Shakespeare’s Women – Uncompromising Ophelia

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This post is part of our Shakespeare’s Women series in parternship with the collections team over at Finding Shakespeare. On flickr we have created a collection portraying these wonderful ladies.
In my mind’s eye, Ophelia is always drowning. She is garlanded with flowers, she is singing, and she is drowning.  ‘Long it could not be’, says Queen Gertrude, ‘till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.’ (4. 7. 152-155). Poor Ophelia. Poor soul.

Shakespeare was fond of his poor souls. Desdemona even sings about one on the fateful night she is accused of adultery and smothered by Othello. Hers is a poor, forgotten soul, weeping by a sycamore tree, in a song sung by her mother’s maid, Barbary. Like Ophelia, Desdemona’s ‘poor soul’ makes garlands and is associated with water, as though contemplating drowning, ‘the fresh streams ran by her and murmured her moans’ (Othello, 4. 3. 38). More positively, Viola imagines calling ‘upon my soul within the house’ (Twelfth Night, or what you will, 1. 5. 258) from the willow-cabin she would make at Olivia’s gate, if she, rather than Orsino, were in love with her. Like Desdemona, the anonymous ‘poor soul’, and Viola, Ophelia is both misunderstood and experiences the pain of unrequited love.

With Ophelia, Shakespeare depicts a young woman whom the world and its explicitly patriarchal culture scribble over. The audience see her on stage, talking with Hamlet just once. They meet in order brutally to separate. She returns Hamlet’s tokens of love, whilst the King and her father Polonius overhear everything. Perhaps it is Ophelia who for our own time most represents the celebrity or public figure who is unable to cope with how others manage her public personae.

Centre stage in our Shakespeare’s Women exhibition in The Shakespeare Centre is a new acquisition: an oil painting by Bryan Organ (1973) of Ophelia, after John Everett Millais. Its echoes of Millais are clear and resonant, but there is nothing lush or forgiving around this drowning woman, no wild flowers, no implied birdsong to accompany her final moments. Organ’s Ophelia is sparely represented and shaded with mauve, with all of its oblique associations with funerals and mourning. This Ophelia looks capable of having put stones in her pockets, and walked in to the ‘glassy stream’ (4. 7. 139). It is a hard-edged painting of her drowning, abstracted from the natural world without Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite detail. Organ requires that we take Queen Gertrude’s eye-witness account of Ophelia’s death and stand in front of his canvas with it. The aria of poetry that constitutes Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death (4. 7. 138-155) fills in the gaps of Organ’s picture. Organ’s spare style becomes momentarily softened as Millais’s canvas and Shakespeare’s poetry filter the shock of our visual perception and turn his Ophelia into something else in our mind’s eye.

But it is worth remembering the very last words that Shakespeare gives Ophelia to speak. They are not only a prophetic blessing on herself, but represent perhaps the most explicit, Christian blessing in the entire canon:  ‘And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God b’wi’ye.’ (4. 5. 198). Poor, drowned souls are blessed, too, even if they are then denied Christian burials.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
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  • http://bloggingshakespeare.com Paul Edmondson

    Yes, Gertrude's overly detailed eye-witness suggests she might have rescued her!

  • http://bloggingshakespeare.com Paul Edmondson

    Ophelias, I think, can be especially moving when they actually sing, and sing well. Haunting stuff.

  • Paul Edmondson

    Ophelias, I think, can be especially moving when they actually sing, and sing well. Haunting stuff.

  • Paul Edmondson

    Ophelias, I think, can be especially moving when they actually sing, and sing well. Haunting stuff.

  • Paul Edmondson

    Yes, Gertrude’s overly detailed eye-witness suggests she might have rescued her!

  • Paul Edmondson

    Yes, Gertrude’s overly detailed eye-witness suggests she might have rescued her!

  • Umberto3000

    If Ophelia had put stones in her pockets, she would not have floated, but sunk swiftly upon her fall from the bough. I always thought something fishy (as it were) in Queen Gertrude's story about Ophelia's demise… I leave you to speculate, as you do so well in this engaging, thought-stirring blog. I'll be back for more.. Thank you..

  • Mr E Gnome

    Excellent.

    My first Stratford Ophelia was Helen Mirren, way back in 1970, opposite Alan Howard's Prince.

    Heartbreakingly good.

    And how splendid to encounter the would-be teenage Ophelia Gregory Doran thanks to last night's Poetry Festival event.

    http://www.mrgnomeisblogging.blogspot.com

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