Trigger warnings: suicide, death
“There is a willow grows askant the brook…
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress…”
Ophelia. The innocent maiden who loves Hamlet, respects her father and is caught in a game bigger than her, drowns singing, a flowery and muddy death, too fragile to survive in a world of deceit and revenge. Did she really love Hamlet? Was she simply a good daughter, ready to please her father to the point she refused to be in contact with the prince? Hamlet scares her, puzzles her, and her first thought is always for her father, whose death seems to shock her so much she becomes mad.
However, if we consider the possibility she really loved Hamlet, then her madness could be something entirely different. As devoted as she seems to be to Polonius, is such an attachment normal? Isn’t she at least a little resentful towards a father that seems determined to use her as a political tool, and to decide how she should feel and act? If Ophelia is more than a sweet, beautiful shell, then it is likely that her malleability hides feelings, emotions, as her madness proves later on. If Hamlet teaches us anything is that madness is not a sudden fact, but a long walk on muddy ground, where one missed step can lead to a downfall. Ophelia is on dangerous path, pressed by everybody around her, the queen, her father, her brother, the king, each with their own agenda. Even her interactions with Hamlet are ambiguous, the prince alternates sweet words with insults, and his feelings are unclear as well, does he love her? Is it only a manipulating game? Ophelia is a pawn chess, in a world of king, queens and towers.But her irrilevance is redeemed by her death, which is oh so beautiful!
Art history is full of Ophelias, drawning, dead already, creating flower crowns, and her madness looks as sweet as unmenacing as possibile. Her madness and death are so much more interesting than a life lived in the shadows of power.
Georges-Jules-Victor Clairin- Ophelia in the Thistle
Linda Joyce Franks
Carlos Ewerbeck, Ophelia at the River’s Edge, 1900
Antoon Van Waly
Oh Joong Seok
John Everett Millais
Dexter Dalwood, “Sunny Von Bulow,” 2003
If we assume that Ophelia was indeed a girl made of flesh and blood, with feelings and depth, then it seems likely that she held some resentment towards her father, who controlled her entire life. It is likely that the lack of freedom affected her and that Polonius’ death did echo her own most secret desires. Besides the conflict due to her loved one killing her father (and metaphorically, this is what every lover is supposed to, taking the place of the father in the daughter’s affection) the real problem lies in the fact that this is her unconscious desire come true. She becomes mad because she cannot face her own feelings regarding her father’s death, which at least partially involve relief. Ambiguity towards our loved ones is a very natural thing, and wishing the death of our parents is equally normal, as long as it stays a fantasy, of course. But for such a repressed individuality, as in the case of Ophelia, these feelings could have been too much to handle. Her freedom comes with a price, and it’s a price she doesn’t know how to pay. She pays for everybody else, for her father’s lack of morals, for her prince’s manipulations, for her king’s crimes, for her own hunger for freedom, love, impurity, life.
Ophelia is no young martyr, dying with a halo, perfectly serene in her departure from the world.
The young martyr – Paul Delaroche
She is indeed troubled, tormented, much more than a beautiful, sexless ideal and that’s why she has been so popular. Hamlet taunts her with vulgar words, and her father is described in the most repulsive way, her purity has been already tainted by the world, by those who were supposed to love her, but see her as nothing more than a body and a hymen.
John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse
W G Simmonds
Can Ophelia be more than a victim leaving a world that is too harsh for her?
Death by water was also Virginia Woolf’s choice. She filled her pocket with stones and drowned herself in River’s House. This is her farewell letter to her husband.
Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Arthur Rimbaud described Ophelia as a dreamer, a romantic, a child who aspired to Heaven, Love, Freedom. crashed by the infinity and visions too vivid for her soft heart. Killed by Nature, killed by dreams too big to be dreamt.
Sur l’onde calme et noire où dorment les étoiles
La blanche Ophélia flotte comme un grand lys,
Flotte très lentement, couchée en ses longs voiles …
– On entend dans les bois lointains des hallalis.
Voici plus de mille ans que la triste Ophélie
Passe, fantôme blanc, sur le long fleuve noir;
Voici plus de mille ans que sa douce folie
Murmure sa romance à la brise du soir.
Le vent baise ses seins et déploie en corolle
Ses grands voiles bercés mollement par les eaux;
Les saules frissonnants pleurent sur son épaule,
Sur son grand front rêveur s’inclinent les roseaux.
Les nénuphars froissés soupirent autour d’elle;
Elle éveille parfois, dans un aune qui dort,
Quelque nid, d’où s’échappe un petit frisson d’aile:
– Un chant mystérieux tombe des astres d’or.
O pâle Ophélia! belle comme la neige!
Oui, tu mourus, enfant, par un fleuve emporté!
– C’est que les vents tombant des grands monts de Norwège
T’avaient parlé tout bas de l’âpre liberté;
C’est qu’un souffle, tordant ta grande chevelure,
A ton esprit rêveur portait d’étranges bruits;
Que ton coeur écoutait le chant de la Nature
Dans les plaintes de l’arbre et les soupirs des nuits;
C’est que la voix des mers folles, immense râle,
Brisait ton sein d’enfant, trop humain et trop doux;
C’est qu’un matin d’avril, un beau cavalier pâle,
Un pauvre fou, s’assit muet à tes genoux!
Ciel! Amour! Liberté! Quel rêve, ô pauvre Folle!
Tu te fondais à lui comme une neige au feu:
Tes grandes visions étranglaient ta parole
– Et l’Infini terrible effara ton oeil bleu!
– Et le Poète dit qu’aux rayons des étoiles
Tu viens chercher, la nuit, les fleurs que tu cueillis,
Et qu’il a vu sur l’eau, couchée en ses longs voiles,
La blanche Ophélia flotter, comme un grand lys.