Art, art history, Essays

Millais and Ophelia: Femininity, Madness, and Representation

The 21-year-old John Everett Millais released his painting ‘Ophelia’ in 1852 at the Royal Academy. As an early Pre-Raphaelite work, it valued high detail, realism in its depiction and an abundance of colour. Millais’ paintings often stemmed from the Romantic, the medieval, and the literary – especially Shakespeare, which was exceedingly popular in the Victorian Era. This painting is in line with these themes as Millais’s explores the tragic death of Ophelia. Ophelia is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic and tragic heroines. After her lover Hamlet has killed her father Polonius and then rejects her, she sinks into madness and later drowns off stage. “Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay/ To muddy death”.[1] Ophelia appears in only five out of the plays twenty scenes, and follows a similar pattern to Shakespeare’s other tragic heroines either dying’ or committing suicide. According to Lee Edwards, ‘we can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet’.[2] With Hamlet, we know through the exposition of his father, his childhood and his education, and we see him in relation to old friends. Ophelia doesn’t have the backstory Hamlet does. Despite the fact that so little is written about her in the play, she has become a mythical symbol of female struggle, being reinterpreted and reinvented in theatre, literature, popular culture, art and film. Today, any image of a young woman in the water, either with flowers or a long flowy dress can be considered Ophelian. Even with the little story she has, she’s prevailed as a heroine and the image of her death is as arguably as famous as Juliet.

‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais 1852

Part of the credit for this phenomenon must go to Millais’ titular painting.  The sublime detail and intricacy in his brushwork, Ophelia’s waiflike expression; her young, yet pale and lifeless face, the lips still parted from the song she sings as she slowly sinks. She seems to be suspended, almost fully submerged in the dark reflective waters, her ornate dress is beginning to pull her down, her auburn hair surrounds her head like a halo, her hands are turned palm up, just peeping out of the surface of the water, in a Christ-like pose. The overall impression is of exhausted defeat; her surrendering hands and unrestrained limbs show she has not fought against her death but welcomed it. The spring scene around her and the “brilliant light that seems cruelly indifferent to the woman’s death.”[3]  which only seems to highlight her loss of life. Millais painted Ophelia’s surroundings in extreme detail. It was common for artists to work outside and produce sketches, which they would then take back to their studio and use as a reference, however, Millais and his Pre-Raphaelite friends completed their painting outside in “en plein air” (‘in the open air’). Millais painted Ophelia between 1851-2 in two separate locations. He painted the landscape from the Hogsmill River in Surrey and painted the figure of Ophelia (posed for by Lizzie Siddal) inside in his studio in a bathtub, which is maybe why the light is “cruelly indifferent to the woman’s death”.


The Pre-Raphaelites would also paint on a white background (rather than a black which was the norm) which gives the painting its lucid colours. Dr Beth Harris explains that it is “the academic tradition to take from nature and improve on it and to idealise it”. Yet here, with the botanical specificity, this is an artist inspired by John Ruskin’s philosophies.

Ruskin, who was one of the Pre-Raphaelites biggest supporters, encouraged a realistic approach to depicting nature, telling artists to “go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning”, “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing . . . and rejoicing always in the truth”[4]. Ruskin argued that nature should be painted as it is because God made it that way and so it is perfect already. The Pre-Raphaelites adopted this Romantic view and Millais’ trueness to nature is in part of what caused Ophelia’s popularity. The Art Journal, recognising the technical skill of Millais, stated that “his future promises works of excellence, which no human hand may have yet excelled”.

The images of nature and flowers in ‘Ophelia’ refers to the characteristics of a popular pagan goddess, Flora (or Chloris in Greek meaning “greenish-yellow” like the nature surrounding Ophelia, and “pale” like her skin), who was the goddess of flowers, therefore associated with spring. Flora’s story exists in two contradictory descriptions; the first, the Ovidian Flora, is a nymph and “is associated with the beauties of spring and with love”[5] while the second, the Plutarchian and Boccacian Flora, “was a Roman prostitute” who Hercules won a night with, in a wager with the keeper of his temple, and then as promised by Hercules married a rich man and facilitated an urban festival in ancient Rome every year around spring. This duality of purity, youth and spring and sexuality and exploitation is central to Ophelia’s imagery, which Millais explores in the symbolism of the flowers he used to surround her with.  “We see forget-me-nots and poppies, which are a symbol of death, and violets, which are a symbol of faithfulness.”[6] The garland of violets around Ophelia’s neck also refer to Act IV, Scene V. “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end”’[7]. These symbols would be understood by the Elizabethan audience and the Victorians. The weeping willow tree leaning over Ophelia is a symbol of forsaken love, the epitome of Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet.

                 Left: ‘Ophelia’ by Pierre Auguste Cot 1870                                         Right: ‘The Virgin in Prayer’ by Sassoferrato 1640-1650

In other depictions of Ophelia, she is painted reading a book which Bridget Gellert Lyons explains as “the image of a solitary woman with a book was conventionally interpreted as representing an attitude of prayer and devoutness,” and that “the woman with a book was reminiscent of countless representations of the Virgin,”[8] and therefore Ophelia is representative of the Virgin Mary. The imagery of the Catholic Virgin combined with Flora shows how Ophelia’s sexuality is suppressed by religion and society’s rules. Ophelia abandons social structures such as chastity and her sexuality can emerge in her relationship with Hamlet, yet this is the beginning of her downfall. This transgression from societal rules is what aligns her as a Victorian ‘fallen woman’. This refers to the biblical ideology of a woman who has lost her virginity and fallen from the grace of God and therefore disconnected from social norms.  “Usually portrayed as a solitary figure, the victimised woman represented by Victorian artists, carries the burden of her destruction alone. Whether her undoing involved an unrequited romance or shared sexual transgressions, she often faced the uncaring world as an outcast punished as a madwoman or social rebel.”[9] The Pre-Raphaelites often painted tragic women like this, for example, The ‘Lady of Shalott’ by John William Waterhouse, ‘April Love’ by Arthur Hughes and ‘Mariana’ by Millais.

Ophelia paved the way for the ‘current obsession with youth, sexuality, psychiatric derangement and mortality’[10]. A series of pictures done by Delacroix show a strong romantic interest in the relation of female sexuality and insanity, especially in La Mort d’Ophélie (1843). It is sensual, and apathetic, suspended in the water as her dress slips from her body. Delacroix’s interest in Ophelia, especially her drowning was reproduced by the Pre-Raphaelites, who painted her over and over to the point of infatuation. It is telling that they often choose to show her drowning, a moment which is only described in the play. This dramatic climax allows them to depict a woman who is demolished, deceived, seduced by false lovers and victimised by tragic love. Unsatisfied desires or denial of romantic love dominated the practices of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and poems of the nineteenth century.

Death of Ophelia (1843) by Delacroix

In 1852, when Millais released his Ophelia, so did another artist; Arthur Hughes. Hughes’ ‘Ophelia’ was tiny, in a filmy white gown, perched on a tree trunk by the stream. The painting is soft, sexless, hazy, and had a childlike femininity, although the straw in her hair resembles a crown of thorns, comparing her death to the martyrdom of Jesus.  The Victorians considered passion to be deviant; it was believed that thoughts of sexuality caused insanity and thus repression was essential. This may explain Hughes’ fairy-like Ophelia, none of her tragedy, which is stemmed from passion and sex, is present in the painting. Millais’ painting of Ophelia in the same show overpowered Hughes’, with its radiant colours and excruciating detail. Millais’s Ophelia is a “sensuous siren as well as victim”[11] highlighting the link made by Delacroix of depicting the relation between female sexuality and hysteria, where Hughes didn’t.  The sensuality and sexual frustration or punishment of the females who overstepped because of love were met with both fear and fascination by most Victorians. For the Victorian society, drowning was associated with the ‘fallen woman’. ‘Fallen’ women like Ophelia’s character in the 1800’s were often put in mental asylums. Superintendents of those Victorian lunatic asylums were also enthusiasts of Shakespeare and used his psychodramas as models of mental health that could be applied to their clinical practice. The case study of Ophelia was one that seemed particularly useful as an “account of hysteria or mental breakdown in adolescence, a period of sexual instability which the Victorians regarded as risky for women’s mental health.”[12]  Of course, “hysteria” was the great Victorian explanation for most mental health problems in women and was also applied to normal behaviours which men described as erratic; women were further disempowered by moral treatment once locked away preventing  women from having real recoveries as the male doctor always defined their condition, they could vocalise their depression, mania or anxiety themselves; “This cornerstone of Victorian psychiatry claimed male dominance was therapeutic. The doctor ruled the asylum like a father ruled his family.” [13]

Untitled photographs by Dr Hugh Diamond Welch circa 1850’s

Dr John Conolly in his Study of Hamlet (1863) noted that even casual visitors to mental institutions could recognise an Ophelia in the wards: “the same young years, the same faded beauty, the same fantastic dress and interrupted song.”[14] Dr Hugh Diamond Welch took photographs of his female patients at the Surrey Asylum and at Bethlem in the 1850’s.  His imagery perpetuated these common myths and ideas, by staging these women posed in prayer or with Ophelia-like garlands around their head. Diamond seems through his direction to be pushing the ‘Ophelia’ stereotype onto his patients.

Poster from ‘Melancholia’ (2011) dir. Lars Von Trier

This Ophelian stereotype of the madwoman, of a lost beauty, has continued to persist in society to the present day.  In Lars Von Trier’s film ‘Melancholia’ the main character Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from depression and the poster shows her in a picturesque river in a wedding dress:  an overt reference to Ophelia. In ‘The Virgin Suicides’ directed by Sofia Coppola, the youngest sister, Cecelia tries to commit suicide in the bath. Her hair pools around her face the same as Ophelia’s, the shot is beautifully light and framed like Millais painting as well. The entire film itself is a romanticisation of femininity and mental illness, filled with beautiful young girls, stunning sets, and cinematography.  In ‘Girl Interrupted’ Susanna (Winona Ryder) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, she has an emotional outburst in a bath and is diagnosed as having Borderline Personality disorder, which we here Susanna define as she reads her diagnoses from her medical records, ” An instability of self-image, relationships and mood… uncertain about goals, impulsive in activities that are self-damaging, such as casual sex.” which has a close resemblance to Victorian ‘hysteria’ that persisted well into the 1960’s.

Screen capture from ‘The Virgin Suicides'(1999) dir. Sofia Coppola

Ophelia’s representation in modern society is entirely interwoven with gender, madness, sex, and desperation. This process, however, is still romanticised and the beautiful young girl is always found in her last moments submerged in water.  It’s telling that if you look back at the original lines in the play: “Her clothes spread wide, / And, mermaid-like” and then “Pull’d that poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.”[15] Artists, filmmakers and musicians seem to emphasise on Ophelia being “mermaid-like” with her “garlands.” There’s very little acknowledgement of her abrupt “muddy death”, a death that is not pretty, romantic or picturesque.  Ophelia has been mostly interpreted by male artists throughout history, there’s a seductive quality that keeps attracting artists.  Gregory Crewdson for example, when making ‘Untitled (Ophelia)’ from the Twilight series, (2001) said ”the idea of a floating woman sort of finalized it for me. I see this as a cathartic event, something both beautiful and sad.”[16] In Tom Hunter’s ‘The Way Home’, part of his ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ series Hunter bases all his photographs on Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Here Hunter draws in the social context of the 90’s rave scene in Hackney. “All the images draw upon these influences combine the beauty and the degradation with everyday tales of abandonment and loss to music and hedonism. The reworking of John Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ shows a young girl whose journey home from one such rave was curtailed by falling into the canal and losing herself to the dark slippery, industrial motorway of a bygone era.”[17]

In both these pieces and in Millais work, the beauty of the background takes precedence over Ophelia’s death, whether it be a flooded front room, or a river on an estate, or a river in the country.  These male artists instruct their model on how to perform, similar to Ophelia herself within the play, instructed by her father to end her relationship with Hamlet, and actresses directed by their male directors.

Detail from ‘Ophelia’ (1852) by John Everett Millais and ‘From Ophelia to Medusa’ (2004) by Marlene Dumas

In contrast, we see a feminine depiction of Ophelia in Marlene Dumas’ work ‘From Ophelia to Medusa’ (2004). We see here that Dumas doesn’t shy away from Ophelia’s muddy death.  This work is a direct interpretation of Millais painting.  It focuses on Ophelia’s face and shows her suffering.  The corpse-like depiction shows real pain, rather than ornamental surroundings, or the details on her expensive dress.   Adrian Searle describes the women painted in Dumas’ show ‘The Second Coming’ as: “their lips are parted, but not, I think, to speak. Perhaps they are sleeping, though it seems unlikely. Perhaps they are coming, lost in a moment of ecstasy. Or perhaps they are dead”[18] and this is true of her Ophelia. Dumas’ Ophelia is pale, sickly, exhausted, defeated, and possibly dead. It is graphic and harrowing compared to Millais’s lucid painting, showing Ophelia with pink lips, glinting blue eyes and fiery red hair. The title also references another scorned woman in history: Medusa, who was punished for being wooed by Poseidon and forgetting her vow of celibacy as a priestess of Athena. Sex again features in the criminalising of women, and by linking Ophelia and Medusa together, Dumas is commenting on the treatment of women through ancient history to modern day. This feminist interpretation of Ophelia attempts to shed her of romanticised death depicted by male artists and respect the trauma she experienced.

The variation of Ophelia’s – of strong and weak, virginal and seductive inadequate or oppressed, Christian or Pagan, tells us how these representations have surpassed the Shakespeare’s original character, and how they have reflected the ideological character of the suffering maiden at the time. Showalter states that  “there is no “true” Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak, but perhaps only a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more than the sum of all her parts.”[19] Ophelia’s identity and iconography has changed since Shakespeare’s play, but she has always persisted as a symbol of womanhood and mental illness in the subculture built by her defenders. Though once she may have been disposable, Ophelia is now an indispensable icon.



[1] William Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’ Act 4 Scene 7, Wordsworth Classics (1992)

[2] Lee Edwards, ‘The Labors of Psyche’, Critical Inquiry (1979)

[3] Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory: Hamlet (Vol. 59) – Elaine Showalter (essay date 1985)

[4] E.T Cook and Alexander Wedderburn ‘The Works of John Ruskin’ (39 vols.) 1903–12

[5] Bridget Gellert Lyons ‘The Iconography of Ophelia’,Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 60-74


[7] William Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’ Act 4 Scene 5, Wordsworth Classics (1992)

[8] Bridget Gellert Lyons ‘The Iconography of Ophelia’,Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 60-74

[9]Azmi Azam ‘Victorian Ethics in Pre-Raphaelite Art: Depiction of the Fatale Fall of Femme’ (June 2014)

[10]Alison Smith, ‘Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century’ (spring 2009)

[11] Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory: Hamlet (Vol. 59) – Elaine Showalter (essay date 1985)

[12] Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory: Hamlet (Vol. 59) – Elaine Showalter (essay date 1985)


[14] John Conolly, Study of Hamlet (1863)

[15] William Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’ Act 4 Scene 7, Wordsworth Classics 1992




[19] Elaine Showalter ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in ‘Shakespeare and the Question of Theory: Hamlet’ (Vol. 59) (1985)


  1. William Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’ Act 4 Scene 7, Wordsworth Classics (1992)
  2. Lee Edwards, ‘The Labors of Psyche’, Critical Inquiry (1979)
  3. Elaine Showalter ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in ‘Shakespeare and the Question of Theory: Hamlet’ (Vol. 59) (1985)
  4. T Cook and Alexander Wedderburn ‘The Works of John Ruskin’ (39 vols.) 1903–12
  5. Bridget Gellert Lyons ‘The Iconography of Ophelia’,Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 60-74
  7. Azmi Azam ‘Victorian Ethics in Pre-Raphaelite Art: Depiction of the Fatale Fall of Femme’ (June 2014)
  8. Alison Smith, ‘Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century’ (spring 2009)
  9. John Conolly, ‘Study of Hamlet’ (1863)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s