WRITING PROMPT #4 - Rewriting Ophelia's Death
The plays of Shakespeare were a favorite subject matter for Victorian painters, and the tragic-romantic figure of Ophelia from Hamlet was especially popular, featuring regularly in Royal Academy exhibitions in London. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is the one below by Sir John Everett Millais. It portrays Ophelia (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii) as she falls into a stream and drowns.
Countless doomed Shakespearean heroines suffer tragic fates under the thumb of patriarchal tyranny, but none more so than the character of Ophelia. In fact, so much so that, “Saving Ophelia” has become a metaphor for helping young women withstand today’s social pressures.
In Hamlet, Ophelia is a young noblewoman of Denmark and her role revolves around three men; She is the daughter of Polonius, the sister of Laertes and potential wife of Prince Hamlet. She has no mother to advise her and is driven to madness between the fake insanity of Hamlet and the selfish manipulations of her father. Her character is underwritten and her behavior is defined solely in opposition to the men around her. I believe this treatment of female characters needs to be challenged.
When Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery,” is he calling her a whore?
She is driven mad when her father, Polonius, is murdered by her lover, Hamlet. She dies young from grief and madness. Her death is not on stage, but is referred to in a conversation between Queen Gertrude and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. Gertrude describes how Ophelia fell into a river while picking flowers and slowly drowned, singing all the while.
Ophelia has become an image of powerlessness. Let’s reclaim this lamentable figure and reimagine a positive role model for women today rather than a hysterical, child-like woman.
Let’s give Ophelia back her power!
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