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