The male gaze (5) Innocent bystanders

Last in the series, you’ll be pleased to hear. Guest poets coming up very shortly. I’m off to listen to Tony Harrison in Leeds on Sunday, so the next post may be delayed. We’ll see.

I’ve been putting this post off, because it’s about poems and paintings that elect to deal with women who it’s difficult to think of as anything but victims, not just in the narratives, but in the subsequent treatment of those narratives.

Ophelia, first. She’s always troubled me…and particularly so when I once directed  Hamlet as a school play. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that though I like working with Shakespeare texts, and their multilayered subtexts, the sad fact is that there are a lot more male than female parts, and we used to get a lot more talented young actresses auditioning than there were parts for them. This led us plan for four performances, and in the case of Hamlet, for instancewe’d have an almost exclusively female group of travelling players, plus two Ophelias and two Gertrudes, who would play alternate shows. It was intriguing how this shifted the dynamic in the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, depending on how each young actress saw her. Because it’s possible to pick up a bit of defiance and feistiness in Ophelia’s first exchange with her brother; or a learned obedience. You takes your pick.

Objectively though, her first appearance is with her pompous brother who gives her a lecture about ‘Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour’. Her belief in the possibility of Hamlet’s genuine affection is brusquely dismissed. Hard on the heels of Laertes comes Polonius, that moralising old bore of a father, pooh-poohing ‘these tenders of affection’ Affection seems to be in pretty short supply as far as Ophelia’s concerned. Still she sends all Hamlet’s love-letters and tokens back. The time compression of the play means that almost instantly, but off-stage, Hamlet turns up in her room, apparently deranged. He’s just had a chat with the ghost of his father, but she’s not to know that. Alas, my lord, she tells her father, I have been so affrighted. And so she has.

And her father’s response? Off to Claudius to set up a nasty bit of eavesdropping. I’ll loose my daughter to him’ he decides, and we’ll hide and see what happens. Every time we see her she’s badgered and lectured, and now she’s disgustingly manipulated. Never mind she’s been terrified by Hamlet, and now she’s sent as bait in a trap. I’ve always believed that Hamlet has sussed this. Where’s your father? He asks. Hiding behind the arras, getting a taste for it, is the answer. And later, hiding behind another, he’s killed by Hamlet for his pains.

The next time she appears, Ophelia is deranged, distressed and talking Shakespearean not-as-mad-as-it-seems doggerel about flowers. Then off she goes to fall, (off-stage) by accident, as a willow bough gives way, into a weeping brook, incapable of her own distress. And there she floats, singing for a while, and drowns.

The thing is, this is the bit that seems to fascinate 19thC painters; this scene, described in graphic detail by Gertrude, and no other scene at all. I started off these musings by referencing John Berger, and his analysis of the way in which “Art” was re-appropriated for a particular class after its democratisation by photographic reproduction. The trick was to make it seem inaccessible via the mystifications of language, and in the case of Millais’ Ophelia , by chopping her up into little components, a bit like the images at the start of the post. Stuff like this:

By veiling the emotional significance of Ophelia’s death with a profuse veneer of detail, Millais privileged surface effect over content and divested the literary heroine of her traditional emotive impact in favor of a sensationalistic style. Millais thus created a crisis of sorts in literary illustration that allowed the painter power to skew conventional readings of female characters like Ophelia from one indicative of virtue to one of transgression, perversity, and decadence. The irony is that Millais did this by being quite literal in his depiction of Ophelia’s death, rendering the entire text rather than a portion of it. Traversing Shakespeare’s text from beginning to end, one finds Millais adhering strictly to his source: a willow branch arches over the brook and Ophelia’s head; flowers of the type mentioned in Gertrude’s monologue either grow on the bank or float in the water; her white embroidered and beaded dress spreads into a bell as she sinks; and her mouth is agape to indicate singing.”

Kimberly Rhodes, Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1988), 87, 90.

Or this:

The unstated lesson of Ophelia’s tragedy was that a woman’s fate is determined by the men in her life. Without male guidance or a male object of devotion, Ophelia was lost and helpless. That female independence could precipitate insanity was supported by ‘scientific’ research….The research of Jean-Martin Charcot – father of psychopathology and teacher of Freud – into the female ‘malade’ of hysteron-epilepsy, conducted during the 1870s, supported the myth of inherent female irrationality, especially among young, unmarried women….To citizens of the late nineteenth century, Ophelia represented the fate of single women driven over the brink by circumstances that men would normally overcome and epitomized an erroneous, if widely accepted, link between gender and insanity.”

Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 123-4

Let’s chuck in this backstory:

Ophelia was modelled by artist and muse Lizzie Siddal, then 19 years old. Millais had Siddal lie fully clothed in a full bathtub in his studio at 7 Gower St. in London. As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses. According to Millais’ son, he eventually accepted a lower sum.

….and Ophelia, as a living breathing human being is left behind in a dust of words. It bothered me and bothered me, and then at some point in a writing workshop I find myself imagining her, through this haze of stage productions, A level essays, art criticism and what have you. This is what I wrote.

One day

 I may grow fey, muddy-footed,

tangle-haired, caught up with goose-grass,

burrs, dandelion clocks, shepherd’s purse.


I’ll bite the ends of my hair,

tie loose knots of it across my eyes,

tug at elf-locks, thrash docks


and nettles with an elderberry switch,

puddle the river’s edges, kick

rotting branches, trouble frogs,


sing to water voles, pick blackberries –

hard and green, portwine, plum;

spit their bitterness out.


I shall wear bewilderment like a child

in a grown-up dress, trespass

among dog-roses, meadowsweet,


trespass among flag iris, marsh marigold,

trespass among the slow brown waters.

ophelia 2

Male gaze? I think so. And who comes into my mind? Yes….John Waterhouse and Miss Muriel Foster. Is it right to ‘envoice’ someone who’s presented over and again as a helpless victim without colluding in one way or another in the assumption. What was I thinking? I’ll ask the same question about one more poem, in this case, one about Echo, that much abused mythic character, the victim of the characteristic small-minded spite and cruelty of the classic pantheon. This one ended up as a kind of dialogue or interrogation, though I’m still not sure that it isn’t completely internal. I know it was skewed by yet another 19th C Alexandre Cabanal; pretty horrible it is, too. What was it about that pose of raised-hand surrender and vulnerability, plus several yards of gauze. What went on in their heads?

ophelia 7



In my cool room

I left that bracelet of fine silver

hung with amethysts, but it wouldn’t do


somewhere among the colonnades

you left your soft scarlet sandals,

at the gates, you loosed the clasp of pearls from your neck,

you cut off your hair, its living weight, in the avenue of laurels,

on the hot road you threw down your girdle, rings, your linen shift


I would have left my nails, my skin

anything to keep the telling of myself


they left it all in the dust


they pulled words

like teeth from your mouth

and left you dumb to tell your self,

alone in the crack of stone

in whispered frost


wrapped in cast-off language


in bits of syllables falling

leaves in a well

saying nothing again

and again saying nothing

that is mine or might have been me


this is all in your head


I say stonefall

I say buzzard

I say sleet


you will say your name

if they call



oh I cannot be silent


I can say nothing



(Should you wonder, a branks was also called a ‘scolds bridle’…essentially a gag of metal and leather. Tony Harrison uses it in a wonderful phrase the branks of condescension, by which the labouring classes are silenced)

There we are. To my relief and yours we come to the end of this sequence, and normal service will shortly be resumed. Thank you for your patience and attention, and especial thanks to those of you who’ve commented, here and also on Facebook.


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