Ophelia by John Everett Millais, completed in 1852 and currently held in the Tate Britain in London.
The painting depicts the character from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, singing as she floats like a mermaid to her death by drowning. The scene is described in Act IV, Scene VII of the play in a speech by Queen Gertrude:
- There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
- That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
- There with fantastic garlands did she come,
- 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 coronet weeds
- Clambering 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 tunes,
- As one incapable of her own distress,
- Or like a creature native and indu’d
- 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.
Ophelia’s pose—her open arms and upwards gaze—resembles traditional portrayals of saints or martyrs, but can also be interpreted as erotic. The painting is known for its depiction of the detailed flora of the river and the riverbank, stressing the patterns of growth and decay in a natural ecosystem. “Ophelia” was painted along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, near Tolworth, Greater London
But for me Ophelia represents the feelings of any young girl at the loss of first love and innocence – a little death from which we never recover. Here is Ophelia mad for love and loss and incapable of the will even to save herself when she falls into the river – floating away to death and her own dream-like resolution!