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Using Ophelia

Updated on August 10, 2012

A beautiful girl in a white gown is laying motionless while floating horizontal in a pond. Just her head and torso remain above water. Her arms may be folded on her chest, or submerged with exception to the tips of her fingers. You may have seen this image, or something similar to it, many times in music videos, in modern artwork, in print ads, book covers, television shows, anime and even motion pictures. Those familiar with the composition will recognize it as Ophelia from Hamlet. But it's true origins come from an infamous 1852 painting, a painting that nearly killed a 19th century supermodel.

Ophelia was a supporting character in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. She was the daughter of the King's adviser, and had once been Prince Hamlet's girlfriend before they both had a rather nasty split for reasons unknown. When the villainous King Claudius wants to spy on Hamlet, he has his adviser compel his daughter to do the dirty work. Either suspecting her or perhaps still bitter of their break up years earlier, Hamlet rebuffs her with insults on her chastity. A few scenes later the kings adviser himself attempts to spy on Hamlet by hiding in the Queen's closet, which results in an angry Hamlet stabbing him to death once he is discovered. After learning of her father's death, Ophelia goes mad, and spends her final scenes in the play uttering nonsense and handing out flowers. Shakespeare must have sensed he had no use for the character any longer, so midway through the play Queen Gertrude enters the room and informs the King and everyone else that Ophelia has died. Gertrude had just witnessed Ophelia accidentally falling into a brook, and thanks to her state of mind made no attempt to swim back to shore before her garments soaked in enough water to drag her under. The actual death was never seen on stage.

300 years later a group of young talented British painters initiated the Pre-Raphaelite movement. They resisted the trend for impressionist paintings and instead sought realism. The subject of their paintings were romance and tragedy, with the odd religious painting tossed in. Shakespeare's plays were a fertile source of inspiration. The character of Ophelia was poplar with them. And why not, she was the easiest Shakespearean character to depict. Paint a wide eyed woman with disheveled hair holding out flowers and there you have an Ophelia. In 1852 artist John Everett Millais decided to take it one step further with a painting of Ophelia drowning. The drowning had yet to be attempted by any of the Pre-Raphaelites for a simple reason. They wanted realism, and it was impossible to paint a model posing in water without her drowning. Try to cheat by painting the model on dry land and adding the water later and it just did not look real.

But Millais believed he had come up with the answer. A two stage painting. he first stage was to go outside and paint an actual river, but leave a blank space in the middle of the canvas. For the second stage, a large tub of water, shallow enough that the model's body touched the bottom. Here he could paint a realistic looking Ophelia, appearing to be floating in the water. For his model Millais chose 19 year old Elizabeth Siddal. Siddal had modeled for so many paintings that by 1852 her face was seen in several prominent paintings. She became that era's equivalent of a supermodel. After having Elizabeth don an antique dress, Millais had her pose in the tub. It was mid winter, and the water was kept warm via oil lamps strategically placed underneath. But the lamps often burned out while Millais was painting. On one occasion he was so engrossed in his work that the lamps remained out for hours before he noticed. By then the water in the tub had become frigid. Siddal was too much of a professional to break her pose, so she said nothing. She left Millias' studio suffering from hypothermia, and once back at home passed out in bed with a severe fever. She remained bedridden for nearly a month, reportedly at deaths door on many days. She pulled through, but for the rest of her life suffered from poor health which her family attributed to Millais. Her father sued him, and a settlement was reached out of court.

The painting made the transition to motion picture with Laurence Olivier's 1948 screen adaption of Hamlet. Olivier came to the conclusion that Hamlet was too long and wordy a play to keep movie audiences interested. So he made drastic edits, cutting what was normally a 4 hour play down to 2 and a half hours on film. Dialog deemed redundant or unnecessary to the plot was excised. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two friends of Hamlet who end up executed because of one of the prince's little pranks are completely removed. But while Olivier gutted what he found boring, he chose to add new visuals that would make the film more exciting. He was determined to recreate the Millais painting, even though it occurs offstage in the play. Jean Simmons was strapped to a special underwater rig in a river which propelled her above water past the camera. Once beyond the camera's range Jean was safely pulled into shore, while the camera panned over to the river giving the impression that she had just submerged. As presented in the movie, the voice of Eileen Herlie is voiced over the scene as she recites Gertrude's soliloquy.

Hamlet would be adapted for film and television many more times. Directors would chose not to visualize the drowning of Ophelia, feeling it took away from Gertrude's powerful soliloquy. Instead the drowning either remained off screen, or you would see the aftermath of her death following the closing of the scene. For example, the 1996 Kenneth Branagh adaption of Hamlet shows Kate Winslet as Ophelia after she is submerged, while the 2000 Ethan Hawke adaption which is reset in modern day Manhattan follows Gertrude's soliloquy with a shot of Julia Stiles body submerged and lifeless in a fountain, a security guard rushing in too late. While the other versions of Hamlet shied away from Millais, the painting would influence other motion pictures. Alfred Hitchcock used it as a reference when Kim Novac tries to drown herself in Vertigo ( 1958 ). A much more overt use of the image appears in Melancholia ( 2011 ) where Kristen Dunst can be seen floating in a stream wearing a wedding gown and holding a bouquet.

Reworkings of the painting have not just appeared in movies, but television shows, anime, print ads, commercials, and even video games. Ophelia, or singers recreating the Ophelia painting, appears frequently in music videos. More recently with the rise of on line arts communities, recreating Ophelia has become a rite of passage, especially with photographers. A brief check of the site DeviantART shows a new version of Ophelia, or composition inspired by, being submitted at an average of once every week. Even well known established artists have been known to do their own take on Ophelia. And as these images spread across the Internet, fandom of the Opheliaesque image grows. A new recent twist is the "mess the dress" movement. It began when a few ambitious wedding photographers wanted something more interesting than the standard photo of the wedding party posing in a park. Such as pictures of the bride in her wedding gown, destroying it by rolling in a mud puddle, or climbing up a tree. By destroying the dress the bride is making the statement that she will never be needing to use it again, and that her marriage will be happy and permanent. And one of the most popular mess the dress pictures? Recreating Millais' Ophelia in a shallow pond, or close to shore at a beach.

Best Recreations of Ophelia on Film

To research this article I got in touch with a few on line Ophelia appreciation groups, the members which informed me about several movies and music videos recreating the Ophelia painting. After spending an entire day viewing Youtube video after Youtube video, and renting a couple of DVDs from the local video store, I have come up with my own top 5 list of the best. Starting with motion pictures released to theater, the top 5 are...

#5 Heavy ( 1994 )

While crossing a bridge, Pruitt Taylor Vince daydreams that Liv Tyler is drowning in the river below. Removing her limp body from the water, he revives her by mouth to mouth, the only chance a man like him would get to kiss the prettiest girl in town. He is snapped out of his daydream by a passing airplane, and looks down to confirm that Liv is not actually in the water.

#4 Ever After ( 1998 )

After becoming muddy from digging up truffles, Drew Barrymore decides to wash herself by taking a dip in the lake still wearing her dress, much of which involves her floating ophelia-like on her back.

#3 Fire with Fire ( 1986 )

Virginai Madsen recreates the Ophelia painting in a pond, taking pictures of herself with a camera on the shore. This catches the attention of Craig Sheffer, soon to be her boyfriend.

#2 Sirens ( 1994 )

The most erotic of the clips I have seen, Tara FitzGerald has a literal wet dream. She dreams she is floating Ophelia like in a white gown when three nude sirens ( played by Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi and Kate Fischer ) rise up out of the water and begin caressing her entire body until she begins to have an orgasm.

#1 Hamlet ( 1948 )

The only full on attempt to recreate what is happening in the Millais painting caught on film.

And now the top 5 best music videos.....

#5 Human Behavior ~ Bjork

In a magical forest with giant killer teddy bears and magical pixies, Bjork is chased by a bull seized porcupine into a river, where she floats off in a brief recreation of the painting.

#4 Open Up Your Eyes ( Version #1 ) ~ Tonic

In the rarely seen first video Tonic released for Open Up Your Eyes, Ophelia can be seen during brief inter-cuts, hiking through the woods, and then quite deliberately laying down in a stream. Tonic's record label replaced this video with the now popular version where they are rollerblading down a suburban street.

#3 I Believe ~ Robert Plant

During the first verse of the song, Ophelia is seen walking through the woods, then on her back floating in the water.

#2 Shatter ~ Shelleyan Orphan

For most of the video lead singer Caroline Crawley is Ophelia, singing her song while in the middle of a pond.

#1 Where The Wild Roses Grow ~ Nick Cave and the Bad Seed with Kylie Minogue

While the song itself is not about Ophelia, ( it is about a girl who is murdered by an insane man on the shoreline of a river, ) director Rocky Schenck used the painting of Ophelia as his inspiration, so nearly most of it has Kylie laying in the water, the dead girl singing about how she was murdered.


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    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 

      6 years ago from Tucson, Az

      excellent explanation of the attraction to Ophelia!


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