Hamlet Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition
by William Shakespeare

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Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Kaara Peterson

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...

(The entire section is 7,354 words.)