Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7354
In her far-ranging study Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, Elisabeth Bronfen elucidates Western culture's fascination with depictions of dead, beautiful women in literature and the visual arts respectively, concluding that because such images are so omnipresent we are scarcely aware of their status as a resolute cultural tradition. Likening portraits of dead women to Poe's famous purloined letter—so numerous as to be invisible to the viewer's eye—Bronfen elaborates the aesthetic association between women and death, quoting Poe's notorious statement, "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." Bronfen's study, of course, is part of a general concern these days with the implications of "representation," and her discussion can also be situated in the larger context of current interarts debates about whether traditions in one aesthetic mode affect and should be studied in conjunction with each other, or whether such approaches end up as a kind of ecphrastic iconology, wherein the verbal invariably becomes the interpreter of the visual.
Insofar as Ophelia is arguably Shakespeare's most recognizable female character, with a long and significant history of "purloining" in both verbal and visual media, she would seem to be an excellent focus for discussions of this kind. And indeed she is, albeit ironically so, for just as Bronfen's examples of dead women tend to remain distinct—generically categorizable as literary or visual bodies, either/or—so literary analysis rarely seeks to consider the ever-present visual interpretations and popular imaginings of Ophelia's character, and equally in discussing her representations art historians regularly prefer to concentrate on aspects of formal composition rather than explore her origins within the Shakespeare text. At the same time, in the case of Ophelia, we have an instance of a character whose portrait has been painted with such consistency that she has become something of a visual cliché, whereby the "typical" Ophelia of the plastic arts has so imprinted itself on our imaginations that we tend either to ignore how her death is reported in Hamlet or we tend to augment the text to include a drowning scene, which literalizes into a "seen," appearing in our mind's eye as we read.
My purpose in this essay is to bring together these previously disparate methodologies that split Ophelia's body up between disciplines. In addressing Shakespeare's character in this manner, however, I do not seek to establish an unequivocal "body" of work in which we can locate the "true" Ophelia, for my direction here will point out the reverse, that Ophelia is always elusive despite the fact that she is so "present" in artworks. She is an elusive figure because such artworks regularly take as their subject a literary fragment from Hamlet reporting Ophelia's death, a fragment in which it is doubly impossible for Ophelia's body to be present. The method I adopt is partially paradoxical, for I wish to unearth the "literary" body of Ophelia present in different visual representations at the same time that I want to utilize these same media to suggest the degree to which they have formed our understanding of the dramatic textual character.
In order to position Ophelia's dual representational history more precisely within both art-historical and dramatic-critical frameworks, I start by tracing the history of painted Ophelias as they first appear typically in the 18th century. My discussion of Gertrude's narrative of Ophelia's drowning next establishes the crucial context for understanding the important innovations of Arthur Hughes's 19th-century painting which I examine at length before returning to complete my catalogue of other important but more general examples of visual media from the 19th and 20th centuries; thus, I locate my literary investigation into Ophelia's origins in Shakespeare between visual arts contexts purposefully, hoping to elucidate Ophelia's extraordinary connection to both genres. In the final sections, I consider the broader implications of Ophelia's dual representational life for aspects of popular culture.
Prior to the mid-19th century, painted depictions of Shakespeare's Ophelia differ significantly from the image of the drowning, pathos-inspiring figure that typically haunts our imaginations today. When 18th-century illustrators of Shakespeare—e.g., Francis Hayman, Benjamin West, George Romney, and Nicholas Rowe—chose to depict Ophelia at all, they usually placed her in a larger, group context where her presence is not highlighted as a focal point. For example, as John Harvey has discussed with respect to two mid-18th-century plates of Hayman's Mousetrap scene, in these works other characters are the primary focus (5-6). West's Ophelia (1792) from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery exhibition features her prominently in the mad scene, but with Laertes shown dismayed by her distributing flowers to the other characters. As William L. Pressly notes with respect to his collection of plates of paintings held by the Folger Library, "depictions of Ophelia did not become popular until the late eighteenth century" (49). The earliest exception to the presentation of Ophelia in a group context would seem to be Richard Westall's Boydell Gallery engraving (c. 1789) of an apprehensive-looking Ophelia heading with trepidation to the water's edge. Westall's engraving rapidly begins to look as though it could be the model for all future works, for as Pressly notes: "the episode most frequently chosen by artists [is] the moment just before Ophelia plunges to a watery death. Ophelia is typically shown adorned with flowers . . . loose tresses are also typical of Ophelia iconography" (50). However, rarely is she presented alone until the next century, when "character criticism" is on the rise in literary circles and when, more generally, Shakespeare reigns supreme in Romantic-era imaginations, as Jonathan Bate has noted.
It is to the mid-19th century that we must look for a substantial increase in the number of Ophelia-specific depictions: "Ophelia was the single most popular literary subject for artists, with more than fifty portrayals recorded in exhibition catalogues" (Pressly 49). Here the focus is regularly centered upon Ophelia, presented as a single subject, and usually in her drowning scene. As though we have been trained precisely by Poe to regard the death of a beautiful woman as a primarily aesthetic experience, we have come to expect seeing this scene if a painting bears the title "Ophelia." Ophelia's about-to-be-submerged or partially submerged body begins to seem clichéd, appearing most recently in the visual media in the form of director Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1997) as a flashback addendum to Gertrude's report. So where are we first persuaded that we "see" her drown?
Queen: There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet 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,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Gertrude's recital to the court of the events surrounding Ophelia's death is the only "evidence" we are given as the explanation for her drowning. While it is not new to observe that Gertrude cannot have been present during the drowning and thus reports what she has been told by someone else, it is significant to note that with the exception of Martha C. Ronk and Bridget Geliert Lyons, critics have neglected the import of this basic observation and glossed over the oddity of the aestheticized tone of the recital, choosing largely instead to fall in line with Harold Jenkins's opinion that Gertrude's "account of it, reaching chorus-like beyond the dialogue, the play expects us to accept" (546). I would argue, however, that rather than "expecting us to accept" the evidence, Shakespeare highlights its aestheticized quality. This passage is similar to the treatment of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, where Shakespeare has Marcus use incongruous Petrarchan love poetry when he paradoxically and grotesquely praises her mutilated body.
Clearly, Shakespeare is not afraid to show his audience the on-stage spectacle of feminine death or suffering, as is amply illustrated by Cleopatra, Juliet, Desdemona, and by Gertrude herself. Thus, as Lyons has noted, "to accept" Gertrude's speech as if its discomfiting quality were merely accidental (deserving to be swept under the carpet) is to ignore an important issue in the characterization of Ophelia. Throughout the play, Ophelia has her opinions and statements recast for her by other characters—namely, Laertes, Hamlet, and Polonius—who wish her to behave in a manner they deem appropriate. To mention just one example, upon hearing from Ophelia that Hamlet has been courting her, Polonius recasts Ophelia's view of the relationship as one in which Hamlet ruthlessly exploits her naïveté so that he may conquer her sexually. Gertrude's speech is the epitome of such reconfigurings of Ophelia's realities, and it also should make us think twice about why her death need be so prettily recorded, and recorded unmistakably as an accident.
It is worthwhile to point out that the controversy within and without the play over whether Ophelia commits suicide or is drowned accidentally depends largely upon the discrepancy between what Gertrude says in this speech and the discussion that the gravediggers have in the subsequent scene. Although as Michael MacDonald has explained, Renaissance law was confusing and rather arbitrary about what determined whether one was "guilty of one's own murder," felo de se, or innocent by reason of insanity, the conversation of the gravediggers seems to indicate that Ophelia has committed suicide but is nevertheless being given some of the proper rites of a customary burial because she is of high social standing. Perhaps Gertrude is socially motivated to "portray"—hence the aesthetic inventory—Ophelia's suspicious death as an innocuous fall. Perhaps not.
While I will not solve the mystery of Gertrude's incongruous recital in the space of this essay, the incongruity is the relevant issue writ large. Unless we want to accuse him of extreme carelessness, Shakespeare intends to leave the circumstances of Ophelia's death—suicide or accident—inconclusive: he gives Gertrude this less than typical messenger performance (her only extended monologue in the play) and then provides for its immediate discrediting by the gravediggers. Whether we "side" with Gertrude's casting of the event as an accident attended by silvery, envious willows, whether we find surer ground with the gravediggers' opinion that she is a suicide being improperly well-buried, or whether we gloss over the speech's oddness and the identity of the particular agent of its delivery—all are equally to miss the very point: there is an epistemological gap in the text that cannot be filled in. We cannot explain away the difference between Gertrude's and the gravediggers' perception of what has happened to Ophelia's body. In fact, how conclusively does Shakespeare offer us the corpus delicti so to speak?
We are presented with a visually emblematic description of the event to which Gertrude was not a witness, which serves to make her an "unreliable narrator"; precisely because she is not a choric figure (only chorus-like, for some) here or elsewhere in the play, her remove from the progress of events and distance from a position of omniscience leaves her narrative without "authority," literally and metaphorically. Far from being the "authority"—the source of the information told from the perspective of a knowledgeable witness—she retells what someone else has told her about what has transpired, and she repeats it in self-conscious, mannered literary reportage. Her poetic figures, moreover, appear to borrow, at least partially, from Ovid's tale describing Arethusa's being changed into a river.
The Poplar, and the hoary Willow, fed
By bordring streames, their gratefull shadow spred.
In this coole Rivulet my foot I dipt;
Then knee-deepe wade: nor so content, unstript
My self forth-with; upon a [willow] stud
My robe I hung, and leapt into the flood.
Where-ere I step, streames run; my haire now fell
In trickling deaw; and, sooner then I tell
My destinie, into a Flood I grew.
Just as Shakespeare took Ovid's Philomela as the source for Lavinia's tragedy, so here the echoic quality of the vocabulary and situation suggests that again a tale by Ovid supplies Shakespeare with the source material for Gertrude's ventriloquization of Ophelia's story; the tale of Ophelia's drowning becomes a mannered, stylized, lyrical recital. According to J. Philip Brockbank's witty view: "the queen was too preoccupied with composing the felicitous verses she hoped to speak in court to spare time to take a grip on Ophelia's weedy trophies and haul her out" (111). But Gertrude, of course, was not present at the scene of drowning; thus, the poetic verse is occasioned rather by Gertrude's desire to perform for her audience. The oracular skill suggested by the "felicitous verse" has been mentioned by many critics—although it is only Jenkins's reference to her tone as "chorus like" that begins to sense the awkwardness and artificiality of Gertrude's new position as the historian of a tragedy to which she was not a witness.
Not being a witness to the drowning, Gertrude cannot be an "authority" about the event she relates. With respect to the question of how much she is an "author"—in the sense that she must make alterations to the unidentified messenger's "source material" in the process of refashioning it (much as Shakespeare refashions Ovid in penning the monologue)—this is of course indeterminable: we are unaware of what was told to her "before" (as if there were a before that exists beyond the play structure) she tells it in the fashion that she does. Nevertheless, the very impossibility of attributing any definable elements of authorship to Gertrude serves to make the point about the story's lacking authority.
Nor is Gertrude an "authority" in the very literal etymological sense of "originator" for the story she tells: the original report is authored by someone else whose identity is not known, a ghost author, a transparent originator in perhaps an endless series of deferred authorities. Indeed, careful examination of Gertrude's tale reveals the ghostly status or missing referent of the originating author/source, and it also reveals the missing authority for and of this history of Ophelia's body. After the report of the drowning, we have Ophelia's body directly in the funeral scene, but is the real history of the body—the story of the events that cause her death—identical to the body in Gertrude's story-telling of history? do we have the accurate account of a material body's history or a materializing history that has no body/nobody as the final, unequivocal referent? I think the point here is that there is no way to determine difference if it were to exist: the history becomes one and the same as the story once Gertrude "produces" her monologue—the French histoire (meaning both story and history) is a favorite of feminists for a reason. Ophelia's body, then, captured picturesquely, does not lack "reference" (or mention) by Gertrude, but as I have argued above, her body is still only the certain referent of a tale whose authority in all its senses must be understood to be lacking.
Interestingly, Gertrude's monologue is about witnessing the loss of a life to death, of a body that cannot be recouped from nature's grasp, much like Hamlet's ghostly father cannot recoup himself until he burns off his "purgatorial fires." But Gertrude's last chapter in the history of Ophelia also mimics or repeats the very circumstances that it purports to address; that is, her narrative describing the progressive loss of Ophelia's body also enacts that loss in the process of its telling, for the "unauthorized," finely-wrought tale that she tells always stands in for the missing original narrative, which is always a lost "body of work." Thus, Ophelia's body is lost once to death and once more to the very narrative about her death: this repetition suffers elision if the set-off speech is viewed merely as an uncomplicated extension of a "choric voice." We miss the implications of the artificiality and remove of its content and speaker.
In fact, to argue that Shakespeare intends us to gloss over Gertrude's performance is performative of the repetition of loss that I have described above, for if we pay no attention to the discomfort we feel for her language's artificial rhetoricity—what makes critics resort to calling her voice "chorus-like"—and gloss over it, we actually reduplicate Ophelia's textual elision, the textual death in narrative. I suggest that we have become anaesthetized to the oddnesses attending the speech only because it has been augmented by a substantial catalogue of representations of a primarily visual nature: we have been trained to "read" this speech as a visual experience and fail to notice that Shakespeare leaves the event as reportage. For us, Ophelia's drowning scene has become a "seen" playing through our collective memory.
Gertrude "frames" Ophelia's story by making it as "pretty as a picture," and as such Gerturde's story becomes in turn the visual "history" of the body of Ophelia, more often than not, as is evidenced by the artistic repetitions of this particular scene. The variety of images produced reenacting the scene of Ophelia's drowning presents us, importantly, with the implicit statement that Gertrude's powerful rhetorical figures are not simply the tail-end to "Ophelia's story" in Hamlet, but that this one aspect of her life (death) has become essentially her entire story through a kind of synecdochic process—the part represents the whole. A ventriloquized history becomes overwhelmingly the "story of Ophelia." This perhaps complicated movement finds a simple model if one notes that a whole series of paintings entitled "Ophelia" are all essentially thematic variations of La Mort d'Ophélie (Eugène Delacroix), because in portraying her death each implies that the story of "Ophelia" generally is that of her death. On the basis of such a large number of these paintings, one might think that she does nothing else in the play but fall into a brook and drown. Certainly, the main feature of Gertrude's monologue is also the desire to narrate Ophelia's progress to death: to borrow Peter Brooks's term, the "narrative desire" is to arrive finally at the beautiful, dying body of Ophelia, which is then reenacted and repeated by visual artists who perceive Ophelia as "a creature native and indued / Unto that element," as Gertrude describes it.
From the generations of paintings portraying Ophelia's death scene as narrated by Gertrude, Arthur Hughes's 1852 Ophelia . . . provides the most exemplary model. Hughes's canvas is a lunette shape with a remarkable frame: on it is reproduced, in excerpted form, the first half of Gertrude's lines from the text of Hamlet. Many reproductions of the painting (and engravings) do not feature the frame, and many critics do not mention this important detail. In Elaine Showalter's discussion, Hughes's Ophelia is primarily a representative of the iconography of madness: "In the Royal Academy show of 1852, Arthur Hughes's entry shows a tiny waif-like creature—a sort of Tinker Bell Ophelia—in a filmy white gown, perched on a tree trunk by the stream. The overall effect is softened, sexless, and hazy, although the straw in her hair resembles a crown of thorns. Hughe[s] juxtapos[es] childlike femininity and Christian martyrdom" (63). This painting, however, is less a painting of the "mad Ophelia" than it is another always-inscribed-in-the-death-moment Ophelia, her most repetitively invoked profile. As much as we might wish to see the Hughes canvas as a representation of feminine insanity, the painting's use of the textual excerpt asserts instead that the subject being depicted is Ophelia about to drown: we are looking at a moment just prior to her drowning and death, which is directed by the (con)text of the writing on the frame—it does not feature, for example, the earlier scene where she is actually present on stage in a state of madness.
Interestingly, Hughes's framing of Ophelia in this manner must also be understood to be a repetition of Gertrude's narrative framing of the story of Ophelia's drowning, for while the painting's framed/framing text refers to the visual subject it surrounds, this painted Ophelia can only rearticulate or repeat—but not refer back to—the text. In other words, the painting places Ophelia firmly in the context of Gertrude's story by literalizing what is already a "speaking picture" into a real picture. The painting articulates the progress of Ophelia's body to "muddy death" by repeating Gertrude's utterances: the word made painted flesh, so to speak, is truly re-presentational. Of course, it is possible that Hughes's painting and other like representations of Ophelia could be seeking to interrogate Gertrude's representation by making the odd pictorial quality of her speech a demonstrable, problematic reality, but as Elisabeth Bronfen's arguments suggest, the habit of art's preferring to portray dead beautiful women throughout history as aesthetic objects would seem to foreclose upon such an analytic response to the speech.
The way that the Hughes painting implicates the verbal text provides a particularly economical illustration of the way that painters replicate the framing strategy of Gertrude's speech, but all paintings of Ophelia depicting an earlier or later moment in her progress to death always already depict death, even if it is death-about-to-happen. Just as death has also already determined the teleology of Gertrude's story—the narrative end of which also desires precisely to portray an "end" aesthetically—so these canvases simply repeat one fraction of a continuous movement towards the end of the narrative. These paintings all feature the site of her death; i.e., watery landscapes and flora with or without other plant life, however abstract the representation.
Earlier contributions to the flood of images to which Hughes's 1852 Ophelia belongs include Richard Redgrave's Ophelia Weaving Her Garlands, (1842). Redgrave's sober, neoclassically-composed Ophelia sits on a bowing tree bough just above the flower-dotted water's edge; the scene's composition with the centrally-situated static woman is typical of formal portraiture of the era, as if Ophelia with her vaguely distracted features and corseted, heavy dress were sitting in a drawing room rather than about to experience a violent end.
This aspect is indeed captured in the pre-Hughes contributions of Delacroix, whose 1843 lithographs and the 1844 painting of La Mort d'Ophélie . . . strike the viewer with a scene of immediate peril: Ophelia's heavy body is about to fall into turbulent waters—a "brook" which looks more threatening than any of the rest of the watery depictions of Ophelia one encounters. The combination of the threateningly active river below and the suspended, about-to-fall Ophelia present her at a moment of imminent death; it is death in progress, in fact, moving along resolutely as she begins to lose her grip. In fact, Ophelia's death is a work in progress in a fuller sense, for Delacroix was apparently as fascinated with repainting and relimning the figure of Ophelia as he was with painting Hamlet. Similarly, as Leonard Roberts and Mary Virginia Evans have discussed, Arthur Hughes himself reworked several perspectives of the same scene.
By reason of a strange albeit pre-Raphaelite coincidence, in the same Royal Academy exhibition in which the Hughes Ophelia appeared, there was also featured Millais's 1852 Ophelia . . . , which soon became the most famously reproduced work illustrating Shakespeare's character. In this work, Elaine Showalter sees an interesting tension between the formalist detail and eroticism: "While Millais's Ophelia is sensuous siren as well as victim, the artist rather than the subject dominates the scene. The division of space between Ophelia and the natural details Millais had so painstakingly pursued reduces her to one more visual object; and the painting has such a hard surface, strangely flattened perspective, and brilliant light that it seems cruelly indifferent to the woman's death" (63). Death is indeed the central event being anticipated in the Millais painting, and Showalter's comments cannily zero in on the manner in which Ophelia's body is "reduced" and "flattened" into a "visual object" for purely aesthetic contemplation, for this making of a body into a work of art is analogous to Gertrude's original narration of the drowning, the "portrait" that threatens to reduce Ophelia's death to the status of only a verbal object.
The late 19th century saw moribund Ophelias multiplying in the art world, of which the anonymous "T. E. Monogrammist" Ophelia . . . in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection is in many ways representative. Mention should also be made of Henry Nelson O'Neil's Ophelia of 1874, followed shortly after by John William Waterhouse's 1889 Ophelia, one of several depictions of the same scene he repainted at least once in 1910. In all the aforementioned paintings, we have a case of the artist "following convention" (Pressly 50) by placing a crown of flowers in her loose hair and showing her in a white dress as she walks to the water's edge; the iconography or conventions of dress and landscape for depicting Ophelia's incipient death are firmly in place by this juncture.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the tradition continues with Odilon Rédon's 1908 Ophélia, which portrays in a more abstract manner an unidentifiable point in the drowning. For if the bright polychrome of the wash of flowers dominating the tableau does not make Ophelia look like she is being "drowned out" by them, an abstract body of water in an equally abstract landscape is still present in the upper righthand region of the canvas: just as the Hamlet text on the frame defines what is about to happen at the edge of the brook in Hughes's painting, so Ophelia's watery context is always eerily proleptic for her death—is always referring to her imminent death. In Rédon's painting, Ophelia's face is tilted upwards, a garland of flowers is interwoven in her hair; and her eyes appear peacefully closed. Oddly, the painting is a twin of Rédon's depiction of Orpheus, another character with a long mythological history telling of his body's end in a watery grave.
Joseph Stella's Ophelia (c. 1926), while sharply limiting the viewer's perspective with a tight close-up of her face, nevertheless positions two waterlillies at the upper right and left-hand sides to convey the watery, floral context with remarkable economy. . . . Similarly, although Stanley William Hayter conceived of his 1936 Ophelia as a thorough abstraction—the plane of tangled, curvilinear geometric shapes is not representational—Hayter also confirms the existence of the traditional components of the Ophelian landscape: "Ophelia represents lines of flow in water, intense light, floating flower, insect, fragments of human form—held as with surface tensions of liquid" (Janis 121). Hayter's abstract "fragments of human form" connote a relatively anonymous body, but an Ophelian body nonetheless because of its placement in the floral, watery context of her death scene. In view of this dominant symbology, and although in some of these paintings there may indeed be some iconographical references to insanity of the type Showalter seeks, any "psychiatric" detail is ultimately secondary to the focus on death. The watery grave is a consistent feature of Ophelia's landscape, so much so that it is part and parcel of the standard Ophelian iconography.
At last count, Stephano Cusumano's quasi-cubist 1970 Ophelia .. . is the most recent entry in a still-growing catalogue. This perspective painting takes the progress toward death even one step closer than the Millais: featuring a mannequin-like figure with blocky, nearly androgynous facial planes, Cusumano depicts a body sinking below the water's surface, surrounded by air bubbles, obscured by and wrapped in weeds. Thus, despite the remarkable range of styles of Ophelia paintings reflected by the various schools and movements here—one might compare Millais to Cusumano for the similar placement of the body even if the manner of composition is vastly different—a discernible vocabulary of presentation articulates itself in all such works.
To put the painters themselves back into this text-painting relationship, one might describe them as being narrators of the (same) story and as continuing the process of elision that Ophelia has already undergone in the narrative. Reproducing Gertrude's speech, a painter reproduces it differently, in a different medium: artists make concrete an anatomical body that had no physicality in speech by "rearticulating" it, and this process is in itself a form of repetition, since Ophelia's painted body mimics the story of Ophelia's narrative body, altering in medium but not in content—there is no new tale to tell. That is, the painted body depicts its compliance with the textual, narrative body by presenting the same body in a different medium, progressing to death housed within new anatomical trappings. Yet the stability of the "real" body of Ophelia that we see in paintings is illusory precisely because the origin of the painted body always lies within the narrative body, and the narrative body's description by Gertrude, we must remember, has no "authority," no referent, no originator, pointing instead back to the epistemological gap in the text. This gap is also increasingly elided as we become used to seeing Ophelia depicted in this particular manner, so that painted Ophelias have come to influence our perceptions of the literary Ophelia as much as the literary has inaugurated painted Ophelias. In view of the great number of artists who paint this scene over and over again—with some like Hughes (see Roberts & Evans), Delacroix, and Waterhouse painting different approaches to Ophelia repetitively themselves—it would appear that the fascination lies in the extent to which Ophelia's image is already commonly a painterly subject but also because the scene remains unfamiliar, insofar as it stages the extra-dramatic moment of Hamlet, the moment where the text breaks down.
Not accidentally, the "hole" or non-signifying place in the text of Hamlet is also the feminine body's locus. As elaborated by Elisabeth Bronfen, the portrait of a dead woman reflects the instability of the feminine body and its symbolic connection to death more generally. Bronfen establishes her argument within Lacanian frameworks, locating the feminine body as both a sign of death and of the constant deferral of death; she theorizes that the dead feminine body is always being represented, apotropaically, as an intact, beautiful body: "The beauty of Woman and the beauty of the image both give the illusion of intactness and unity, cover the insupportable signs of lack, deficiency, transiency and promise their spectators the impossible—an obliteration of death's unique castrative threat to the subject" (64). According to this psychoanalytic model, in their being associated with "lacking" a phallus (and thus the ability to control "signification" or meaning), women are also uniquely connected to death, for death's awesome and threatening power is that it evacuates all meaning. Thus the struggle to make meaning, to make things signify, is always a battle against lack, or "nonmeaning," or death. In this sense, the potential breakdown of signification that is threatened by a dead body gendered female becomes doubly threatening to the masculine subject, and this is why the death of a woman must therefore be constructed as the death of a beautiful woman—i.e., in order to foreclose upon the reality of death's leveling power, in order to reject the power of death to destroy a masculine identity that is grounded upon possession of the phallus. The dead and beautiful woman for Bronfen, therefore, indicates an excess of meaning—the dead feminine body is always being invested with a plethora of signification so as to ward off its radical instability, its potential to dissolve into nonmeaning and in turn, to divest the masculine subject of his identity.
To return to Ophelia and to Hamlet, since we cannot literally see Ophelia's body because it is only a figure evoked in Gertrude's speech in Shakespeare's text, we are left in turn with a body that does not signify, does not have an ultimate referent in narrative. According to Bronfen's model, it seems little coincidence that the death scene specifically is the scene constantly rearticulated by artists, who regularly present Ophelia in the scene contained in but denied visually by the text. For if Ophelia is not always being "dredged up" to begin her progress to death over and over again, the gap in the text might begin to evolve precisely as the site of instability where referentiality collapses, the site of the threatening correspondence of woman and death where meaning dissolves. Ophelia needs to be contained by a beautiful death and the stage of decomposition must only go so far. This may explain why there seem to be no paintings of a truly, unmistakably dead Ophelia, perhaps the closest approximation to this state being Millais's glassily blank or Stella's closed-eye, peaceful figure.
If paintings of Ophelia rearticulate the site where referentiality potentially collapses, paradoxically these representations also insure the ultimate referentiality of Hamlet, and by extension, of Shakespeare. Here it is helpful to return for a moment to the role of the textual frame in Hughes's Ophelia. The painting itself cannot refer to Ophelia with any concrete certainty, since the figure it depicts can only refer back to Gertrude's speech which is the only place that we can find her. Gertrude's speech, however, is of course part of Shakespeare's text proper, part of Hamlet, so that while paintings of Ophelia almost always take as their subject the place in the text Hamlet where the referentiality of Ophelia breaks down, nevertheless Hamlet still always serves as the final referent for Ophelia, gaps or no gaps. Lacan's oft-mentioned pronouncement that Ophelia is "linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet" (20) is accurate, but as these artworks suggest, her link to the character Hamlet is less important than her more resolute link to the larger work, the play Hamlet. Insofar as Hamlet is, of course, in turn a play by Shakespeare, the additional twist here is that, ironically, the representations of Ophelia might turn out to be even less about her history than they might chronicle the continuing significance of Shakespeare for many cultures—European, American, and Japanese traditions at the very least. For over a century, it is precisely the dead, beautiful, painterly Ophelia that gets articulated over and over again in the "high" art tradition, coincident with the fairly regular ascendancy of Shakespeare as a figure of vast (multi) cultural importance.
As an extension of "high" culture production, moreover, Ophelia has also become a "low" or popular culture figure of sorts: her drowning is alluded to in the titles of psychology books (see Pipher), and her more-or-less placid body floats by our eyes periodically in media as varied as recently-televised episodes of the X-Files, resolutely reproducing and repeating visually the circumstances of Gertrude's narrative. In fact, the ever-popular depiction by Millais is frequently featured in postcard and calendar reproductions. Indeed, Portal Publications' 1995 calendar, The Pre-Raphaelites, includes not one, but two Ophelia paintings: Millais's becomes the pinup for "Miss May," while J. W. Waterhouse's Ophelia becomes "Miss November." In the space of one twelve-month calendar, these depictions of the about-to-drown Ophelia point to the consistent popularity with consumers of this theme of Ophelia's death.
Another example can be found in a 1996 Folger Library project entitled "Shakespeare's Heroines," a boxed set of notecards depicting esteemed female characters (including a 19th-century painting by Marcus Stone, featuring a dreamy, distracted Ophelia). What is so interesting about The Folger's marketing initiative and a patron's ability to purchase the Folger cards in a museum shop is the suggestion that "art-shop" products like the "Shakespeare's Heroines" notecards are more appealing to the targeted public than the experience of any real artwork that might be housed in the museum itself; revealingly, the patron of the Cleveland Museum of Art cannot buy a souvenir postcard of Stone's Ophelia because there is no concrete viewing experience possible in Cleveland of the work, located elsewhere in England, for which the notecards should be a reminder.
As this example makes clear, Ophelia—perhaps along with other less frequently invoked Shakespearean heroines—is a thoroughly marketable product, a Shakespeare-brand product. The impetus that leads patrons of art shops to purchase such items seems to be linked most concretely to efforts to commercialize the Bard, for it is to be on shaky ground to claim that consumers are necessarily familiar with either the paintings' specific literary context or even the text of Hamlet generally when they purchase a calendar with Ophelia gracing its interior. The Ophelia of the commercial and plastic arts seems to be in the odd position of saying less about "attitudes towards women and madness" (Showalter 69)—even when paintings such as Stone's Ophelia take madness as their explicit subject—and more about the success of "Shakespeare" as an adaptable commodity category, the success of the Shakespeare-products clearinghouse, so to speak. In this important sense, even Shakespeare's status as perhaps the literary marker of cultural importance, as a figure of immense cultural capital, appears to be losing ground rapidly to the market for "Shakespeare" products, regardless of whatever such products do (or do not) have to do with Shakespeare's texts. Depictions of Ophelia then, would seem to direct us unequivocally to Shakespeare's text, but do they? Instead, we appear to be faced with a free-floating reference to "Shakespeare" only most generally, a literally "free-floating" Ophelia severed from specific contexts.
Occasionally, however, pictorial repetitions of Gertrude's narrative go one step further into the representational quagmire which has developed around her "muddy death" and make the figure of Ophelia an issue precisely of non-referentiality, either accidentally or deliberately. For example, a postcard announcement and compact disc single by Australian artist Nick Cave features on its cover . . . an unmistakably Ophelia-styled drowning woman to promote a song that is not really about Ophelia at all. Cave's song "Where the Wild Roses Grow" does identify a woman as a "wild rose" (associated with Ophelia by the Victorians), but she has another name arid is clearly not intended to be Ophelia. Making a reference to Ophelia, but only obliquely, the cover and advertisement enlist her and her watery landscape—the familiar iconographic vocabulary—to provide the image for a song of which she is not the subject. That each of the songs' lyrics in Cave's album tells the story of a murder suggests further that murder, and not Ophelia, is the specific thematic concern here. Thus, Ophelia is employed here to serve purely as an image, pointedly separated from her textual context or underpinnings; because the name "Ophelia" has come to mean reductively "a drowning woman scenario," this equivalence also works in reverse fashion, as is evidenced by Cave's cover, where drowned or drowning women become "Ophelias." Cave's cover photograph, however, is different from painted artworks that take Ophelia as their ostensible subject because Cave's "Ophelia" enacts (consciously or unconsciously) precisely that "unreferentiality," that separation between Shakespearean character and the established cultural modes of her representation.
Perhaps the best example of the separation discussed above can be found in Claude Chabrol's 1962 film Ophélia. The film, rather than being about Shakespeare's protagonist, instead focuses on the drama of a man who thinks he is Hamlet and includes the purely tangential story of a woman who must deny patiently and consistently, "Je ne suis pas Ophélia. Je suis Lucy. " Oddly, the identity of the character is always in the position of not being Ophelia, as if Lacan had adapted his "La femme n'éxiste pas" (qtd. in Bronfen 211) for a screenplay. What happens to the woman in the film apparently has nothing to do with Shakespeare's character—there is no scene of drowning or anything significantly close to the scenes in which Ophelia appears in the play. Of course, neither is the "Hamlet" character really Hamlet: this character's significant deficiency is his trying to force his life into an artificial mold of Hamlet's. So finally, the film's title, Ophélia, does not even refer concretely to any Hamlet or Shakespeare's Hamlet; whether Chabrol intends it or not, "Ophelia" remains a free-floating apostrophe, an appellation misapplied to the story that unfolds in the film, significant only in that it refers always to "not Ophelias."
The "Ophelia" referenced and invoked by the titles of numerous paintings and other media sampled in this essay establishes a preliminary inventory that, taken as a whole, begins to look remarkably thematically consistent. Whether the example is from the 18th, 19th, or 20th century, more often than not, the artist has resolutely trained our gaze at one scene, one event. Yet unless we realize that the drowning Ophelia is a more complex figure than she may initially strike us, with two deeply intertwined histories of representation, our analysis remains partial. In many ways, Ophelia's floating body has become so great a part of our Shakespearean cultural history, that we seldom realize how little we—literary and cultural studies critics, editors, and art historians—have interrogated the deceptively too obvious Ophelia. The value of the interarts approach here is clear, helping us to reexamine a familiar, even excessively-canonical and clichéd landscape.
Ophelia has no history that is properly hers; rather the painted portraits of Ophelia are always already representations of Gertrude's first pictorial representation and must always be remembered to be so, or else we risk losing sight of Ophelia's progress through these complex layers of representation. Accordingly, because Showalter's study does not look deeply enough into the textual origins of Ophelia, her own directions for a more accurate study of her history are a bit wanting: "Ophelia does have a story of her own that feminist criticism can tell; it is neither her life story, nor her love story, nor Lacan's story, but rather the history of her representation" (59). Instead, the history of representation that we must evince is one that recognizes her as a site of the convergence of the literary body and the pictorial body. One might be persuaded to reimagine Cusumano's neo-cubist Ophelia of 1970 along the following lines: an anonymous-faced woman's body enshrouded by and wrapped in a thick veil of crownet weeds—leaves, in fact, of Hamlet. This reconfigured portrait might drive home the idea that Ophelia's complete story cannot be discerned without turning over those leaves, or pages, of the text that we must first find her in—or do we?
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Source: "Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, September, 1998, pp. 1-24.
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