Decoding Ophelia

Sometime between 1599 and 1602 William Shakespere produced one of his most powerful and revered pieces of literature.

Sometime between 1599 and 1602, William Shakespeare produced one of his most powerful and revered pieces of literature, his longest and now one of his most performed plays, the tragedy of Hamlet. Set in Denmark, Hamlet tells the story of Prince Hamlet, his thirst for revenge and the struggle for power within the Danish royal family following the murder of Hamlet’s father at the hands of his uncle.

Like any successful tragedy, there must be loss and from the beginning of Hamlet the tragic scene is set with the murder of King Hamlet by his brother, Claudias, in an attempt to usurp the throne. The story concludes with the death of one of the play’s main female characters, Ophelia. She is the main love interest to Hamlet and the pawn in the deceitful games of many of the male characters. 

Following the accidental death of her father Polonius by her lover Hamlet, Ophelia is driven to madness. Her decline into insanity concludes in act IV of the play where, whilst picking flowers on a riverbank, she falls into the water. So overcome with her madness, Ophelia never comes to realise how close to her own demise she is, and while gently singing to herself, slowly slips beneath the water.

Amongst many of the stories running through Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the demise of Ophelia fascinated many nineteenth century painters, including the Pre-Raphaelites, notably John William Waterhouse and Sir John Everett Millais. Kicked out of nursery at the age of four, Millais headed the rebellious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He led a radical exploration into a relative patriarchal Victorian stigma in art and an expulsion of the stuffy establishment of nineteenth century Britain.

One of the most iconic depictions of Ophelia is by Millais (1851-2), it took him two years to complete and was predominantly painted outdoors in Surrey, with the addition of the female model, Elizabeth Siddall, painted in his bathtub in his studio. 

When we look more closely at the symbolism of Ophelia, one of the most significant features in most compositions are the use of flowers. In the play, Ophelia’s demise comes as result of being ensconced in picking flowers, she is painted by Millais surrounded by a multitude of symbolic flowers floating at the surface, depicted with painstaking accuracy. 

Roses allude to her brother Laertes calling her 'rose of May'.

The willow that weeps over-head significant as a symbol of forsaken love.

The chain of violet flowers around her neck stand for chastity and faithfulness.

There is an obvious symbolic nature to the floating forget-me-nots.

And of course poppies signifying death.

At Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude sprinkles flowers into the grave saying, “Sweets to the sweet.” She is sadly laying funeral bouquets, but with a longing for Ophelia to have been her son’s bride, where flowers should have been adorning their matrimonial bed instead of her grave.


[Scattering flowers] Sweets to the sweet, farewell!

I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife:

I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,

And not have strew'd thy grave.

Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 242–246

The Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian painters such as Thomas Francis Dicksee, Jules Bastien Lepage, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Arthur Hughes and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, have served as the inspiration for many contemporary artists working today. Artists such as Donna Stevens, Mark Demsteader, Michael Carson, Nick Alm and Florence and the Machine.


View our collection of Mark Demsteader’s inspired figurative works here

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