Hamlet: Ophelia, gender and madness

Lesson rationale

In his portrayal of Hamlet and Ophelia, Shakespeare raises troubling questions about gender and madness. These activities encourage students to compare these two central characters, and how they have been used to reflect changing views of psychology and sexuality. Students will engage with medical texts from Shakespeare’s day to explore shifting ideas of hysteria and melancholy. They will also explore a varied range of songs, photographs and paintings inspired by Ophelia, asking why she continues to be such a powerful source of artistic inspiration.

Key questions in this lesson:

  • How does Shakespeare explore the question of how ‘to define true madness’ (2.2.93)?
  • How have ideas of gender and mental illness changed since Shakespeare’s day?
  • What is it about Ophelia that continues to inspire artists and songwriters?