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Dead Woman in the Bathtub: Why Are We So Fascinated by Ophelia's Suicide?

Nov 4 2015 7:35 PM
Dead Woman in the Bathtub: Why Are We So Fascinated by Ophelia's Suicide?

Image via Wikipedia

For centuries, people have been depicting and reinterpreting Ophelia's death in Hamlet. Here's what our obsession with her mermaid-like corpse says about our anxieties about gender, sex, and mental illness.

Most of us know of Ophelia whether or not we've read Hamlet. In fact, mention her name and the usual image that comes to mind is Millais' painting from the mid 19th Century—the one now reproduced on posters and postcards, tacked up on bedroom walls, stuck in scrapbooks, added to Pinterest, endlessly Instagrammed. A woman lies in the water, surrounded by greenery. Her lips are slightly open, her face and hands turned upwards. A set of flowers trails from her fingers. Of course, Millais' Ophelia is not the only incarnation. John Waterhouse painted her, too, as did Arthur Hughes, Alexandre Cabanel, and plenty of others.

These days, though, she's often found in a bathtub. And by "she," I mean the versions of Ophelia played out again and again on the Internet. Type her name into Google and you can quickly find hundreds of depictions of her watery demise. They're a mix of professional shoots and amateur projects, scattered across blogs, Tumblrs and plenty of DeviantArt accounts. Lots of them draw directly from Millais, using gorgeous, slender, young (pretty much always white) women as their models. These reinterpretations tend to share three key traits: a floaty dress, some long, flowing hair, and plenty of flowers. Of course, they all share something else too: In the play, Ophelia takes her own life.

It's a death that has meant different things over the centuries. Each age has its own Ophelia. When the play was first performed, in the early 17th century, the prevailing interpretation was that Ophelia was suffering from erotomania, It was the loose, long hair that would have rung the first alarm bell. That, plus the general dishevelment and virginal white dress: all surefire signs that Ophelia was profoundly, irrationally lovesick. As Elaine Showalter noted in her groundbreaking 1985 essay Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, at the time women's madness was assumed to be located in the body—all physical and emotional and hot-blooded, where men's irrationality was, well, somehow still more rational. More cultured too. Hamlet gets long soliloquies and self-introspection. Ophelia gets lute playing and off-stage drowning.

Hamlet gets long soliloquies and self-introspection. Ophelia gets lute playing and off-stage drowning.

I should point out here that it's almost impossible to write about Ophelia without nodding to Showalter. Her comment that 'Ophelia does have a story of her own... the history of her representation' has been endlessly quoted since it was first published. Arguing against Lacan (who charmingly called Ophelia the 'O-phallus' and suggested she only existed in relation to Hamlet's desire), Showalter writes about what she sees as Ophelia's true narrative: her changing position in art, theatre, and psychiatry.

Read More: The History of Female Anger

In the 18th century, as tastes changed, Ophelia was represented more modestly. The conventions of Augustan drama meant there was little suggestion of sex, bawdiness or anything else especially threatening—volatility smoothed away, replaced by piety. Sometimes lines were censored or cut, while actresses including Mrs. Lessingham and Mrs. Siddons presented a more dignified version of insanity. The former is pictured with her flowers neatly contained in a basket. In some cases the volatility moved off-stage though. Both in England and France, the women playing Ophelia often had their own stories involving tempestuous love affairs. Their personal tragedies contributed to the spectacle, a kind of "unlucky in love" air hanging over everything.

Mignon Nevada as Ophelia in 1910. Image via Wikipedia.

The versions of her we know best are all thanks to the 19th century, though. First Delacroix imagined her in a number of lithographs, scantily clad and clutching at a branch. Then the Pre-Raphaelites got hold of her, painting her relentlessly. During this period, she stood alongside other tragic women like Lamia and The Lady of Shalott. All beautiful, all sumptuously dressed, all doomed (well, nearly all of them). Female insanity and death were reimagined as something sensual, potent, easy to project onto, and, crucially, aesthetically appealing.

The advent of photography led to a proliferation of Ophelias offstage. Julia Margaret Cameron did studies titled "Ophelia 1" and "Ophelia 2" in the 1860s, both featuring a long-locked young woman (Mary Pinnock) dressed in black, with white roses at her neck. Her eyes are cast away from the camera. Photos of women in asylums, dressed to resemble Ophelia, also became increasingly popular during the Victorian age. Psychiatrists and super-intendants were usually the ones to wield the camera, and Hugh Welch Diamond's work is perhaps the best known. In one portrait a woman sits, staring ahead blankly, with a cloak around her shoulders and a set of leaves at her ears. Jean-Martin Chilcot did similar, making his patients act out Shakespearean roles and pose for the camera.

Of course, "hysteria" was the great Victorian condition—women's erratic behavior apparently the fault of everything from excessive desire through to their wombs going walkabout. We can probably thank this thinking for some of the tricksy assumptions that still exist about female bodies and mental health. In fact, the history of Ophelia's representation is entirely interwoven with so many other cultural histories: of gender, madness, sex, physicality, eroticism, appearance, the male gaze... on it goes.

Ophelia Study No. 2 by Julia Margaret Cameron. Image via Wikipedia.

Skip forward through the 20th century, and you find further facets to those histories. R.D. Laing psychoanalyzed her in the 60s, diagnosing her with schizophrenia in his book The Divided Self. He wrote, "In her madness, there is no one there... There is now only a vacuum where there was a person." Feminist critics reclaimed her in the 70s and 80s as a victim of the patriarchy: a woman driven mad by the actions of the men around her (not a new idea—Ellen Terry drew on it when she was performing on the Victorian stage). Insanity, they suggested, could be a form of release, a refusal to be meek and submissive. In the 90s she became a byword for troubled teenagers. In 1994 there was a bestselling book published called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Others followed, with titles like Ophelia Speaks and Surviving Ophelia. In the 00s she began cropping up on Youtube and Flickr (there are various studies on 'Ophelia Web 2.0' which now sound so delightfully quaint – found on websites like Ophelia Popular Culture and in books including Shakespeare and Youtube).

Today? There's nothing uniform. She's still being painted, depicted, and projected onto. She appears in all sorts of guises - sometimes standing with a brook at her feet, but sometimes indoors too. She is reimagined in domestic settings, often staring up from a bathtub.

Why bathtubs? Practically, they're close at hand. You can do a shoot in a bath with much more ease than going out to seek a river. Significantly, though, baths are obviously associated with suicide. In The Virgin Suicides, Cecilia's first attempt to take her own life occurs in a bath. The imagery is disturbingly Ophelia-esque. This iconography doesn't just draw on tradition, however—it also adds to it. Screenshots from The Virgin Suicides are posted and shared with about the same regularity as Ophelia. Perhaps her image contributes towards our general preoccupation with female death (and female self-destruction). We see it all the time in fashion shoots and ads - attractive dead women with blank eyes and perfect make-up, not a hair out of place. Think of Jimmy Choo's ads with the model Molly Sims bundled into a car trunk, or Doutzen Kroes looking lifeless on a bed of leaves for W magazine in 2007.

Image via Melancholia.

Regardless, Ophelia's influence is everywhere now. There's Lars Von Trier's poster for Melancholia; Coco Rocha posing in a bathtub full of blooms for Numero 94; Kate Bush's original imagery for The Ninth Wave; Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) wading into a river on a bright day in The Hours. She's iconic to the point that any woman with flowers in her long hair can be described as Ophelia-esque—linking Linda Lovelace, Jean Shrimpton, and Lana Del Rey.

She also speaks to young women in a way that few other Shakespearean heroines do. Her relatively limited role in the plays means she can be read in so many ways. If you've ever had a messy break up or been reduced to a sexual object or tried to make sense of complicated mental health problems, perhaps she's resonated with you. In fact, given that young women's mental health and general wellbeing tends to be dismissed—consigned to boxes like "overreaction" or "attention-seeking" or that old favorite, "It's just your hormones"—maybe Ophelia now presents something powerful. It's not that she is necessarily powerful. It's more that her image gives room for young women to play around, interpret her afresh, and construct their own meanings with each new shoot.

Some things stick, though. Our understanding of Ophelia has changed over the centuries, but whether we're talking insanity, sexuality, or the silent suffering of living under patriarchy, what remains constant is the fact that her death is romanticized. More than that, idealized. Those many, many versions of her are uniformly gorgeous, almost dreamy. All those flowers and fluid ripples of fabric. Hell, even writing about her is something of an exercise in sumptuous language and imagery.

A Google images search for "Ophelia modern."

It's telling that if you look back at the original lines in the play ("Her clothes spread wide, / And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up... / But long it could not be / Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pull'd that poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.") everyone picks up on Ophelia being "mermaid-like" with her "garlands." There's very little acknowledgment of her abrupt "muddy death." That's not pretty. It's not picturesque.

It's perhaps ironic—or perhaps inevitable—that one of the best-known Shakespearean heroines lives on only through her death. But maybe it gives her multiple, new lives. As a 14-year-old I did an Ophelia inspired shoot for my blog with a 70s bright orange dress. I didn't think about there being any big "meaning" to it. I'd just seen a painting I liked and wanted to reference. I wasn't considering the "dual messages about femininity and insanity" that Showalter flags. I was just clenching my jaw as I braved the chilly river.

It's perhaps ironic—or perhaps inevitable—that one of the best-known Shakespearean heroines lives on only through her death.

In fact, I wonder what Showalter makes of all these current incarnations? The ones floating in swimming pools, the naked Ophelias curled up on riverbanks, the flower-crowned girls in ponds with thousands of reblogs on Tumblr? She was interested in tracing the links between art and theatre, showing how onstage trends affected the way Ophelia was painted and imagined elsewhere. Now that link has snapped. Obviously there are new productions of Hamlet all the time. But the online Ophelia exists in a separate sphere—living independently.

While it's true that most of us know of Ophelia, few of us actually know her. We just think that we do – clutching at an idea, a version, a scattered set of visual references. An erratic young woman? A sexually charged icon? A person let down by the men around her? A pretty image? A mad, romanticized girl? A disturbingly ill individual? A symbol of our preoccupation with dead women? A heartbroken adolescent we empathise with? Someone given voice? Someone silenced? She's all of them, and none of them, depending on what angle we choose to view her from.

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