why ophelia?

[deviantart] ©2006-2010 ~Odessa11stock

There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples[…]

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down the weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like…

As an English student it’s a little embarrassing to admit that, up until this year, I had never read Hamlet. Alongside Romeo and Juliet, it is Shakespeare’s most quoted and adapted play, with its roots firmly in popular culture. And there is one character whose name is equally as well known as the titular Hamlet.  Hamlet’s rejected lady adds little to the central plot, makes no rousing speeches and is a passive pawn to the politics and constraint of her father, brother and lover. Yet Ophelia’s madness is more talked about, and her death (although offstage) one of the most familiar and more recreated, than Hamlet’s itself. Before reading the play I was aware that Ophelia drowned, and although I knew Hamlet would die (the tragedy bit gave that away), I couldn’t have told you how. So what’s the obsession with Ophelia?

Ophelia’s watery death has been made iconic through pre-Raphaelite paintings, perhaps most famously by the artist John Mallais. These paintings use the description from Gertrude’s report of the death -part of which is quoted above- and typically depict a beautiful woman floating serenely, with long waves of angelic hair strewn with flowers.

Type “Ophelia” into image sharing sites such as flickr and deviantart, and you’ll find thousands of photos with modern-day girls imitating her death. Young girls and women are willingly submerging themselves into cold baths, and weed filled ponds to imitate Ophelia, who it seems has come to represent innocence, nature and an image of lost, wasted beauty. But why? Do they empathise with Ophelia’s constraint through patriarchy? Her decline into madness?  They are hardly mainstream problems these days… perhaps it is just the aesthetics that attract imitators?

Whilst Ophelia’s beauty might be attractive to young and old women alike; I think it is probably curiosity that excites us more. As a marginal character, we never really understand her, and we want to. We understand Hamlet; we are allowed to hear his thoughts through the long, famous soliloquies. Ophelia’s madness and accidental death leaves us guessing, ineffectually trying to sketch in the massive blanks surrounding her character. Where is her mother? What happened between her and Hamlet? We only see fleeting glimpses of her: snapshots of an obedient daughter and sister, a rejected lover… a singing madwoman. There is something arresting about the child-like portrayal that leaves people wanting more, as if we are unsatisfied with Shakespeare’s offering. Similar female heroines such as Othello’s wronged Desdemona, or the tragic victim of politics and love- Juliet, for some reason, do not attract the same level of attention as Ophelia, perhaps because we understand them better.

In order to step into her shoes, or pond, I foresee many more girls stripping off and clambering into a bath tub with a fistful of flowers and an SLR camera. Ophelia is a cultural icon of the past, the present and no doubt the future.

Razz Editor and Society President

[Razz does not own these images. All images copyright to the individual painter/photograper]


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