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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Texas chapter.

Link to painting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)#/media/File:John_Everett_Millais_-Ophelia-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Even if you don’t know one of Shakespeare’s most famous supporting characters, you probably have seen this painting of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, preserving Ophelia’s tragic death in a delicate and detail-filled oil painting sustained since 1852 – the tragedy of her death. 

The painting depicts, of course, Ophelia’s tragic end, but it is so much more complex in its artistic elements – each deliberate brushstroke adding more emotion and meaning to one of Shakespeare’s most charged scenes. The scene is deceptively calm, despite the subject, and Ophelia – with her subtle expressions and pale skin – matches her fragile surroundings, the flowers surrounding her body and arms accentuate her innocence and femininity, forcing viewers to confront the loss of life while deliberately omitting her descent into madness. 

Perhaps most jarring in this scene of innocence and fragility, is Ophelia’s upturned palms – a sign of prayer or acceptance of her faith – a level of maturity Ophelia has reached, whether in madness or not, that for her age is a surrender rather than an acceptance. 

While a majority of the flowers in the painting are referenced in the text, Millais adds a few flowers and foliage in the painting for a variety of reasons which of course, one can only interpret. The inclusion of forget-me-nots isn’t mentioned in Hamlet, however, they could be there to preserve Ophelia’s legacy and a nod to being subjected to such a fate at her young age. Additionally, Ophelia is surrounded by different colored flowers – red poppies, violets, etc. which could provide a contrast to the lush greenery but could also be another reminder of her femininity and delicacy. The greenery mentioned could tie Ophelia to nature as a child of the Earth – a way to make the viewer comforted in the notion that Ophelia would simply be returning home. This is corroborated by the fact that she blends in with the surroundings and that she, of course, seems to have come to terms with her fate.

Ophelia struck me as a tragically beautiful painting because of the emotions it evoked in me, and also because there wasn’t a single brushstroke that was not deliberately placed in this painting. It forced me to look at something uncomfortable and find a haunting beauty in the way that she looked, in the way that she was created while remembering the way in which she was written and what she had to go through. Ophelia the painting is one of my favorite interpretations of Shakespeare’s character, and I often find myself marveling at the artistic liberties Millais took with creating her. It’s one of the most impactful paintings I’ve seen and I hope you feel the same way after reading this! 

Ophelia is currently on display at Tate Britain.

I'm a current Economics student at the University of Texas at Austin. When I'm not writing about everything under the sun, I am either talking about, or showing people pictures of the love of my life – my dog Milli – or reading anything I can get my hands on.