Ophelia: The Iconic Shakespearean Heroine through Pre-Raphaelite Vision

Shakespeare’s Ophelia has been one of the most controversial heroines created by the playwright. Her characterization has evolved and changed consistently through the centuries, from a victim of patriarchal society to an evil heroine capable of inflicting the greatest of torments on her enemy. Nevertheless, the turning point when representing Ophelia was established by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which saw in her the ideal Victorian woman. In a maelstrom of discussions about the role of women in the 19th century, Ophelia was converted into an icon of magnificence and beauty (Falchi, 2015).


The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists who wanted to bring primitivism back into the visual arts. They aspired to recreate the style of the painters prior to Raphael — i.e. the authors from the Italian Trecento, the predecessors of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, their work was influenced to a great extent by Renaissance techniques although the motifs aim to return to the Medieval style (Sizeranne & Byrd, 2008). Generally, the beginning of the movement dates back to 1848 in the middle of socio-economic transformation in the United Kingdom due to industrialism (Armstrong, 2012). Pre-Raphaelitism was one of the artistic elements that arose against industrial society because the movement aimed to return to an idealized past. The roots of the movement were based on Gothic and religious echoes. In fact, its most direct inspiration was the Oxford Movement, a British theological school of thought also denominated Tractarianism (Sizeranne & Byrd, 2008).

Ophelia. Arthur Hughes. 1865.

Literature and visual arts have common aesthetic values, although their use of them varies depending on the medium they use. In the 19th century, literature and visual arts were closely linked even blurring the limits between both disciplines (Hulea, 2012). An example of this is the Ekphrasis, which is the literary representation of an image and it is a process of transposition — i.e. literary texts often borrow a motif from a painting producing an ultimate appreciation of the visual art. Therefore, by establishing an association with the original painting, the text allows the audience to better decode the implicit messages in the original. The reverse of ekphrasis is the visual representation of a verbal source that could come from different genres, from narrative to poetry.


The Pre-Raphaelites turned to Shakespeare to construct their ideal woman since his heroines shared common traits such as youth, beauty, innocence and romantic feeling, which appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. For these artists, Shakespearean heroines were symbols of true love and they fit perfectly for the new Victorian society that started to dismiss marriages based on social status for truly romantic unions (Hulea, 2012). In this case, Ophelia’s appeal was based on her madness, ambiguity and mysterious death. She appears in Hamlet, the Shakespearean tragedy, and plays a rather secondary character as Hamlet’s love interest, although she is remembered as one of the main figures in the story. The original text is vague about Ophelia except for the narration of her death by drowning after becoming mad. Shakespeare never clarifies if her madness is due to her father’s death or her lover’s hostility, and he never explains if she truly desired to die. Due to this lack of information, there have been multiple readings of the character ranging from her being an embodiment of erotomania or love melancholy in the 17th century to being an indecent mad woman in the 18th century (Falchi, 2015). In the contemporary world, her interpretation has been deeply influenced by feminist theory and, therefore, she is seen as a subversive icon against the patriarchal order (Showalter, 1985). Ophelia is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s heroines and the one that has risen to more interpretations and meaning in terms of symbolism (Lyons, 1977).

Hamlet and Ophelia. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1858.


Victorian girls usually appeared surrounded by angelic, religious and romantic images. Their representation was closely linked to the presence of flowers because girls were to blossom one day to become fertile women. Therefore, adolescence was a turning point for every girl because it established the end of childhood. Ophelia was a subject of pity because she was the perfect representation of an innocent young girl unable to face the reality of life. In 1852, John Everett Millais presented his Ophelia that received rather coldly among art critics because of her open arms that hint at the sexual experience and the association between water and death which is closely linked to the downfall of fallen women who have renounced to their virginity and engaged in sexual relationships because they do not have the necessary economic resources (Falchi, 2015). Fallen women were often romanticized because their destiny was tragic unless they redeemed themselves or managed to reintegrate into their families (Nochlin 1989).

Ophelia. John Everett Millais. 1852.

The visual elements in the painting are highly detailed and full of symbolism. Millais uses the pattern of flowers to express different meanings: forget-me-nots for their name since Ophelia wants to be remembered forever, daisies for innocence and poppies for death. In addition, the painter deploys the metaphor of women as flowers by reflecting a passive, harmless and helpless Ophelia whose earthy-color dress blends with the water, which means that she will become part of the natural and fertile realm. Instead of portraying an individual woman, Millais represents female nature tragically. Her eyes and her face do not present any emotion or awareness about the situation. In fact, she seems unconscious and unaware of her surroundings. Nevertheless, the ultimate element of the painting is the striking comparison between the bright grass and nature and the helpless young girl who is about to exhale her last breath. The luminosity of nature even evokes romantic poet Wordsworth’s Splendour in the Grass which reflects on innocence, youth and death (Benton & Butcher, 1998).


In addition, Millais decided to represent a forbidden part of the text, Ophelia’s drowning, that was long ignored on stage. Therefore, it encourages the audience to reconsider Ophelia in both ways, from her conceptualization in the original text to the adaptation on stage. Indeed, a large part of Ophelia’s role in the play was dismissed for indecency and inadequacy because of her madness. The painting also foresees the future of Millais’s model, Elizabeth Sidal, who was carried away by the experience and almost died of pneumonia because the painter forgot to reheat the water (Roussillon-Constanty, 2019). Moreover, Sidal was profoundly unhappy because of her marriage with another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to such an extent that she committed suicide by using laudanum. Therefore, this allowed Millais to establish a parallel between both Hamlet and Ophelia’s fatal relationship (Falchi, 2015).

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1854.

In contrast to Millais, Hugues and Waterhouse decided to romanticize their portrayal of the young Ophelia and, thus, she became an idyllic youthful beauty surrounded by magnificent nature. These Ophelias seem a representation of the heroine’s ordinary and sweet life in the countryside before her downfall into madness. Waterhouse’s painting resembles Millais’s because he wanted to highlight her association with water (nature), melancholy, grief and her final destiny, death (Falchi, 2015).


Waterhouse painted three portrayals of Ophelia in total, but it is the second one from 1894 which represent the orthodox style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He represents a damsel in the Middle Ages or Romantic age dressed in a period ensemble that reflects the time of Arthurian quests. In this way, Waterhouse is loyal to the imaginary and romantic style of the Brotherhood which wanted to oppose progress and industrialized modernity (Benton & Butcher, 1998).

Ophelia. John William Waterhouse. 1894.

In conclusion, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood managed to articulate a new kind of ideal woman according to the new social convention of Victorian society. Their works were partially influenced by the original works, but the artists managed to reinvent and reconstruct the Shakespearean heroines by creating an iconic typology of women that pretended to fit into the new romantic feelings required regarding marriage (Hulea, 2015).

Bibliographical references

Armstrong, I. (2012). The Pre-Raphaelites and literature. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites (pp. 13–31). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521895156.003 Benton, M. & Butcher, S. (1998). Painting Shakespeare. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 32(3), 53–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/3333305 Hartman, G.H & Parker, P. (1985). Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism. Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (pp. 84–101). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203414743 Hulea, L. (2012). Pre-Raphaelites Painting Shakespeare’s Women. Gender Studies (Timişoara), 11, 176–187. La Sizeranne, R. & Byrd, A. (2012). The pre-Raphaelites. Parkstone International. Lyons, B. G. (1977). The Iconography of Ophelia. ELH, 44(1), 60–74. https://doi.org/10.2307/2872526 Nochlin, L. (1989). Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. London: Thames and Hudson. Roussillon-Constanty, L. (2019). Tracing Ophelia from Millais to Contemporary Art: Literary, Pictorial and Digital Icons. Cahiers Victoriens & Édouardiens, 89, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.5438

Shakespeare, W. (2008). Hamlet. The Floating Press.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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