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

Shakespeare does not confirm that Ophelia committed suicide; her state of mind makes it difficult to be certain what she intended to do. In Act V, Scene I, the clowns or gravediggers discuss this: ‘if the water come to him and drown him, he drown not himself.’ A letter from Staley Wells from the University of Birmingham to Simon Wilson, a curator at the Tate in 1992, states ‘there is no doubt that the balance of her mind was disturbed, she appears to have made no attempt to save herself, but it cannot be said with certainty that she sought to die.’

Ophelia was not the only painting by Millais that expressed romantic love and death of a young and grieving heart. As a young woman in the Victorian age, to be rejected or cast aside by your lover or husband was a terrible fate. Any future chance of love or marriage was slim as the woman was expected to remain faithful to her beloved. Death by drowning or decline were considered appropriate endings for such female characters in works of art.