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.