Ophelia

(Photos by JEG)

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 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.

(Hamlet Act 5, Scene7)

I had bought my first copy of Hamlet when I was fourteen while on a trip. It was also likely the first Shakespeare play that I had read from beginning to end in the original. I wonder how at the bookshop I had chosen it over the other plays, but I could have known something of Laurence Olivier’s old film production – in fact I must have read about the film somewhere and the Prince of Denmark must have been on my mind from that source and other far, far earlier ones.

I remember that it was a lovely cover from Bantam Classics, with a painting of Hamlet and Ophelia, which I did find and still do find a little curious, since Hamlet is Hamlet and not Romeo and Juliet. But I guess I liked seeing both of the young people there instead the Prince of Denmark only. And maybe because of the book cover, I’ve always thought of Hamlet as he himself plus Ophelia.

The death scene of Ophelia gives a strong image, which to me always appears in a pale palette, with striking whites and greens. which was the main idea of Victorian theatre designs for the play, too. I think her death, because it is vague and perplexing, and because the curious report of it; is of a most haunting kind. She eluded the audience both when she is sane and “insane”, and her death is even more elusive. If it was suicide, then it calls to mind Edith Wharton’s Miss Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, in that “is this suicide”? or “an accident”? – it must be both, as the character herself cannot decide and the writer is unwilling to tell, except the opposite of truth.

That is if Ophelia’s death is completely self-induced. But here opinions must arise again, when one remembers the sinister court that she is surrounded by. Yesterday I came across a blog post that suggests Hamlet’s mother, the Queen Gertrude, to be the murderer of the fair maiden; the only question of the theory being, what could have been the motive? to which I cannot form my own answers definitely except through impressions, and one of my deepest impressions of the play, when I first read it, is this:

HAMLET

    Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

    (Lying down at OPHELIA’s feet)

OPHELIA

    No, my lord.

HAMLET

    I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA

    Ay, my lord.

HAMLET

    Do you think I meant country matters?

OPHELIA

    I think nothing, my lord.

HAMLET

    That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

So yes, I would agree that the truth is not plain.

Then two years ago I became an admirer of Elizabeth Siddal, who was one of the first and most famous of the Pre-Raphaelite models and later the wife of Dante Rossetti as well as a poet and artist herself. But she is often most known for being portrayed as Ophelia in Millais’s painting, which is now in the British Tate Museum and possibly the most famous painting of Ophelia’s death.

Other classical paintings of Ophelia can be seen here in this Wikipedia article.

(Ophelia, John Everett Millais 1852)

Recently I re-developed an interest in Ophelia when I was putting up last week’s new listing at the shop. It was a close-fitting long pink gown with bishop sleeves and front buttons from the 1960s but very much in the 1940s style,  and it reminded me of some of the stage costumes that Vivien Leigh wore, especially her Ophelia in the 1937 Hamlet. I wouldn’t say that the dress was in any way resembling Vivien’s costume bit for bit – I think it was the spirit and style conveyed by the close-fitting bodice, long sleeves, and sweeping skirt…and of course dusty rose would always be a natural choice for Ophelia. You can still see the listing here with the original photos at the shop.

(Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Hamlet stage production, 1937)

Because the gown at the shop was such as a lovely one, I thought that it really deserved a better photoshoot; but then it sold on Saturday (of which I can hardly complain!), so there was no need to take more photos. However, it got me thinking about Ophelia and Ophelia dresses, and I realised how one of the recent outfits that I had blogged, the “Birds of Lake” white gown, could as well be Ophelia-themed, especially considering that the photos was taken near water, and it just struck me how long Ophelia had been out of my mind, that I did not associate the scene with her at all. But once she was back on my mind, I started developing a slight obsession and thought her river/brook scene would be such a great theme for a photoshoot. So on Sunday when I was heading out for the shop photoshoot and putting on this green floral dress of mine, I suddenly realised that this very dress would make a perfect Ophelia-impression outfit, with the printed little blossoms  resembling Ophelia’s flowers, such as depicted by Millais in his painting with Miss Elizabeth Siddal.

And with the addition of a vintage flower wreath, the image was quite complete.

This dress, which has been in my possession for some one or two years, happens to be one of my favourite. It is vintage 1960s with a back metal zipper (why don’t we use such nice metal zippers anymore?), and I had always thought it quite Edwardian, too.

I had come across quite a number of contemporary Ophelia-themed photography and art projects while re-researching the Hamlet/Ophelia related artworks last week, so I guess the interest in the elusive maiden is a shared one. I’ve created a picture board dedicated to such artworks and projects here on my Pinterest – and I’ll keep adding to it! Speaking of which – this is the first time that I’m actually appreciating Pinterest’s and finding it really, really useful for keeping these pictures in one place while retaining links to their original sources. I find the re-enactment of Ophelia in bathtubs in some of the art projects particularly inspiring – after all, the bathtub is a convenient choice with an unmissable contemporary spin and we all know that Millais did have to put Elizabeth Siddal (fully dressed of course) in a bathtub to model for his Ophelia painting; but my bathtub is really just a bathtub and nowhere artistic, so we went to the canal instead for these photos.

(There are a few more photos from the shoot that I think I’ll put in another post.)

OPHELIA

    [Sings]
    You must sing a-down a-down,
    An you call him a-down-a.
    O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false
    steward, that stole his master’s daughter.

LAERTES

    This nothing’s more than matter.

OPHELIA

    There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
    love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.

LAERTES

    A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.

OPHELIA

    There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
    for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
    herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
    a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you
    some violets, but they withered all when my father
    died: they say he made a good end,–

    Sings
    For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.

(Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5)

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6 thoughts on “Ophelia

  1. What a lovely post, and you look lovely as always. I posted an album of Victoriana pictures in my homepage Gallery this month (I think you’ll like them).
    I love Hamlet, the film starring Kenneth Branagh is very good (if you haven’t seen it). Ophelia’s madness is an intriguing contrast to Hamlet’s more contrived behaviour. I had never come across the idea that Gertrude may have murdered Ophelia (subliminal jealousy perhaps). The genius of this play is that it is so elusive. x

    • Thank you so much Lily!
      I just had a look at the gallery on Facebook and I love that you have the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in it. Especially you have Elizabeth Siddal as Beata Beatrix by Rossetti there! I have a print of that painting in my room and it’s not very often that one comes across it. I’m also a big fan of Waterhouse of course.
      I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet so I’ll make a note of it. But I must finish watching Olivier’s 1948 film first. Isn’t it interesting that Branagh also portrayed Laurence Olivier in the new movie My Week with Marilyn? (I haven’t seen it though; Miss Kendra at http://www.vivandlarry.com, who is an expert on classic cinema, didn’t particular recommend it.)

  2. The article is so colourful in its describing, yet demure. A fitting combine with Shakespeare. I loved reading the first poetry piece so much and so entirely. The photographs – I think the one with pose at angle in the tunnel is very, very fine, and the others of course all washed with radiance as well.

    • Thank you so much Simon for the comment and for the sharing on your page. I’ve now put up the rest of the photos in this post, https://prettybonesjefferson.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/ophelia-passing/. I think the one photo that you’ve mentioned happens to be my mother’s favourite too, so the little photo may soon get a big head.
      I may do a film review of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet film next (not too soon, and I remember I still have that review of Picnic of Hanging Rock to write); have you seen that film?

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