Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, a 19th century Pre- Raphaelite Painter
As the Hamlet story goes, Ophelia was his best friend’s sister and one of his potential girlfriends. She died an accidental death picking flowers by the pond. She slipped and fell into the pond and drowned. For a short time there was enough air around her face to breathe. She sang until she was pulled under by the weight of her saturated garments. Ophelia in Greek means help.
Praised as “one of the most poetically written death scenes in literature”, Millais renders this literary tragedy in a way that has made it an iconic representation of Death, life’s beautiful surrender.
The earthen scene, to many, is the most noteworthy. However, I am drawn to the human figure. Ophelia’s upturned hands, palm sides up, are positioned in supplication. The calm fixation of her upturned face gazes to the heavens to offer the viewer serenity and hope.
So is Millais’ painting sad?
Not really. Ophelia peacefully rests in her casket of greenery nestled in lush beauty. She holds daisies. Flowers are strewn over the front of her dress like a bridal bouquet. The garden imagery evokes beauty, peace and protection. Millais uses the brush like Shakespeare uses the word.
“Her clothes spread wide,/And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,/
Which time she chaunted snatches of old lauds,/
As one incapable of her own distress,/… 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 IV, vii, 175-183)
Shakespeare poeticizes the tragic accident with descriptions of revelry and fantasy. ‘Her melodious lay’ was ‘mermaid-like’. Her saturated garments were ‘heavy with their drink’. For Millais, the melody is the harmony of nature depicted by her casket of greenery and daisies. The revelry is the way nature and life work together to evoke peace and beauty.
The philosophical question so much identified with this play, ‘To be or not to be’, is masterfully answered by Millais.
Life is paradox. Death is joyful surrender.