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.