As I studied water lilies as the flower of the month for July, I recalled the image of Ophelia drowning in the river. These lilies engulf her water-logged dress and pull her down into dark water. My research proved that my mind’s image amalgamated Waterhouse and Millais. Representing both innocence and grief, water lilies bookend the motif of a beautiful, drowning young woman. In each visual depiction of her final moments, floral symbolism emphasizes the tragedy of her demise.
Many cultures connect these blooms to sexuality (from purity to fertility). Indeed, the root nymphea conjures seductive water goddesses.
Water lilies are a transformative bloom. They embody the circle of life from birth to death.
During its life cycle, the flower pulls itself down into the water to bear fruit. After the seeds develop, they float back to the surface. Bringing new life from water is a common theme in most religions (baptism, reincarnation, transcendence) and literature. The process illustrates life from an aqueous death.
Yet, water lilies come only from the minds of painters, not from Shakespeare’s lines.
Ophelia in Art History
The most memorable image of Ophelia (from Hamlet) is that of her corpse floating in the water. Usually, visual artists surround her with water lilies. Willow, nettles, daisies, and long purples, are the only plants mentioned in the play. Her death occurs offstage. Yet, it marks a rapidity in Hamlet’s demise.
In the story, Ophelia’s role revolves around the titular character, giving her little dimension beyond their relationship. Shakespeare does not explain her past. Instead, her present state creates an inverse mirror for Hamlet’s madness.
Ophelia in Hamlet
During Shakespeare’s time, depictions of madness differed by gender. Hamlet’s melancholy and genius form his masculine madness — Hamlet’s desire to upend his corrupt uncle tortures him. By contrast, feminine lovesickness plagues Ophelia.
For all her simplicity, her innocent death fascinates artists. Many have depicted her small story, making her story the most represented of all of Shakespeare’s female characters.
In her first appearance in the play, she accompanies her brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius. Both warn her that Hamlet may not marry her because of his role as heir to the throne of Denmark. They encourage her to guard her heart.
Ophelia’s story develops adjacent to the narrative. Claudius has usurped the throne by murdering his brother (the true king and Hamlet’s father). Hamlet vows vengeance and most of the narrative revolves around Hamlet’s machinations.
Later, Ophelia describes a disturbing encounter with Hamlet. Partially disrobed, he rushes into her room with a disturbed expression. Hamlet doesn’t talk, only nods in answer to her questions. Ophelia explains this to Polonius. Polonius decides that Hamlet is mad with love for her. He brings this information to Claudius.
In light of this, Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia. This interaction convinces them of Hamlet’s affection.
This culminates with the well-known “Nunnery Scene”. Polonius arranges Ophelia for another overheard conversation. Instead of showing affection, Hamlet mocks her. The audience understands the inconsistency. Hamlet knows Polonius overhears him.
He storms away.
At this point, Ophelia monologues about her love.
The Death of Ophelia
Next, Queen Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death in Act IV. Gertrude explains that Ophelia climbed onto a willow tree above a brook. The branch broke, dropping her into the water.
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.
Most interpretations conclude Ophelia committed suicide, evidenced by her burial arrangements. Yet, the text takes a passive voice when describing her final moments. This fatalistic tension, combined with lovesick madness captures the imagination.
During the 19th century, Ophelia was a popular subject. The portraits by both Millais and Waterhouse bear an iconic status and will look familiar to most people.
Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais
Millais completed this painting between 1851 and 1852. The depiction features her singing as she drowns in the river. The landscape around her is natural except for the flowers floating in Ophelia’s arms.
Christopher P. Jones notes the position of Ophelias hands in his article “How to Read Paintings: Ophelia by John Everett Millais. He explains, “They are raised and open, possibly in a gesture of prayer known as the orans posture.”
In early Christian art, this hand position indicates an opening to God’s will. You often see it used in portraits of saints. It illustrates her passivity and adds a touch of fatalism to the moment.
Jones notes that the red poppies represent death, daisies innocence, and the weeping willow forsaken love. Poppies grew over the battlefields from the Napoleonic wars and thus, became a symbol of death throughout that area. You still see them in British memorials as a reference to “In Flanders Fields” solidarity in mourning.
If you look closely at the painting, you will see specific greenery, inspired by the River Ewell where Millais started this study. My own eye notices Hawthorn flowers (another deeply symbolic plant in that region). Combined, these blooms mark Ophelia as virginal, pitiable, and marked for death.
Ophelia (1889) by John William Waterhouse
Waterhouse revisited Ophelia’s final moments in several works. In this painting from 1889, Waterhouse lays Ophelia on the grass and surrounds her with wildflowers. She directs her gaze at nature, level with the viewer’s eyes. She draws the viewer in with her ghostly white dress and pale skin. The greenery flows around her like a dark stream.
Ophelia (1894) by John William Waterhouse
This depiction places Ophelia on a stump beside the river. Dark green water surrounds her, also covered in water lilies. Her lap and hair are ornamented with wildflowers. Her gaze looks toward the river but, her expression turns upward.
Ophelia (1910) by John William Waterhouse
This image again revisits the story of Ophelia and places her closer to the river. The river flows slightly behind her, with water lilies floating on the top. She has gathered her skirts around a collection of wildflowers as if to prepare her own funeral bouquet. Her gaze looks straight at the viewer, with her face upturned slightly.
The light tones of her dresses (blue and white), symbolize her purity and innocence. She pops from the dark background, including the lone observer on the bridge.
Other Notable Depictions
There are other well-known depictions of Ophelia that mirror these key visual elements. Most of them use dark colors and water lilies as part of the composition.
Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel
Cabanel’s version shows Ophelia in a reposed state as she sinks into the water. She fixes her alert eyes on the water lilies that float before her. Like the other paintings, wildflowers rest in her hair and litter the water beside her.
Ophelia Among the Flowers by Odilon Redon
This vibrant painting brings the water lilies and flowers to the foreground. The artist deemphasizes and blurs Ophelia to the side of the image. Her gaze faces the flowers that appear to float above her.
Ophelia by Margaret MacDonald
Like the other depictions, the green of the river contrast’s Ophelia’s pale skin and hair. The image places her in the water with the trademark flowers near her hair. Her expression and posture appears peacefully, almost as if she is dreaming.
Ophelia Weaving her Garlands by Richard Redgrave
Redgrave positions Ophelia on a sturdy tree trunk with her bare feet dangling over the water. The moment echoes the tension of Waterhouse and Millais. She weaves flowers for her hair, adding a pop of color to her pale lap. Redgrave uses red poppies at her feet in the water, foretelling her impending death.
The Colors of Death
Combining youth with death, innocence with despair, water lilies and death have become inextricably linked. Even derivative depictions, like the promotional materials for Melancholia, allude to this relationship.
They’ll always be linked in my mind, hauntingly beautiful in the tradition of Annabel Lee.
I’ve gone through each of these images and pulled the evocative colors of death. You’ll see murky shades combined with ghostly tones. With the added layer of floral symbolism, these paintings bring Ophelia’s tragedy to life.