John William Waterhouse: "Ophelia" (1889)

Shakespeare's Ophelia, the poster girl for doomed women, has inspired endless speculation as to whether or not she committed suicide, when she "fell in the weeping brook" and was drowned. I'm with the gravediggers on this one.

Shelley's wife, Harriet, chose to drown herself in the Serpentine, following the path set by Ophelia. It would be the path taken by Virginia Woolf in 1941 and, although it was likely not a suicide, Natalie Wood, who appeared in the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass, was drowned in 1981.

Ophelia's fate appealed to the pre-Raphaelite painters. Shaped like a tombstone, this (above) is John Everett Millais' Ophelia (circa 1851) which is in the Tate Britain. Below is a close-up - the luminous corpse recalls Robert Browning's My Last Duchess (1842): "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,/ Looking as if she were alive..." Another painting of Ophelia here.


Drowning as a motif affected a number of Victorians. Shelley himself drowned in 1822, in a boating accident. Elizabeth Barrett Browning lost her beloved brother Edward the same way in 1840 off Babbacombe Bay and partly blamed herself.

It was in the popular imagination that Ophelia was best known - after all, everyone knew young women who went crazy or fell into prostitution after being seduced and abandoned, and who threw themselves off Waterloo Bridge. Although there were famous examples of this, such as Mary Furley in 1844, which angered and inspired many poets and writers, the legend far outran reality. Some of the favorite "falling women" of the era included Sappho and The Lady of Shalott. In Dickens' novels, drowning is a popular motif, although it is all men who drown and fallen women who think about it.

"To be, or not to be?"-- Ere I decide,
I should be glad to know that which is being
For me, I sometimes think that Life is Death,
Rather than Life a mere affair of breath.
- Byron, Don Juan, Canto the Ninth

Another Ophelia is this woman, L'Inconnue de la Seine, who apparently drowned herself in the Seine in the late 1880's. No one ever identified her but she appears to be younger than 20. This photo of her death mask (a plaster cast made after her death) so affected people emotionally - perhaps because of its Mona Lisa-like quality, said Camus - that writers and artists have remained fascinated with her for more than a century - Nabokov and Rilke among them. Was this really a death mask from a dead woman or was she still living and this was a stunt? We don't know.


Then there's this...

In Burlington long ago
And later again in Ashtabula
I said to myself:
I wonder how far Ophelia went with Hamlet.
What else was there Shakespeare never told?
That must have been something.
If I go bugs I want to do it like Ophelia.
There was class to the way she went out of her head.
  • Carl Sandburg