This afternoon, at the Tate Britain, I found myself staring at this painting for several minutes. They currently have an exhibition of the artist John Everett Millais, and this work -Ophelia- is one of his best known.
I first experienced this painting a decade ago, when I was fortunate enough to actually be studying the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their techniques were fascinating, my fascination encapsulated in this work, the way they portrayed every detail of every flower, the folds in the dress, the movement of the water.
Millais was not the only painter of the period to portray this tragic Shakespeare heroine. Arthur Hughes, a contemporary of Millais, also did so, and so did many others:
She is the archetypal Shakespeare tragic heroine, her sad story an inspiration to artists for centuries to come. This, I would imagine, is to do with her innocence. She is no conspirator or courtly sycophant at Elsinore. She truly loves Hamlet and is driven to madness by his rejection of her, leading to an untimely demise which is never revealed as either suicide nor accident. Compare the images above with the description, in the play, of her end:
- 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 indu'd
- 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.
These lines are spoken by Queen Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet, the scene providing a helpful contrast between the character of the doomed maiden and that of the Queen. whose tacit complicity in the murder of her first husband has allowed her to marry his killer and remain Queen. It is the demise of Ophelia and her father Polonius that brings the vengeful Laertes back to Elsinore and leads to the final confrontation in which only the loyal Horatio emerges unscathed.
Why the appeal of Ophelia? Why does she still haunt us? I suspect it may be guilt. The Hamlet audience sees in her the figure that COULD have been helped, but was in fact spurned to her death. In the Millais painting, she sings quietly to herself while waiting for her clothes to fill with water and drag her to her doom. Innocence destroyed by madness - but was it her own madness, the brooding madness of her lover or the madness of the Elsinore court that promotes murder, conspiracy and quiet acceptance?
Ophelia represents the assistance we failed to provide. She represents the charity we failed to support. She represents the weaknesses we would prefer to ignore.
Frailty, thy name is woman.
Frailty, thy name is silence.