Ophelia is the female lead of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. She was in love with that prince of Denmark, and was used by the men in her life. She is an iconic and tragic figure of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. Ophelia is a figure that has made young woman feel much in line of kinship for centuries. Many teenage girls have felt drawn to her story because they feel they lack control in their lives, and hers seems like a cautionary tale. I myself was incredibly fascinated with Hamlet’s doomed lady!
Ophelia was driven mad when the man she loved killed her father and rejected her. In the beginning of the play it seemed that Hamlet shared Ophelia’s affection, but this is thwarted later. He even famously tells her to “get thee to a nunnery.” Ophelia famously died while picking flowers and singing to herself. When she had picked the flowers she laid down in a river and drowned. Some interpret her death as a suicide, but to me it has always read more as a person in a psychotic break not knowing what they were doing. I think she thought she was just lying down for a rest after picking her flowers, and ended up drowning in the process.
As a figure of inspiration Ophelia proved endlessly appealing. Ophelia is the subject of many famous works of art. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was greatly inspired by her tragic tale. In the Victorian period the PRB was rebelling against the stale norms of English painting. They made a list of subjects that would never go out of style. Included on that list were Arthurian subjects and Shakespearean subjects!
In the most famous painting of Ophelia John Everett Millais used Elizabeth Siddal as a model. She was a Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” (to use Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s word) as well as being an artist in her own right. Her tragic story even more intimately connects her to the story of Ophelia. After finally marrying Rossetti (a courtship that lasted ten years) and giving birth to a stillborn daughter, she succumbed to her laudanum addiction and died of an overdose! This sad ending to a short life has forever linked her to the subject she modeled as in one of the most famous depictions of her ever to exist!
For more about Elizabeth Siddal, and her connection to Ophelia I highly suggest you visit the website lizziesiddal.com. The woman who runs the website has collected an incredible amount of information on the life of this beautiful and intelligent woman! The information on the website allows people to see Lizzie Siddal as more than just a muse or the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She truly is more than just the embodiment of Ophelia!
In 2006 Lisa M. Klein published the novel Ophelia which is a beautifully written novel telling the story of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view! I love that this book gives us deeper insight into what was actually going on with the tragic young woman! In this story we get to see an alternate ending for Ophelia, that still works with the ending of Hamlet, and it is a perfect answer to the questions we have all had since first reading and seeing Hamlet! In 2018 Daisy Ridley starred in the film version of this awesome novel. I adored the way they costumed this film, especially since I felt that Ophelia looked like she stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The costumes looked much like the ones used by Millais and by John William Waterhouse (a Pre-Raphaelite style painter who lived and painted a generation after the PRB)!
I hope that this post has inspired you to get to know more about this tragic Shakespearean heroine!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Ophelia by John Everett Millais. It is owned by the Tate, and I found the image on the tate.org.uk. The model for the painting was Lizzie Siddal the “Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel.”
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- Hamlet (1969)
- Hamlet (1990)
- Ophelia by Lisa M. Klein
- Ophelia (2018)
- Desperate Romantics (2009)
- Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley (Note: This author is the great-great-great-grandaughter of Charles Dickens!)