Millais' Ophelia: the Femme Fatale

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A commentary on the famous painting "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais. This work of art was inspired by the tragic Shakespearian character Ophelia, whose catastrophic and mysterious death has intrigued artists and literary experts for decades. In this essay, I explore a number of contrasting interpretations of Millais' "Ophelia", the lure of the femme fatale for the artist, and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.

Submitted: December 27, 2011

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Submitted: December 27, 2011




A Painting By John Everett Millais





Analysis and Commentary by Niamh Jiménez.


The Pre Raphaelite painting "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais, is a dramatic and widely adored Victorian interpretation of the tragic Shakespearian character of Ophelia. It captures the scene in Hamlet where the victimized Ophelia falls into a brook and suffers what many critics have deemed a submissive suicide. Millais captures that critical intermediary phase where Ophelia is momentarily sustained in the water, in a seemingly catatonic state. This painting captures nature and landscape with such transcendent accuracy and detail; it is symptomatic of a dedication to the critic Ruskin’s belief that the artist should recreate nature “with a singleness of heart”, without deliberate omission, selection or snubbing of any one element.  Ophelia formed part of Henry Tate’s collection donated to the Tate Museum in 1894. The event which Millais chose to depict, the drowning of Ophelia, is never viewed directly by the audience, but is merely alluded to in a conversation between Queen Gertrude and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother. Gertrude’s account of this calamitous event reflects her surprisingly unperturbed attitude towards the death. Historically, a death of this kind was tacitly accepted and deemed to be an appropriate reprieve for a female suffering from “erotomania” and a demise which was occasionally self-inflicted. Some critics have attributed Gertrude’s illustration of the event, as natural and even aesthetically wondrous, to the poetic beauty of such a histrionic display of independence and self-emancipation. This account is given below:


Queen Gertrude

There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, 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 crownet 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,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.


To understand, interpret and assess Millais’ depiction of Ophelia, in comparison to other artists’ interpretations, we must also understand the character of Ophelia and her psychological malaise. In addition to the malaise of “erotomania”, illustrated later in this text, we must also have a certain cognizance of her “victimized” position. The “victimized” woman and the medieval portrayal of feminine weakness was a common and popular motif amongst the Pre Raphaelites. With respect to Ophelia, her vulnerable position can be defined as a product of male dominance. Her behaviour is heavily regulated and observed by her father, who believes that any misdemeanour of hers would taint his own reputation. Similarly, her father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, exercise their control over her by defining her in terms of sexuality; Laertes warns her about the consequences of a lack of sexual restraint, while Polonius prohibits any intimacy between her and Hamlet. She is oppressed on so many levels, from an imposed suppression of sexuality, to the pressures of fulfilling her role as an exemplary “mirror” for the patriarchs around her. Her essential identity rests upon this critical role; the men around her exhibit their control by casting their reflection on her, thereby exercising their authority and power over her; for example, she is required to act in certain way, as her conduct reflects her father’s reputation. In other words, Ophelia’s morbid fate may be interpreted as having been induced by a loss of identity through the eventual absence of male dominance. In other words, after the death of her father, the removal of her brother to France and the rejection of her beloved Hamlet, Ophelia no longer possessed a societal function and lost her identity, as it was purely defined through her duties and relationships with men. In this way, she is a victimized, subordinate character, whose loss of identity drives her to madness and a tragic demise, depicted by the extraordinary hand of Millais. One important question one must pose when evaluating Millais’ Ophelia is: did the artist capture the complexity of this victimization and the significance of this scene as it relates to the self-emancipation of the victim? Some believe that Millais and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites exploited the image of the victimized woman through an exhibitionist and voyeuristic portrayal of the female’s vulnerability.

Many critics have condemned Millais’ Ophelia on the grounds that it promotes a sense of celebration in the victimization of woman. It portrays a vivid, almost cinematic image of a female corpse, an image which the creator exhibits with a kind of prurient delectation, as if delighting in the act of revealing the ultimate female vulnerability. There is ambiguousness in the creator’s choice to portray Ophelia in a mermaid-like form; on the one hand, she is a chaste and desirable maiden, while on the other she seems to epitomize a certain sexual potential or eroticism. This potential is further conveyed through the tension of her upturned hands, her lips left slightly ajar, and the loose, serpentine locks which float around her in the water.Some reviewers have even criticized the image as aiming for a certain voyeurism in the necrophiliac mood of the painting. This form of voyeurism is not uncharacteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were known for their obsession with the femme fatale and the objectification and dismemberment of the female form into an aesthetic configuration of shapes and sinuous curves.  While this eroticism may emanate from this cultural tradition, it may also originate from Hamlet itself, the text upon which the painting is based. Similarly, Ophelia’s madness is sometimes defined as “erotomania”, a malaise which affected young women deprived of sexual gratification or regular menstrual cycles. This is a widely accepted theory amongst Shakespearian analysts; Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia is believed to be the cause of her psychological deterioration and melancholia.

In order to uncover this subtle reference to sexuality within the text, one must examine Queen Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death.  Firstly, Gertrude lists the flowers which Ophelia selected for her garland, amongst which she mentions “long purples”. These long purples have since been identified as a type of orchid; the Greek cognate of orchid is “orchis”, signifying “testicles.” Gertrude remarks that the orchids are given “a grosser name” by the shepherds, undoubtedly related to the Greek word “orchis”, representing sexuality. The presence of these flowers upon the scene of this submissive suicide seems to suggest that Ophelia is lamenting her lack of sexual intimacy with her beloved Hamlet, the orchids representing this carnal or sexual intimacy. Gertrude goes on to say that the maids call them “cold men’s fingers”, an innuendo whose phallic connotations further define sexuality in the wreath Ophelia selects. Gertrude describes her “mermaid-like” aspect, which, as alluded to above, also implies a certain ethereal sensuality. Ophelia’s downfall or death is described as “muddy”, something which suggests that the men influencing her throughout the narrative have stained or besmirched her in some form, just as a maid’s reputation is shattered by losing her virginity.

On a more technical level, the metrical form and rhythmic patterns of Gertrude’s speech also evoke a certain obscure sensuality. For example, in line 168, Shakespeare transitions from the use of iambs, metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, to trochees, consisting of a stressed followed by an unstressed. He also incorporates a falling rhythm, which may be defined as an occurrence of stress on the first syllable of the foot (a common example is Jack and Jill went up the hill...).  This gives the foot an overall downward thrust, perhaps suggesting that the” long purples’ grosser name” is phallic. This technique is also used in lines referring to the weeping willow’s bough and the wreath, foreshadowing the downward fall of Ophelia.

The idea of the femme fatale, portrayed quite vividly in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Ophelia, is arguably an integral part of Ophelia’s identity. In the text, this philosophy is developed through Hamlet’s assertion “Get thee to a nunnery,” something which insinuates that an unmarried, forsaken woman’s place is in a brothel. He also claims that marriage to Ophelia would inevitably result in his becoming a cuckold, a statement which is based upon the fallacy that woman possessed a voracious libido and all the seductive powers of a femme fatale. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, also defines her by her sexuality: in Act One, he warns Ophelia that pre-marital sex taints a female’s reputation and purity irrevocably and dissuades her from seeking any intimacy with Hamlet. The resulting madness or “erotomania” of Ophelia becomes apparent when she begins to sing bawdy and prurient songs (4.5.6), perhaps in an attempt to dispel her own sexual frustration. Elements of the femme fatale are clearly identifiable in Millais’ pictorial interpretation of Ophelia’s tragic demise. Arguably, the artist’s sympathies lie not with a victimized woman, but rather with Hamlet; Millais and the other Pre Raphaelites intended, through voyeuristic exhibitionism, to place the viewer under the influence of this crippling temptress, thereby empathizing with Hamlet’s despairing position. Speculation exists over whether this depiction captures a dead Ophelia or an Ophelia on the verge of death. However, there is an undeniable sense of an ethereal intermediary phase, between sleeping and waking: a moment characterized by the body’s reluctance to neither allow itself complete submergence in the murky depths nor crawl back onto the land. According Gertrude, she was sustained temporarily by her clothes, which “bore her up”. This vulnerable depiction of the mermaid-like Ophelia suspended in a state of sleepy wakefulness was observed by one critic to be a “symbol of female sexuality at the threshold of sexual experience,” when “she seems uncertain whether to crawl onto land or sink back into the cold safety of the water.”

John Edward Millais, creator of the 1831-2 Ophelia was born in Southampton England in the year 1829. His family originated in Jersey. Millais, commonly known as a co-founder of the PRB or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is also acknowledged to have been a highly prodigious artist, whose display of artistic precocity won him a place at the Royal Academy Schools at the ripe age of 11. In September 1848, Millais formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with artists William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had also attended the Academy. The defining characteristic of the Pre Raphaelites was a faithful or true representation and portrayal of life and nature, aiming for the sublime goal of complete and utter accuracy or realism. This conflicted with the contemporary movements of impressionism and romanticism, as well as the formulas and formal artistic principles advocated and taught by the Academy. For example, the Pre Raphaelites detested the use of subdued colours and tones, which had become almost a ubiquitous custom as regards composition; instead, they used bright, pure tones, a technique which accounts for the luminosity of Millais’ Ophelia.  Pre-Raphaelites had a devotion to the pursuit of beauty; however their idea of what constituted beauty was an idealised form of nature, which repudiated industrialism and modernisation, which they believed to encroach upon and assail true nature in its most distilled form. Ruskin espouses this dedication to the untainted landscape; a kind of distillation of beauty which can be observed in Rossetti’s portrayal of untamed feminine beauty. 

The original Pre Raphaelites’ primary preoccupation with historicism, something which is demonstrated in the name they assigned to their movement: the Pre-Raphaelites examined a tradition of art prior to the influence of the Renaissance and Raphael, which they deemed to have a superior purity of technique. In celebrating and emulating the techniques of this bygone golden age, they became known for their depiction of anachronistic, mythical subjects, often based on religion and literature, such as Shakespearian narrative.

Moreover, Ophelia by Millais arguably represents the hallmark of the Pre Raphaelites’ transcendent artistic vision, combining the famous “pictorial eco-system” and accuracy of detail, exemplifying the Victorian theme of the female victim of sexual frustration, derived from medieval romance. The “pictorial eco-system” is a term which critics have employed in describing Millais’ Ophelia, which achieves a dense, elaborate image through the synthesis of complex natural elements. Examples of these elements include the proliferation of symbolic flowers and trees surrounding Ophelia, all of which have been reproduced with painstaking precision. Instead of reproducing the identifiable and classified textbook image of each blossom, he recreated each in its real state: some in full bloom, others in half bloom, premature buds and those on the threshold of efflorescence. His flowers were supremely accurate; cinematic duplications. In fact, they were so real that a renowned botanist of the period took his students to an exhibit of the painting to view the different genusen, when the weather prevented the class from observing real flowers al fresco.

Millais’ painting has many different layers of symbolic meaning and connotation. The most obvious example of symbolism is embodied in the flowers on the banks of the brook. Many of these feature in the text, for example, Gertrude describes how Ophelia creates “Fantastic garlands of / Crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples” (lines 166-7). Each of these flowers symbolizes a human quality sensation; particularly appropriate are those personifying pain and anguish, as Ophelia has suffered the rejection of her lover, Hamlet, the murder of her father Polonius by Hamlet, and abandonment by her brother, Laertes. Crowflowers are more commonly known as buttercups, which, according to ancient folklore, produce dreams of one’s future mate, when ensconced beneath one’s pillow. Hence, Ophelia selects the crowflower as she wishes to “go to sleep” dreaming of her beloved mate, Hamlet. The presence of nettles may refer several different qualities: pain, slander or bad luck, according to divergent interpretations. Ophelia suffers great pain and anguish through rejection and unrequited love. She also experiences extremely bad luck, as she suffers rejection, the death of her father and descent into an incoherent, irrational mental state. The nettles may also function as a foreshadowing or prefiguration of her future ill luck: death by drowning and the deprivation of full Christian burial rites. The daisies around Ophelia’s neck symbolize innocence and faithfulness or fidelity. Upon an entreaty of marriage, a crown of daisies was worn by the maiden as an atavistic symbol of affirmation; hence, Ophelia’s choice to wear the daisies intimates her love for Hamlet. The meaning of the long purples, more commonly alluded to as “orchids”, is outlined under the heading of eroticism and voyeurism. Pansies, which are located in the centre of Ophelia’s dress, represent “thoughts”, as well as symbolizing love in vain; the word is derivative of the French “penses”. The inclusion of pink roses carries the patent and widely acknowledged symbol of youth, beauty and bloom.  The text makes allusion to “crownet weeds”, which are also depicted by Millais. These are believed to represent embroilment or entrapment, decay and choking.


Millais exploited a certain artistic licence by enhancing and diversifying the range of meanings by adding the following flowers to his landscape: meadowsweet, forget-me-nots, pheasant’s eye, fritillary and the poppy. Meadowsweet represents the uselessness or inefficacy, in other words it symbolizes the futility of Ophelia’s premature death; this idea may in fact by enhanced by her nubile and sexually ripe age and state. The forget-me-nots are self-explanatory, signifying remembrance. The pheasant’s eye and fritillary represent sorrow and suffering. The poppies are evocative of that somnolent, catatonic state induced by Ophelia’s madness and melancholia. More conventionally, this sleepy psychological experience is induced by opiates. Initially, Millais had included daffodils in the landscape as he believed that the painting necessitated an injection of yellow; however, he later removed the daffodils upon the advice of Tennyson, as their symbolic meaning was inconsistent and did not enhance the overall aesthetics of the scene.


Other symbols include a skull, ensconced within the overgrowth and obscured by branches, seemingly reinforcing the theme of death. However, there is much speculation over whether such a symbol was deliberately evocated. A single red robin can also be seen occupying a branch of the willow tree. Several interpretations of this symbol exist, the most prominent of which identifies the red breast as a reference to spiritual martyrdom or simply the morbid spilling of blood. Some believes that the robin incarcerates Ophelia’s departing spirit.


Millais painted his magnum opus Ophelia “en plein air”, a French term which refers to the practice of outdoor painting. It is probable that he employed a three-legged easel which was easily transportable from location to location. Sitting on a stool, he placed an umbrella inside his shirt to shelter him from the rough elements, while still having the freedom of his arms to work. As a Pre-Raphaelite, he would have focused on the reproduction of extremely fine and meticulous details, which would have necessitated extremely fine brushes. He painted Ophelia on canvas with oil paint, mixing and blending his colours on a porcelain palette. 


The Pre Raphaelites method of painting was distinct from their contemporaries, in that they completed their paintings out of doors. While outdoor painting was common amongst painters of the times, most returned to the confines of their studio to complete their works. Millais underwent a two part process in his creation of Ophelia; he recreated the Hogsmill River in Ewell, Surrey as his landscape, and painted the figure of Ophelia in his studio. Painting al fresco was also very popular amongst the French impressionists of the 1960s; Monet, an artist of this movement, was renowned for this practice. However, while the French Impressionists reproduced landscape with broad, suggestive lines and sketch-like speed, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites were more meticulous and detailed in their representations of nature. It took Millais a period of eight to nine months to complete his Ophelia.



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