Hamlet’s Most Famous Character

Ophelia’s suicide: why has a fictional character inspired so many artists for hundreds of years?

© Anita Salemink 2014. 100 Days: 100 paintings, No.39  Watercolour 12.5 by 12.5 cm

© Anita Salemink 2014. 100 Days: 100 paintings, No.39 Watercolour 12.5 by 12.5 cm

Ophelia has been portrayed in numerous paintings throughout the centuries as the beautiful young maiden with the white skin who drowns herself: she floats on the surface of a river amongst flowers and leaves, only staying adrift for a short while, just until her clothes have weighed her down, and ultimately drown her. ‘Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up; which time she chanted snatches of old tunes […] Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death, (Hamlet, Scene IV, line 175-183). In the famous painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais from 1851-52, we see the maiden floating in a stream holding a garland of flowers, William Shakespeare describes her as holding a garland of ‘crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,’ (Hamlet, scene IV line 170) which symbolize her innocence, youth, virginity, pain and sexuality. 

In the beginning of the play we see Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, become obsessed by his father’s death, convinced that his uncle the new king poisoned him — his father’s ghost had told him so, he devises a plan to show the world what had truly happened.

Ophelia is the innocent bystander in all of this, the white maiden, too much in love with Hamlet to be able to save herself, and too dedicated to her father to literally quit the scene. She stands by, while Hamlet stabs her father, mistakenly that’s true but he shows no remorse after committing the murder.

Grief stricken she goes mad, ‘Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! …. Is it possible that a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?’ (Scene V, line 153).

Is it her innocence that triggers so much inspiration, or her beauty, her great love for the wrong man, the madness, the victim of madness; mad obsession, for in a state of near madness Hamlet avenges his father’s death.

So many artists have painted the pictures; writers have written poetry; songs; they’re always beautiful just like Ophelia. Is it the beauty that puzzles us, people, even nowadays are considered happy when beautiful, is this the question with the fixation on Ophelia, has she become the symbol of tragedy, pure the tragedy of a maiden’s death and her incapacity to turn the tables, the victim of male testosterone, the victim of the man as you will.

Things might or could have been different; if she had been stronger maybe she could have talked to Hamlet, changed the outcome, saved herself at least. Or was she actually killed by Hamlet, did he purposely kill the one he loved most by showing no remorse in killing her father. Ophelia is puzzled by this and exclaims ‘Lord! We know what we are, but know not what we may be.’ (Hamlet, scene V, line 45).

When do we really know someone? You get to know the character of your neighbours by the choices they make, but are we always witness to all their choices?

Well anyway, Ophelia has become a beautiful symbol of innocence, even though she is but a weak woman, the woman who has failed herself and committed suicide to escape it all; the ultimate beauty of the tragedy.



Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Complete Works, Oxford University, 1971

Plant Symbolism, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopaedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_symbolism

Bruggen, Rob van, Ophelia, Colour photograph http://zoom.nl/foto/full/portret/ophelia.1559103.html?object=user&object_id=86466

Millais, John Everett, Ophelia (1851-52), Tate Britain, London.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)#mediaviewer/File:John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg  

© Anita Salemink 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anita Salemink with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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