January 15th, 2014
Hamlet Art Evaluation
Shakespeare, being one of the most influential playwrights of all time, has inspired countless works of art paying tribute to his work. Along with being performed on stage for centuries, he has also made his presence felt in art galleries around the world. One such piece entitled Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, presents a heart-wrenching yet beautiful scene. It depicts an important plot device in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. Ophelia was painted with a special attention to detail that shows Ophelia finally finding peace in her final moments, and tugs emotion from its audience with its symbolism.
To adequately address the previous claims, an understanding of the man behind the canvas is necessary. Sir John Everett Millais was born in Southampton to a reasonably wealthy family, who enrolled him in Henry Sass’ Drawing School and the Royal Academy in 1840 (“John”). While studying, he became good friends with fellow artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, and later formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. He was actually met with heavy criticism on some of his most famous works, such as Christ in The House of His Parents, which was believed to be blasphemous, as it showed Christ as “a hideous wry-necked blubbering boy, “ in the words of Charles Dickens Things began to look great for Millais, as he grew exceedingly famous and became wealthy enough to afford a vast house that had been specifically built for his family (Ripley). As his name spread, he began to regularly paint for high-level magazines. He went on to pass away from throat cancer from being a regular pipe-smoker, and left an exciting repertoire behind for Queen Victoria and the Court of England. Perhaps one of the most renowned paintings by this impressive artist is Ophelia, showing Hamlet’s Ophelia lying in a stream, holding different kinds of flowers. Around her, a very green and realistic nature setting implies a sense of absolute serenity and peace. White lilies hang a distance away from her, as her eyes seem to gaze off into nothing; her expression is not active, yet her mouth is open as if singing a song. Directly above her is a strong tree trunk, within arm’s reach. The painting is oil on canvas artwork, famous for its calm nature patterns. Upon viewing the piece closer, the detail and extraordinary skill put into the setting around Ophelia makes the audience feel empowered by Millais’ talent. Even the pastel colors used to paint her face imply a sense of holiness or royalty; Millais even seemed to emphasize a glow around her hands and the flowers. Through all these aesthetic values, Millais implies several messages about Hamlet’s Act IV, Scene vii suicide. Ophelia, after hearing that her insane lover Hamlet has killed her father Polonius, enters a deep sorrow. In her grief, she has also lost her sanity. In a previous scene of the play, Ophelia passes out flowers to the royal court in the “language of flowers,” where flowers symbolize certain concepts like love or death. Millais painted a prominent red poppy in Ophelia’s hand, which was then considered the flower of sleep and death (“Sir”). This shows a level for forethought put into the painting, and pays tribute to Shakespeare’s previous scene showing Ophelia’s madness. Additionally, Ophelia is described in Gerturde’s words as ”pulled…from her melodious lay to muddy death” (IV. Vii. 181). With this information, it is apparent that Millais painted Ophelia singing a song before accepting her suicide. With this, the strong, nearby tree trunk makes more sense as a plot device, as a “willow grows aslant a brook” (IV.vii.162). This is a symbol of her ability to save herself, but feeling no ugency to do so, “As one incapable of her own distress” (IV.vii.176). Her off-white floral gown brings a wedding dress to mind, perhaps foreshadowing a scene in Hamlet where Hamlet’s mother Gertrude expresses her...
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