Hamlet is considered to be one of the best plays by Shakespeare and is among the most frequently staged plays in the history of theatre. Nonetheless, it constitutes somewhat of a challenge for actors and literary scholars alike, since it is full of ambiguities. Additionally, the psychological make-up of characters in Hamlet is particularly interesting and influenced the world of psychology with Sigmund Freud writing about them in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). Ophelia is often portrayed as an unstable, overly sensitive, or downright mad woman. Unfortunate events such as rejection from Hamlet as well as her father’s death, pushed her to the brink. Ophelia died. The official version held that it was an accident – she was supposed to climb a tree, a branch she was sitting on broke, and she fell into the river. However, there was a likely possibility that it was not just her bad luck, but a deliberate action – suicide.
The most popular depiction of Ophelia is that of John Everett Millais (1829-1896). At only 11 years old, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts to become its alumnus at the age of 16. Together with fellow students, he started the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It consisted of young artists (all between the ages of 19 and 21) who wanted to stand up against the academic understanding of art and come back to artistic roots from the times before Raphael. They gained fame but were also heavily criticised and accused of blasphemy for their portrayals of biblical characters as regular people. Perhaps that is why they turned to depictions of other literary characters, particularly those of beautiful women.
It was only thanks to Ophelia that Millais gained international recognition. Even though throughout the 19th century, many artists undertook the subject of Ophelia’s death, it is Millais’ painting that most of us recall when asked to imagine Ophelia from Hamlet. But what is so special about this painting? Its very shape is already quite surprising – rectangle at the bottom and semicircle at the top. When looking at Ophelia, we cannot tell whether she is still alive or already dead.
Interestingly, since Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings were striving for realism, Millais hired a model to pose for him. It was Elizabeth Siddal, an artist herself, and a wife of famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood member – Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She had to lay in a bath filled with water for hours for Millais to capture Ophelia accurately. She caught a cold and demanded monetary compensation for her medical expenses.
We can observe a certain unnaturalness which is probably a consequence of what Millais painted first. He started with nature and left a space for Ophelia. Her body is pale, seems very frail and powerless which stands in opposition to the nature in the background so full of life, fecund and lush. Ophelia is surrounded by it and seems to be trapped inside – similarly to the dead trapped in a coffin. Effulgent colours, characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite style, dominate the painting. Among the surrounding greenery, we can see flowers which in reality do not bloom at the same time; therefore, we can interpret them as symbolic. Violets symbolise faithfulness; poppies – evanescence; daisies – youthfulness and innocence; and willow is a traditional symbol of unfulfilled love.
There is a certain kind of mystery we can sense when looking at the painting. Even though it depicts death, it does so beautifully. It elicits a feeling of pensiveness, almost relaxation, which only shows the mastery of John Everett Millais.