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Symbolic Death of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

Symbolic Death of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

Detail of painting by English Pre-Raphaelite artist. Symbolic Death of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais (8 June 1829 – 13 August 1896)

Symbolic Death of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

Known as “Ophelia” or “Death of Ophelia” (1851-1852) – a picture of the English Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed by him in 1852. At the heart of the picture is the plot of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. However, this painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1852, was far from immediately appreciated by contemporaries.
Beloved of Prince Hamlet, upon learning that he had killed her father Polonius, Ophelia became obsessed and committed suicide by drowning in the river. As the gravediggers say in the play, “her death is dark. If it were not for the order from the king, she would lie in the land of the uninitiated.”
The artist depicted Ophelia right after falling into the river, when her wreaths hang on the willow branches. She sings woeful songs, half submerged in water. Her pose – open arms, and her gaze directed to the sky – cause associations with the Crucifixion of Christ, and also often interpreted as erotic. The girl slowly sinks into the water against a bright, blooming nature. Her face has no panic or despair. Although death is inevitable, in the picture the time seems to be frozen. Millais managed to masterfully capture the moment that passes between life and death.
In fact, the plants and flowers in the river – the “whimsical garlands” that Ophelia had woven, also bear symbolic meaning.

Weeping willow bent over the girl - a symbol of rejected love

Weeping willow bent over the girl – a symbol of rejected love

First, according to the language of flowers, the buttercups are a symbol of ingratitude or infantilism.
Second, a weeping willow bent over the girl is a symbol of rejected love.
Third, nettle signifies pain.
Fourth, flowers of daisies near the right hand symbolize innocence.
Fifth, purple lythrum in the upper right corner of the picture is Shakespeare’s “fingers of the dead”. Shakespeare, speaking of this plant, probably implied a similarly with a similar but not related purple lythrum plant, the orchis of the male from the family of orchids.
Sixth, roses – traditionally a symbol of love and beauty. In addition, one of the characters calls Ophelia “rose of May”.
Meanwhile, queen-of-the-forest Filipendula in the left corner can express the futility of Ophelia’s death.
Next, growing on the shore blue forget-me-nots – a symbol of fidelity.
And finally, Scarlet and poppy-like poppy floating near the right hand, symbolize grief.

Sir John Everett Millais reproduced the scene, which the Queen Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet described (Act IV Scene VII). She talks about what happened as an accident:

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.

Symbolic Death of Ophelia by John Everett Millet