Gaston Bachelard said that for certain souls, "l'eau est la matière du désespoir" (L'eau 125). Bachelard's "stuff of despair" is a central figure in what he called the Ophelia complex - the image of a young and beautiful woman floating dead upon the surface of a still body of water (102). As some critics have noticed, this motif makes constant appearances in the poetry of Federico García Lorca (Aguirre 287; Palley 162). Whether Lorca was inspired by Shakespeare's tragic protagonist or by artists' renderings of her plight, she certainly makes for a poignant and poetic visual image, tragic beauty frozen forever in a watery silence. Yet as W. T. J. Mitchell aptly states:
Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution from creatures "made in the image" of a creator, to creatures who make themselves and their world in their own image.(9)
As a visual image, the Ophelia complex is such an "actor" informed by Western ideology in such a way that when she appears in theater, art, and text she personifies the hopelessness and trauma of living with a sexuality that is not entirely acceptable by the codes of society. This paper will explore this concept as an important theme in Lorca's poetry. First, it will outline how Ophelia was represented in W. Shakespeare's Hamlet and viewed by her critics so as to lay the foundation for how her image will be read in later representations. Secondly, it will discuss this visual image in John Millais's painting Ophelia, as well as its critical reception. Thirdly, it will closely examine the Ophelia complex in some [End Page 73] of Lorca's poems, in particular how they echo the aforementioned theatrical and artistic ideologies. Finally, this essay will argue that the Ophelia complex not only represents repressed sexuality, but provides a critique of the same traumatic experiences it purports to represent.
Perhaps one of the most tragic female characters of Shakespeare, as Gabrielle Dane argues in "Reading Ophelia's Madness," Ophelia is the paradigm of unrelenting sexual abuse from the patriarchal society in which she lives. Her "brother [Laertes] and father [Polonius] smother Ophelia in an incestuous stranglehold" where she is both elevated as the idealized, virginal female and reduced to a piece of political currency (406-08). Her identity is constructed by the men that surround her, who, in turn, define her by her sexuality. Ophelia truly desires Hamlet - and is scandalously seeing him unchaperoned and without approval - so Polonius and Laertes warn her back into the corral of the accepted paradigm of female chastity (Ham. 1.3.33, 109; Pitts 53). Even Hamlet - who was at one point her betrothed - rejects her sexuality when, after denying any affection for her, he commands, "Get thee to a nunnery" (3.1.121).1 Later, Hamlet seems to see her as no more than a sexual object when, during the presentation of his play, she comments of his foul mood. His response: "It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge" (3.2.244-45). Both encouraging and chastising her for her sexuality, Ophelia's fellow protagonists cast her into the contradictory roles of virgin and harlot, and into an impossible ideology in which female sexuality both exists and is denied.
What can a girl do in such a situation, but succumb to insanity? In her madness, she is presumably driven to suicide, as narrated by her mother, Queen Gertrude. The Queen describes a willow leaning over a "glassy stream" and an oblivious Ophelia - "with fantastic garlands [...]/ Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples" - tumbling through its branches into "the weeping brook." The girl floats momentarily on the surface of the water, "chant[ing] snatches of old tunes; /As one incapable of her own distress" until finally sinking to her death (4.7.165-182). [End Page 74]
Gertrude's reading presents...