Of all the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia was the most difficult for me to understand. Why she so quickly abandoned Hamlet’s love confused me. Why she became delusional before the King and Queen dumbfounded me. Why she never doubted her father’s advice frustrated me. Ophelia is far from a protagonist in the play, and yet, she has so much potential to stand on Hamlet’s side.
Alexandre Cabanel’s Ophelia 1883 captures the Ophelia I imagined when I read this story. She is angelically beautiful, like a fairy, and she’s prone to a characteristic whimsy.
Cabanel’s oil on canvas painting is held in a private collection, which means this painting is kept from public eye.
What strikes me as interesting in this particular painting is that she appears very relaxed. Her back rests against a branch as her eyes gaze lackadaisically to the distance. Her dress is half in-half out of the water, indicating that she has yet to be fully submerged in water. In Gertrude’s monologue reporting her death, the queen tells Claudius and Laertes that Ophelia was climbing a willow tree and the branch snapped. It is obvious that the branch she is leaning on is the willow branch, but again, she seems very in control of her situation.
Did Ophelia commit suicide? Cabanel seems to think so. For her to have drowned, she would have had to make the willful choice to release herself from that branch and submerge herself more fully in the water. This raises some important considerations regarding Ophelia’s character. Was she devoted to her father enough to motivate suicide? Or did she perhaps have some love for the mad prince as well?
In any case, the painting itself is a beautiful depiction of Ophelia. The blues and pinks of the dress evoke a sweetness of her character. Her hands resting on the branches show her relaxed state. Flowers float around her, enshrining her in a symbiosis with nature.