Detail of Ophelia's face
Detail of Ophelia’s face

Ophelia by Millais is the most popular postcard sold by the Tate and yet the subject is not a happy one. Ophelia is a character in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. She is driven mad when her father, Polonius, is murdered by her lover, Hamlet. She dies while still very young in grief and madness. The events shown in Millais’s Ophelia are not actually seen on stage. Instead they are referred to in a conversation between Queen Gertrude and Ophelia’s brother Laertes. Gertrude describes how Ophelia fell into the river whilst picking flowers and slowly drowned, singing all the while.

Hamlet, Act 1V, Scene V11

Laertes: Drowned! O, where?

Queen Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead-men’s-fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Laertes: Alas, then she is drowned?

Queen Gertrude: Drowned, drowned

Listen to A conversation between Queen Gertrude and Ophelia’s brother Laertes, reporting the death of Ophelia, introduction by Bill Paterson
Read by Julia Ford
Audio guide extract, courtesy of Acoustiguide.