Iconography of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’

Ophelia and water

Probably the most influential depiction of Ophelia is the painting by Sir John Everett Millais, 1852:

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

The image is interesting for that it is slightly unexpected: Ophelia’s death is not seen onstage, merely reported by Queen Gertrude in the following lines from IV.7:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up.
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Millais’ picture is thus a tribute to the visual potency of Shakespeare’s words. It is also the source of an amusing array of imitation ‘art’ as its own tribute. A Google image search for ‘Ophelia’ will provide you with an idea of the range such imitations take, many of which are rather bad, as the screenshot below will demonstrate:

Ophelia tribute art


Ophelia on film

The influence of Millais’ Ophelia is visible in the 1948 film version of Hamlet directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, who chose to use this vision of Ophelia’s death as the backdrop to Queen Gertrude’s speech:

Ophelia Jean Simmons


Literary parallels in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

As a work rich in symbolism and allusion, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles contains innumerable references, motifs and symbols borrowed from a variety of places. The possibilities listed below are few of an inexhaustible many.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Tess begs the vicar that her child be given a Christian burial. The child was not baptised by the vicar before it died, and was conceived and born out of wedlock. For reasons less to do with scripture or doctrine than social propriety, the vicar refuses and Tess leaves him with her curses.

In 5.i of Hamlet, Ophelia’s coffin is brought to the newly dug grave. Hamlet is unaware of whose funeral it is but he guesses by the want of obsequies (funeral rites) that whoever it is must have died by their own hand, as suicide is a cardinal sin and orthodoxy would not permit full honours fur such a burial. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, demands more from the priest, and getting nothing, gives curses in return.

Enter Priest, & c. in procession; the Corpse of OPHELIA, LAERTES and Mourners following; KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, their trains, &c.

The queen, the courtiers: who is this they follow?
And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken
The corse they follow did with desperate hand
Fordo its own life, ’twas of some estate.
Couch we awhile, and mark.

Retiring with HORATIO

What ceremony else?

That is Laertes,
A very noble youth, mark.

What ceremony else?

Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet, for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her.
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Must there no more be done?

No more be done?
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.

Lay her i’ the earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.

The influence of religion upon Angel Clare in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

Angel Clare’s father, Reverend Clare, is low church. This means his faith is very Protestant in nature, which emphasises plainness, simplicity and the word of God as found in the Bible. One is able to tell they are a ‘low church’ family by their plain clothes and furnishings and by the father’s aversion to alcohol. One of the outcomes of this version of Christianity is that the words of the Bible are likelier to be taken literally, including those of the Old Testament.

When Angel Clare discovers that Tess had been raped, he says of the rapist that he is her ‘natural husband’. Even for a Victorian, there is something unexpected in this cruel remark, knowing as he does that she did not make a sexual union with Alec D’Urberville of her own choice. However, there is Biblical precedent in Deuteronomy for his remarks, one of the books of the pentateuch (which together make the Mosaic law):

25 “But if a man finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter. 27 For he found her in the countryside, and the betrothed young woman cried out, but there was no one to save her.

28 “If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.

The actions of the novel fall between these two instances: Tess is not betrothed when she is raped, but she does get raped in a forest. Verses 25, 26 and 27 concern themselves with blame, laying it at the rapist’s door because the secluded location made the betrothed virgin defenceless: Alec is to blame.

Verses 28 and 29 do something rather different. If women be conceived of as chattels (and the tenth commandment makes clear that they are) then part of the rapist’s crime is the destruction of another man’s contract, as his betrothed is now of no value. This carries the death penalty. However, if the virgin be not betrothed already, then no contract has been violated and no penalty of death is warranted. The law appears still to recognise the rape as a violation of another man’s property – her father’s – but this violation may be redeemed financially and by the rapist taking such a contract upon himself.

This appears to be where Angel locates the idea of Tess now being ‘naturally’ married to her rapist. That she was raped in the forest allows him to accept she is blameless, but the fact that she was not affianced at the time of the rape means that, no contract having been broken in the rape, a de facto contract must now exist between Tess and the first man to have sex with her. Tess’ failure to divulge these things to Angel before they married therefore, according to his understanding of things, represents a grotesque violation of God’s law on many levels and is the mark of ‘degeneracy’ he thinks he sees in her.