sight: she wants to be more highly placed in society and fails. Why isn’t this category in Psychiatry’s DSM-5? We could call it “Social Status Adjustment Disorder,” and make the appropriate psycho-pharmacological recommendations. The problem is, there isn’t any such thing, and if there are any other cases of psychosis induced by a lack of social standing or prestige, Ms. Green isn’t telling  us about them. What then is the evidence for her claim?

Here’s what we’re given.

1.  Paul Bertram recognizes that her will to rise above her station, rather than an inexplicable lust for Palamon, is the real source of her madness.

2.  She rejects not love but the social frame which constrains it. This behavior takes her outside not only society but also the self-structure around her gender, class and familial role – which interacts with that society.

3.  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.”

Here are the problems.

1.  First there is zero evidence that the Jailer’s Daughter wishes to marry Palamon to enhance her social standing. In her doubts about why he does not return her affections, she suspects it may be on account of their discrepant positions in the social hierarchy. In that she is totally wrong. We know from the text Palamon wants Emilia and only Emilia. There is all the difference in the world between suspecting that the reason one is rejected is because of  inadequate social position and attempting to marry someone because doing so will enhance that standing.

2.  There is no competent psychiatric diagnosis of the Jailer’s Daughter offered by Green.

3.  There is no demonstrated connection between an inability to advance socially on the basis of marriage and any established psychiatric malady.

4.  Citing second-hand opinions of English teachers speculating about the causes of a fictional character’s mental disorder is no substitute for textual evidence and proof. Who cares about the mere assertions of “Paul Bertram,” “Richard Abrams” or anyone else, for that matter?

5.  There is no evidence that there is any serious reflection in the mind of the Jailer’s Daughter on “gender, class and familial role.” This is not a social scientist, but a jilted adolescent.

6.  Green brings forward in support of her thesis the Jailer’s Daughter’s participation in the May Festival and the Morris Dance. But rustic exuberance tends to show willingness to abide within the scope of one’s social class. Had she been alienated from her cohorts she would never have engaged in those flamboyant gesticulations.

7.  Occam’s principle of economy of explanation militates against a remote theory which portrays the Jailer’s Daughter as social critic. More accessible by far is the fact we know beyond any doubt: Palamon is in love with another woman. As that is sufficient to account for the phenomenon we need look no further. 

4.  Conclusion

It is odd that teachers of English persist in using antiquated terms like “madness” in light of the sophistication of contemporary psychiatry and the DSM-5. “Madness” was clearly an earlier age’s undiscriminating catch-all for a wide spectrum of emotional and mental dysfunctions. To engage in conjectural exercises, then, concerning the “causes” of a particular “madness” is to raise clouds of intellectual debris. Shakespeare, who mocks mechanical and amateurish accounts of madness in Hamlet (II, ii, 146-152), is at pains in all his works to exhibit the inner workings of the human mind in relation to character and external events, and after 400 years we continue to find him second to none in his dramatic psychology. There has been and will continue to be useless chatter about whether Hamlet and Ophelia were “mad” or not. Both characters exhibit behaviors and use language suggestive of mental acuity as well as disorder. But in the final analysis such academic exercises are sterile. We want to understand what has happened to Ophelia, and Shakespeare harnesses his extraordinary art to show how trauma and irremediable inner conflict can interfere with or destroy normal cognitive and affective processes. There is abundant textual evidence that in the not-too-distant past Hamlet and Ophelia were a couple. Hamlet anticipated with some reason that he would succeed his father as King of Denmark, but inside there were always doubts about his identity, doubts raised to the boiling point on his return to Elsinore to find Claudius atop the Danish Throne. He then becomes convinced that Claudius murdered Hamlet, Sr. and seeks a condign revenge — without results — knocking his life in the hazard. It is in this context that his relationship with Ophelia becomes insupportable. This would of course make any prior sexual activity between them a source of much discomfort for Ophelia, whose virginity is questionable. Hamlet upbraids and disgraces her and then kills her father, leaving her without parents at a young age. No one comes to her aid or offers her genuine comfort. She is not afforded any reasonable grieving process for her dad, which recapitulates a maternal loss not disclosed. Her emotional state leaves no way to reconcile her inner turbulence, as figures of respect and love are shown to be indifferent or hostile. There is thus no modus vivendi. For Shakespeare, madness is the failure of self-deception. As long as Ophelia can persuade herself that Hamlet loved her or at least cared for her, she can endure. But his abuse, coupled with his destruction of her father, leaves no way to jump-start her world. Only a censoring of reality can cushion the blow. But even in “madness” the truth seeps out, to the consternation of Gertrude and Claudius. Indeed, the last vestige of Ophelia’s humanity is that very madness. Efforts to rob her of that thin shroud of dignity, accusing her of dissembling to advance an anachronistic political agenda, is to make light of her wounds, forming an alliance with the wolfish forces which devour her soul. This is the ultimate and intolerable betrayal, ironically brought about by something calling itself “feminism.”

The situation is much the same with the Jailer’s Daughter. When she first encountered Palamon, there was no aim at marriage, something she regarded at the outset as “hopeless.” (II, iv, 4) Rather, she wanted to “enjoy” him. (See, e.g., II, iv, 30) That is, her first instincts were largely sensual. “What pushes are we wenches driven to, / When fifteen once has found us?” (II, iv, 6-7) The Jailer’s Daughter quite naturally feels the need for physical affection, that is, love. Yet in the way stands doubt. Palamon behaves with great kindness to her in his cell, even kissing her. (II, iv, 20-26) So terrified is she of discovering he is unavailable that she skirts the issue altogether, as though he were invisible — and blind. Rationally, she knows quite well how attractive he is. “He has as much to please a woman in him — / If he please to bestow it so / as ever / These eyes yet looked on.” (II, iv, 9-11) But the logical question, whether he is taken or not, is not addressed. The fact that the question doesn’t surface in explicit form doesn’t mean the possibility is not felt. We can only seek to avoid that of which we are in some sense aware. And the Jailer’s Daughter is keenly aware of Palamon’s allure for women in general. She tells us so. 

Hence, as argued above, when she releases Palamon from bondage only to be deserted by him, the Jailer’s Daughter faces a dilemma. The answer is staring her in the face but it is absolutely intolerable. Ophelia’s predicament is that Hamlet has behaved seductively with her, and may have obtained what he wanted. In the case of the Jailer’s Daughter, who would be only too happy to have a fling with Palamon, there is no masculine seduction, not even a hint of it. Instead, he flees. The only escape from a harsh and unacceptable reality is madness, in which the forbidden thought is suppressed at the cost of one’s reason. 

What she has never understood is that the Wooer is not merely a candidate promoted by her father, but a chap who genuinely desires and cares for her, even in her disabled condition. Once she loses a grip on reality, however, it would appear to be doubly difficult to win her. It is precisely here that the doctor’s remedy commends itself. As she is “mad,” that is, less able to distinguish real from unreal, and still fixated on the idea of “Palamon,” the doctor finds an opportunity for the Wooer to “become” the desired love object. Repeated doses of love, security, warmth and affection allow treatment to gain traction. And because the patient’s fancy for Palamon began with a pronounced eroticism, it is appropriate that genital congress be the terminus ad quem. Marriage may yet occur. All this is elementary and easy enough to apprehend for eyes not glazed over by intellectual fads. But just as the Jailer’s Daughter could not look at Palamon directly and see in him his emotional entanglements, so many contemporary critics cannot view The Two Noble Kinsmen in its concreteness and depth of insight. Since it fails to contain what they wish, they must insinuate the missing elements themselves.



Mythogyny: Madness and Medicine in Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen, Michelle Erica Green, online, and works cited therein.

William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2d edition, G. Taylor and S. Wells, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005.

William Shakespeare Complete Works, Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen, eds., The Royal Shakespeare Company, Random House, 2007.


For a more complete account of Hamlet, the reader is respectfully referred to Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



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