Millais Ophelia

I was looking over the amazing list of recent Hamlet adaptations and thinking that this work has been adapted so many times that you don’t even need to look at work adapting the entire play – you can simply take a character and see how he or she has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years. As someone who works with Victorian poetry, I immediately thought of Ophelia because of the many ways she was painted by pre-Raphaelite artists. The most famous, of course, is the image above by JE Millais. He used Elizabeth Siddal, the most famous pre-Raphaelite model. Millais had Siddal – a teenager at the time – lie in a bath tub to create the image. Since it was winter, he kept he water warm with oil lamps, which eventually went out. Millais was so involved in his work that he kept going and Siddal (as Victorian women did) caught a chill and became sick. Siddal survived the incident but did not survive her marriage to D.G. Rossetti, dying of a an overdose of laudanum that may or may not have been suicide. That this would be one of the most famous paintings to re-imagine Hamlet is interesting since it depicts something not dramatized in the play but relayed by Gertrude (“And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:/ Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;/ As one incapable of her own distress”). The flowers in the painting (at least the violets on her neck) are true to Shakespeare while also adding a number of other symbolic blooms. There is a short discussion of Ophelia and the Pre-Raphaelites on the Victorian Web:


The Millais painting has bee so influential that it has its own line of adaptations. Both the Olivier and Branagh films (I believe – I haven’t re-watched the Branagh yet) draw from the composition of the painting. A “Google Image” search for Ophelia yields many re-interpretations, including a link to an exhibit at the Van Gog museum devoted to modern re-imaginings of the painting. Ophelia continues to have a strange life independent from more general adaptations and re-interpretations of the play, among them more than one novel that re-imagines the story from her perspective. She became a sort of cautionary figure again in the 1990’s with the pop-psychology blockbuster “Reviving Ophelia,” which took on the project of asking why young women retreated into themselves at adolescence. In recent years she was the subject of a Tori Amos song and the title of a Natalie Merchant album. The list goes on.

One thought on “Ophelia

  1. Thank you for the great post, Laura. I thought about your comments on Ophelia this week as I saw how many adaptations of The Tempest were focused on Caliban. I think it is definitely worth discussing why some characters continue to be focused on in certain texts. From what I can see, many of the characters that become famous are tragic characters- I think society has a fascination with the tragic ending, or the disabled and self-destructive character.

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