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Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)  Ophelia  Oil on canvas, 1883  30 1/4 x 46 1/4 inches (77 x 117.5 cm)  Private collection
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Title: Ophelia
Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Oil on canvas, 1883
30 1/4 x 46 1/4 inches (77 x 117.5 cm)
Private collection

Ophelia is a fictional character in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and sweetheart of Prince Hamlet.


A possible historical source for Ophelia is Katherine Hamlet, a young woman who fell into the Avon river and died in December 1579. Though it was eventually concluded that she had overbalanced while carrying some heavy pails, rumours that she was suffering from a broken heart were considered plausible enough for an inquest to be conducted into whether her death was a suicide. It is possible that Shakespeare - sixteen at the time of the death - recalled the romantic tragedy in his creation of the character of Ophelia. The name "Ophelia" itself was either uncommon or nonexistent; the only known prior text to use the name (as "Ofalia") is Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia.


In Ophelia's first speaking appearance in the play, we see her with her brother, Laertes, who is leaving for France. Laertes lectures Ophelia against getting involved with Hamlet. He warns her that Hamlet does not have his free will as he is the heir of Denmark so does not have freedom to marry whomever he wants. Ophelia's father, Polonius, enters while Laertes is leaving, and Polonius also admonishes Ophelia against Hamlet, because he fears Hamlet is not earnest about her. Polonius concludes by forbidding Ophelia to have any further communication with Hamlet. She agrees to obey her father and to avoid Hamlet entirely.

In Ophelia's next appearance,she tells Polonius that Hamlet rushed into her room with his clothing askew, and with a 'hellish' expression on his face, and only stared at her, without speaking to her. Based on what Ophelia tells him, about Hamlet acting in such a "mad" way, Polonius concludes that he was wrong to forbid Ophelia to see Hamlet, and that Hamlet must be mad because of lovesickness for Ophelia. Polonius immediately decides to go to Claudius (the new King of Denmark, and also Hamlet's uncle and stepfather) about the situation. We later[4] see Polonius suggest to Claudius that they can hide behind an arras to overhear Hamlet speaking to Ophelia, when Hamlet thinks the conversation is private. Since Polonius is now sure Hamlet is lovesick for Ophelia, he thinks Hamlet will express love for Ophelia. Claudius agrees to try the eavesping plan later. The plan leads to what is commonly called the 'Nunnery Scene'. 

In the 'Nunnery Scene' Polonius instructs Ophelia to stand in the lobby of the castle, while he and Claudius hide behind. Hamlet enters the room, in a different world from the others, and recites his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. Hamlet approaches Ophelia and talks to her. He famously tells her "get thee to a nunnery." Hamlet becomes angry, realizes he's gone too far, and says "I say there will be no more marriage", and exits. Ophelia is left bewildered, scared, and heartbroken, sure that Hamlet is crazy. After Hamlet storms out, Ophelia makes her "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" soliloquy.

The next time Ophelia appears is at the 'Mousetrap Play' which Hamlet has arranged to try to prove that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Hamlet sits with Ophelia and makes sexually suggestive remarks, also saying that woman's love is brief.

Later that night, after the play, Hamlet kills Polonius - thinking Polonius is Claudius ("Is it the King?")- during a private meeting between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. At Ophelia's next appearance, after her father's death, she has gone mad, due to what the other characters interpret as grief over her father. She talks in riddles and rhymes, sings some "mad" and bawdy songs about death and a maiden losing her virginity. After bidding everyone a "good night", she exits.

The final time Ophelia in the play is after Laertes comes to the castle to challenge Claudius over the death of his father, Polonius. Ophelia sings more songs and hands out flowers, citing their symbolic meanings although interpretations of the meanings differ. Then she blesses everyone and exits for the last time.

In Act 4 Scene 7, Queen Gertrude, in a famous monologue (There is a willow grows aslant the brook), reports that Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree, and then a branch broke and ped Ophelia into the brook, where she drowned. Gertrude says that Ophelia appeared "incapable of her own distress" like a mad person would be. Gertrude's announcement of Ophelia's death is one of the most poetic death announcements in literature.

We later see a sexton at the graveyard insisting Ophelia must have killed herself, however, although the sexton attempts to argue the point logically and legally, he never says how he would know it as a fact. The cleric who presides at Ophelia's funeral later asserts that she should have been buried in unsanctified ground as a suicide, but he doesn't say how he knows facts about it, either. Laertes is outraged by what the cleric says, and replies that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven when the cleric "liest howling" (with the fiends in hell). The remarks by the sexton and the cleric have naturally led to a great deal of discussion of whether Ophelia committed suicide. Between Gertrude's report of an accident, and the later talk of suicide, the suicide issue is left unclear in the play, so that even after four centuries since the play was written, the issue is still a topic of debate.

At Ophelia's funeral, Queen Gertrude sprinkles flowers on Ophelia's grave ("sweets to the sweet,") and says she wished Ophelia could have been Hamlet's wife. Laertes then jumps into Ophelia's grave excavation, asking for the burial to wait until he has held her in his arms one last time, and proclaims how much he loved her. Hamlet, nearby, then challenges Laertes, and claims that he loved Ophelia more than "forty thousand" brothers could. After her funeral scene, there is no further mention of Ophelia.

Critical analysis

Some critics argue that Hamlet's anger towards Ophelia in the 'Nunnery Scene' (when Hamlet realizes Ophelia is cooperating in her father's scheme to spy on him) is due to his resentment of womankind. This interpretation casts Ophelia as a scapegoat, a victim of Hamlet's anger with his mother and with women as a whole.

The 1996 Kenneth Branagh film depicts Ophelia and Hamlet as lovers, however this is not indicated in the original play. Yet during her madness, Ophelia makes many sexual comments and sings a bawdy Valentine song that includes the line, "quoth she, before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed".

In an essay on the representation of Ophelia, Elaine Showalter offers a survey of feminist approaches to the questions that the character and her history in performance and criticism raise. She organizes them into three broad strands: the first offers to advocate for Ophelia by telling her story; the second, under the influence of French feminist theory, reads Ophelia's story as a cipher of female sexuality that exists as a horrific "nothing" in patriarchal discourse and representation; the third reads her story as the repressed subtext of Hamlet's tragedy, insofar as it acts as a cathexis for all the strong emotions and qualities that the men wish to deny.

As an alternative to these three strands, Showalter proposes to narrate the history of Ophelia's representations; "the representation of Ophelia changes independently of theories of the meaning of the play or the Prince," she argues, "for it depends on attitudes towards women and madness." Noting a contrast between the paucity of commentary on Ophelia within the history of criticism and an abundance of representations of her in the wider cultural history, she argues that it is necessary to pursue an "interdisciplinary contextualization" of "the complexity of attitudes towards the feminine" in order to expose the ideologies that have shaped the specific representations of Ophelia on the stage, in criticism and in the culture at large (its paintings, novels, fashions). There is "no 'true' Ophelia" of whom a feminist critic might speak, she argues, only "a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives".


While it is known that Richard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare's time, there is no evidence of who played Ophelia; since there were no professional actresses on the public stage in Elizabethan England, however, we may be certain that she was played by a boy.

The early modern stage in England had an established set of emblematic conventions for the representation of female madness: disheveled hair worn down, dressed in white, bedecked with wild flowers, Ophelia's state of mind would have been immediately 'readable' to her first audiences. "Colour was a major source of stage symbolism", Andrew Gurr explains, so the contrast between Hamlet's "nighted colour" (1.2.68) and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78) and Ophelia's "virginal and vacant white" would have conveyed specific and gendered associations.[18] Her action of offering wild flowers to the court suggests, Showalter argues, a symbolic deflowering, while even the manner of her 'doubtful death', by drowning, carries associations with the feminine (Laertes refers to his tears on hearing the news as "the woman").

Gender structured, too, the early modern understanding of the distinction between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's: melancholy was understood as a male disease of the intellect, while Ophelia would have been understood as suffering from erotomania, a malady conceived in biological and emotional terms. This discourse of female madness impacted on Ophelia's representation on stage from the 1660s, when the appearance of actresses in the English theatres first began to introduce "new meanings and subversive tensions" into the role: "the most celebrated of the actresses who played Ophelia were those whom rumor credited with disappointments in love." Showalter relates a theatrical anecdote that vividly captures this sense of overlap between a performer's identity and the role she plays:

The greatest triumph was reserved for Susan Mountfort, a former actress at Lincoln's Inn Fields who had gone mad after her lover's betrayal. One night in 1720 she escaped from her keeper, rushed to the theater, and just as the Ophelia of the evening was to enter for her mad scene, "sprang forward in her place ... with wild eyes and wavering motion." As a contemporary reported, "she was in truth Ophelia herself, to the amazement of the performers as well as of the audience—nature having made this last effort, her vital powers failed her and she died soon after."

During the 18th century, the conventions of Augustan drama encouraged far less intense, more sentimentalized and decorous depictions of Ophelia's madness and sexuality. From Mrs Lessingham in 1772 to Mary Bolton, playing opposite John Kemble in 1813, the familiar iconography of the role replaced its passionate embodiment. Sarah Siddons played Ophelia's madness with "stately and classical dignity" in 1785.

Since that time, Ophelia has been a frequent subject in artwork, often in a Romantic or Classical style, as the images on this page show.

Many great actresses have played Ophelia on stage over the years. In the 19th century she was portrayed by Helen Faucit, Dora Jordan, Frances Abington, and Peg Woffington, who won her first real fame by playing the role.

Ophelia has been portrayed in movies since the days of early silent films. Dorothy Foster played Ophelia opposite Charles Raymond's Hamlet in 1912. Jean Simmons played Ophelia opposite Lawrence Olivier's oscar-winning Hamlet performance in 1948; Simmons was also nominated for an oscar as best supporting actress, but didn't win. More recently, Ophelia has been portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter (1990), Kate Winslet (1996), and Julia Stiles (2000). Themes associated with Ophelia have led to movies such as Ophelia Learns to Swim (2000), and Dying Like Ophelia (2002).

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