Ophelia is a fictional character in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and potential wife of Prince Hamlet.
In Ophelia’s first speaking appearance in the play, we see her with her brother, Laertes, who is leaving for France. Laertes warns her that Hamlet, the heir to the throne of Denmark, does not have the freedom to marry whomever he wants. Ophelia’s father, Polonius, enters while Laertes is leaving, and also admonishes Ophelia against pursuing Hamlet, who he fears is not earnest about her.
In Ophelia’s next appearance, she tells Polonius that Hamlet rushed into her room with his clothing askew, and with a “hellish” expression on his face, and only stared at her and nodded three times, without speaking to her. Based on what Ophelia tells him, about Hamlet acting in such a “mad” way, Polonius concludes that he was wrong to forbid Ophelia to see Hamlet, and that Hamlet must be mad because of lovesickness for Ophelia. Polonius immediately decides to go to Claudius (the new King of Denmark, and also Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather) about the situation. Polonius later suggests to Claudius that they can hide behind an arras to overhear Hamlet speaking to Ophelia, when Hamlet thinks the conversation is private. Since Polonius is now sure Hamlet is lovesick for Ophelia, he thinks Hamlet will express love for Ophelia. Claudius agrees to try the eavesdropping plan later.
The plan leads to what is commonly called the ‘Nunnery Scene’. Polonius instructs Ophelia to stand in the lobby of the castle, while he and Claudius hide behind. Hamlet enters the room, in a different world from the others, and recites his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet approaches Ophelia and talks to her. He tells her “get thee to a nunnery.” Hamlet becomes angry, realizes he’s gone too far, and says “I say we will have no more marriages”, and exits. Ophelia is left bewildered and heartbroken, sure that Hamlet is insane. After Hamlet storms out, Ophelia makes her “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” soliloquy.
Waterhouse depicts Ophelia lying in a riverside meadow in an attitude of deranged abandon, one hand in her tousled hair, the other grasping flowers. The entry in Academy Notes for 1889 reads: "Ophelia lying in the grass, with the wild flowers she has gathered in the folds of her dress. In one hand she holds a bunch of buttercups; in her rich brown hair, which half hides her face, is a coronet of daisies; in the background through the willow-stems a stream winds, and swallows fly low in the air (no sketch received)."
Ophelia by the pond, 1894
Ophelia takes her time to prepare for her death with flowers. It looks like it takes place in a forest near a lake. The lake is dark, and it is filled with lily pads, showing behind Ophelia. The picture is focused on Ophelia putting flowers in her hair as she sits on a branch leaning over the lake, right on the boundary between land and water. The grass is tall enough to notice in the foreground of the painting. Ophelia is surrounded by the greens and browns of the natural setting. Ophelia is sitting on tall but small branches which are growing out of the water in the left side of the painting. Ophelia is wearing an elegant white long dress with gold trimming around the waist, wrists, and at the bottom of the dress in a fancy design. The gold trim also has pearls or beads, colored red, blue, green, and white. Her head is tilted back, silhouette style, facing away from the painter where the viewer can only see her left eye, the side of her nose, and half her of lips. Her right arm is lifted up near her right ear so the observer can not see her hand. Her left hand is slightly lifted near her neck touching her hair softly. Ophelia’s long, red, stringy hair has red and white flowers tied into it. She has white daisies resting on her lap. This painting has light and dark shading. The trees and the water surrounding Ophelia are dark. Ophelia is the lightest shade of the painting because it is focused on her. She has a rosy tan complexion. She looks as if she is finding peace and pleasure.
With his great accomplishments throughout his oil paintings he had to enter a work of art for his RA diploma. The painting he wanted to submit was titled A Mermaid, but, unfortunately, it was not completed so he suggested that they take a temporary painting until it was completed. He decided to turn in, temporarily, the Ophelia painting of 1888. After the submission the painting was lost until the 20th Century, and it is now displayed in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber (ArtMagick 2).
John William Waterhouse was interested with women dying in or near water. This gives explanation of his interest with Ophelia, since she died in water. It is said that this idea may have also come to him because of the paintings by Rossetti, Horatio Discovering the Madness of Ophelia and also from the painting by Millais’s, Ophelia.
J.W. Waterhouse imitated Millais’ work by adding some of the same ideas to his work. He added the idea of the lack of sunlight and the foreground. In Trippi’s book J.W. Waterhouse, another version of the Ophelia painting was completed in 1894 (133-5). In this description of Ophelia, J.W. Waterhouse shows her right before her death. The article, entitled “Ophelia,” states that “certain aspects of the composition underline the mortal turn of events: the poppies in Ophelia’s hair, for example, laden with the symbolism of sleep and death”. The time of finishing the same painting varies throughout two different books. In Hobson’s book The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse RA, the Ophelia painting was finished in 1910.
Waterhouse started a collection of Ophelia paintings, which were never finished because his illness of cancer started to become unbearable during the year of 1915. Trippi suggests that John William Waterhouse may have revisited Ophelia in early 1909 after his 1894 painting hung in the Academy in the McCulloch collection. His third Ophelia painting was shown in the Summer Exhibition in 1910. In 1915 he started giving “three to five” paintings to the Academy for the next couple of years. Even though the Ophelia series was never finished, a drawing titled A Study for ‘Ophelia in the Churchyard’ was entered in the 1926 sale, years after his death of cancer in 1917. Records show that there is no painting titled the same as what was entered in the sale, so they are considering it to be the Ophelia painting where she is sitting on the branch.
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Waterhouse has truly captured the way she might have looked before her suicide, her gazing out at nothing, entranced in thought, mindlessly placing flowers in her hair, driven crazy from grief. Peter Trippi quoted that “the Art Journal noted her ‘wistful-sad look’ and observed that, ‘never can this beautiful creature, troubled with emotion, experience the joys of womanhood” Hamlet having never actually slept with her. This painting is often compared to John Everett Millais’ Ophelia in which she is floating already dead in the water. Millais’ Ophelia was painted from 1851-1852.
(Senex Magister at hoocher.com)