Ophelia´s death in Shakespeare´s Hamlet and in Millais´s Ophelia

A comparison

Term Paper, 2010

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0




2.The role of Ophelia in Shakespeare´s Hamlet

3.The background of Millais´s painting Ophelia
3.1. The Pre-Raffaelite Brotherhood
3.2. The development of the painting

4.The description of Ophelia´s death: The Queen in Hamlet and Millais´s painting Ophelia – a comparison
4.1. Analysis of Millais´s painting Ophelia
4.1.3.Way of painting
4.2. Similarities between the Queen´s description and Millais´s Ophelia
4.2.1.The way the Queen describes
4.2.2.The words used by the Queen
4.3. Differences between the Queen´s description and Millas´s Ophelia


6.List of literature


As long as Shakespeare´s Hamlet exists, people are fascinated by the young woman Ophelia and her fate. She is a woman who leads a life which is dominated by men and their influence on her. Especially the network of intrigues, but also her helplessness and the being at someone’s mercy reduce Ophelia to despair. Her struggle ends with a mysterious death by drowning, which is to be analyzed in this assignment. This will be done by comparing the original passage from the Queen´s description of Ophelia´s death 1 with the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais2. During her description the Queen mythologises Ophelia´s death by using special words or pictures. So the question arises in how far Millais translated these words and pictures into his painting and whether his painting exaggerates or decreases the mythology and symbolic Shakespeare used. To be able to answer this question, similarities and differences between the description of Ophelia´s death and the painting Ophelia by Millais are analysed. To lead to these two scenes of Ophelia´s death and to get deeper into the comparison, it is reasonable to start with an analysis of Ophelia´s position in the play, as well as an analysis of the background of Millais´s Ophelia.

2.The role of Ophelia in Shakespeare´s Hamlet

As daughter of Polonius, the first minister, sister of Laertes and lover or ex-lover of Hamlet, Ophelia is surrounded by powerful men. Nevertheless she, herself, is the most fragile element of the character in Hamlet. As a consequence she is the first one who collapses and breaks down under the weight of the mental burden and the pressure lasting on her. She is a young woman in a hierarchical structure dominated by the men around her. Moreover she has no mental strength to break out of her cage, to follow her heart or even to think for herself: “I do not know my lord, what I should think”3 and “I think nothing, my lord.”4. Her situation even exacerbates this problem, because she is alone and has to fend for herself. Consequently she is more isolated than Hamlet, who has at least Horatio to talk to and to trust in.5

Ophelia in Shakespeare´s work is more a draft thrown on paper than a real character. There are only a few short scenes of her in the play, which reveal no concrete hints on her own feelings. She is just a ball in the duel of the powerful and important people6, as we can see in 2.1 or 3.1 of Hamlet for example.

“Ophelia ist ein Mädchen, dem alles Eigene verboten wird. Laertes und Vater Polonius verbieten ihr Meinungen, Bewegungsfreiheit, Selbstständigkeit, eigenes Denken,eigenesHandeln,eigenesReden–undvorallemihre eigene Sinnlichkeit und das eigene Lieben.“7

This quote expresses Ophelia´s situation and the consequences for her. She is not able to create her life herself. She is banned from having contact to Hamlet, the one she loves. Nevertheless she does not protest or show her own will. Without contradiction she accepts the decision of her brother and her father with the words “I shall obey, my lord.”8. This is getting obvious in 1.3, when first Laertes and then Polonius talk to Ophelia about Hamlet and their relationship.

Not to go beyond the scope of the assignment,twoexpressiveand exemplary scenes of the play are analysed shortly.

The first one is the theatre scene9. In this scene Hamlet makes rude sexual remarks about Ophelia, which confuses and embarrasses her. In this context the word “Nothing”10 appears which can often be found in relation with Ophelia, as for example in 3.2.111, 3.2.114, 4.5.7 or 4.5.13. This could characterize Ophelia as a person, because she has nothing, for instance no opinion or no own thoughts. But it could also hint at other persons and their view on Ophelia. This would mean that people like Hamlet do not take her serious and see her as beneath them and of no value.Another strikingelement inthetheatre scene areOphelia´s many short questions and statements, like “What means this, my lord?”11 or “Will´a tell us what this show meant?”12. On the one hand this could be Ophelia´s strategy to get out of Hamlet´s rude remarks. On the other hand this could be Ophelia´s searching for authority, because she is not able to form her own opinion.

This leads us to the next scene, the madness scene13 where Ophelia roams around, while singing different kinds of songs. The people at the court think that the “deep grief”14 “springs “All from her father´s death”15, as the king expresses it. Another reason for her behaviour could be that, with her brother in France and her father gone forever, there is a big lack of authority in her life now. Maybe it is her disorientation, because nobody tells her what to do, that leads to this condition. But it could also be that this is her way to break free from her bonds at least, by singing what comes into her mind and doing whatever she wants – including her decision of ending life. Sure is that it is another situation in which she is interpreted, but does not interpret or explain herself. This is exemplary for many situations in the play, as for instance in 1.3 and 2.1.

3.The background of Millais´s painting Ophelia

For a better understanding of the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais it is useful to know some basic information about its background.

3.1. The Pre-Raffaelite Brotherhood

The exceptionally gifted artist John Everett Millais was the painter of Ophelia, which was on exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1852.16 Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti “shared the view that British art was in decline at the end of the 1840s”17 and as a consequence they formed the Pre-Raffaelite Brotherhood in September 1848.18 They recollected old traditions and were geared to Italian, Dutch and German painting of the 15th century19, “[was] sich in einer Idealisierung des Mittelalters als visionär-utopischer Gegenwelt zur realen sozialen Misere der industriellen Revolution niederschlug”20. This led to a return to authors like William Shakespeare or Dante Alighieri,21 which confirms the following quote: “The artists who comprised the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood established their own canon of ´immortals` and placed Shakespeare at the very top of their list, just below Jesus Christ.”22 From today´s point of view the typical characteristics of Pre-Raffaelite art are united in Millais´s oil painting Ophelia, 23 not only, but especially because “Pre- Raphaelite artists […] were drawn to points of crisis in the plays.”24 And, as it is described in point 2. of this assignment, it is obvious, that Ophelia has to be very fascinating for Millais and the Pre-Raffaelites, because of her unrequited love for Hamlet, her insanity and her tragic death.25 Two other very typical and basic elements of Pre-Raffaelite painting are important for the comparison in point 4.. On the one hand the principle “selecting nothing, rejecting nothing and scorning nothing”26 by John Ruskin´s Modern Painters, which means sticking to details. And on the other hand the “programmatische[..] wissenschaftlich-akribische[..] Durchdringung der Realität”27 by factoring new technologies into paintings, especially photography.

As a consequence this point of view has implications on the development of the painting Ophelia and on the way Millais painted his Ophelia.

3.2. The development of the painting

The first implication of basic principles of the Pre-Raffaelite Brotherhood has to do with the development of the painting. Ophelia was painted in autumn and winter of the year 1851 outside in nature, directly within reality. With his objects, flowers, trees right before Millais, he was able to paint a very realistic impression of nature and many details found entry into his painting. After finishing the landscape he adapted Ophelia into his painting in a much shorter while. Therefore the model Siddall had to lie in a bath tub for hours, because Millais aim was to paint Ophelia as realistic, but nevertheless idealistic, as possible28. This corresponds with the Pre- Raffaelite idea of a harmonic unit of human and nature, because here it is Ophelia, who is in a mystical fusion with the element water. Consequently the imagination of the mermaid-like woman is like an antipode to the alienation of human and nature. Millais had to take the scene of the dying Ophelia in the river and not, l ike many before him, the transition from land to water, to express this Pre-Raffaelite idea29.

4.The description of Ophelia´s death:

The Queen in Hamlet and Millais´s painting Ophelia – a comparison

To have a fundament for the comparison ofOphelia´s death, Millais´s painting Ophelia is to be analysed in detail first.

4.1. Analysis of Millais´s Painting Ophelia

The analysis is split up into four parts. The first one is the composition, followed by colour, then the way of painting and as last part spatiality.


Millais´s Ophelia is a rectangular painting. At the bottom and on the left and right hand side it is open. At the top and in the left and right corner it is framed by a brown curve which looks like a bridge. This leads to the impression that we look at a scene on a stage. The frame brings us back to mind that it is just a painting, a construction, which someone has built, but not reality itself. The stream leads from therightbottom tothemiddleoftheleftsideorotherwise round.Inwhich direction it actually flows one cannot tell for sure, because there is no dynamic in this painting. It seems as if everything holds its breath. It is the situation of one short moment, but it seems to last forever. This can result from the fact that Millais portrayed his Ophelia from a model lying in a bath tub, as described in 3.2. of this assignment. Consequently there could have been no tide. The whole situation in the picture seems as if time stands still. It is very fixed and inflexible, like a well thought- out plan. And it definitely was elaborated and thought-out. As in 3.2 described, Millais painted his landscape directly by field work and consequently it is very realistic and full of details.

Ophelia herself is in the centre, the heart of the composition. Her hips are already under water, her head, breast and hands are still above, as if to hang at poise. Ophelia´s gaze is empty and expressionless. She doesn´t look at something concretely. Her mouth is half open, as if she is singing or being absolutely relaxed. Ophelia´s hands are open as if in prayer or like Jesus at the crux. This suggests that she abandons herself to her fate. Moreover she does not defend herself from this dangerous situation. She devotes herself to it and her open hands could signalise her innocence, but also her passiveness.

Furthermore it is notable that the trees and plants in the background tend to hanging in or above the water more than growing up into the sky. This leads to the impression that they are in mourning or feeling grief and sorrow.


The colour of this painting has an enormous effect on the mood it carries. The whole picture is dominated by colours like green, brown and grey. Especially the middle of the background is rather dark. The plants to the left and to the right pick up the colour of Ophelia´s dress, which connects the middle and the background and creates a unity between human and nature. The only highlights in the cold background are the little white blossoms, which look like dog roses.

Themiddleground, likethewholepainting,isdominatedbyOphelia, because she is an enormous contrast to the black water. The river is the darkest element in this picture and leads to a threatening and ominous atmosphere. Ophelia´s pale skin, in which is nearly no colour, stresses her fragility and seems to be a knell of death. Her greyish dress announces the momentariness of life and the transition from her dress to water is blurred. It soaks with water and as a consequence the spectator knows the weight will pull her down soon. This can be understood as another foreshadowing of her death. Not only the colour of her dress, the connection with the black water, but also her hair that looks like a reflection from the tree above her, are suggesting that Ophelia is getting one with nature around her. As in the background the flowers are the only ones that bring colour into the painting. Because of the special meaning of the flowers, they are nearer analysed later in 4.2.

In the foreground one can find warmer and brighter colours, like light green or orange, than anywhere else in the picture. This leads to three-dimensionality, because warm and bright colours are pushing forward. On the other hand these colours come from algae which are slimy and muddy and under water a greyish brown, another symbol for caducity.

In the whole picture one can find only one colour contrast: red and green. This contrast can be found in the stream, because of the red flowers and on the left hand side in the willow, where one single robin is sitting. As a consequence of missing contrasts the picture is very harmonic. The colours are realistic and natural as in reality. Moreover they are very intensive and clear. Nevertheless the whole painting is dominated by dark colour which presses down on ones mood and so it appears serious and heavy. There through it expresses danger and is an extreme contrast to quietness and devotion which are embodied in the painting.


1 Thompson. 2006. 4.7.161 to 1.7.182.

2 Millais, John Everett. Ophelia. 1852

3 Thompson. 2006. 1.3.103.

4 Thompson. 2006. 3.2.111.

5 comp.. Poppe. 2000. 156.

6 comp. Günther. 2001. 109.

7 Günther. 2001. 109.

8 Thompson. 2006. 1.3.135.

9 Thompson. 2006. 3.2.

10 Thompson. 2006. 3.2.114.

11 Thompson. 2006. 3.2.129.

12 Thompson. 2006. 3.2.136.

13 Thompson. 2006. 4.5.

14 Thompson. 2006. 4.5.75.

15 Thompson. 2006. 4.5.75, 76.

16 comp. Bayer. 2009. 155.

17 Rhodes. 2008. 85.

18 comp. Rhodes. 2008. 85.

19 comp. Bayer. 2009. 155.

20 Bayer. 2009. 155.

21 comp. Bayer. 2009. 155.

22 Rhodes. 2008. 86.

23 comp. Bayer. 2009. 155.

24 Rhodes. 2008. 86.

25 comp. Rhodes. 2008. 86

26 Bayer. 2009. 160.

27 Bayer. 2009. 160.

28 comp. Bayer. 2009. 163.

29 comp. Bayer. 2009. 158, 164.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Ophelia´s death in Shakespeare´s Hamlet and in Millais´s Ophelia
A comparison
University of Würzburg  (Philosophische Fakultät I)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Hamlet, Ophelia, Shakespeare, Literature, Millais, painting, comparison, Vergleich, Gemälde, Art
Quote paper
Sarah Wenzel (Author), 2010, Ophelia´s death in Shakespeare´s Hamlet and in Millais´s Ophelia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/471460


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