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  • Detail of crow flowers from Ophelia

    Crow flowers in the foreground look similar to buttercups and symbolise ingratitude or childishness

  • Detail of weeping willow from Ophelia

    The weeping willow tree leaning over Ophelia is a symbol of forsaken love.

  • Detail of nettles from Ophelia

    The nettles that are growing around the willow’s branches represent pain.

  • Detail of daisies from Ophelia

    The daisies floating near Ophelia’s right hand represent innocence. Ophelia also mentions, ‘There’s a daisy’ in Act IV, scene V.

  • Detail of purple loosestrife from Ophelia

    The purple loosestrife on the upper right hand corner of the painting, near the edge of the frame, alludes to ‘long purples’ in the play. Shakespeare actually meant the purple orchid.

  • Detail of pink roses from Ophelia

    The pink roses that float by Ophelia’s cheek and her dress and the white field roses growing on the river bank may refer to Act IV, Scene V when Laertes calls his sister, ‘rose of May’. They are also included for their many symbolic meanings such as youth, love and beauty.

  • Detail of violets from Ophelia

    The garland of violets around Ophelia’s neck refer to Act IV, Scene V. ‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end.’ Violets are a symbol of faithfulness and they can also symbolise chastity and death in the young.

  • Detail of meadowsweet from Ophelia

    The meadowsweet flowers to the left of the purple loosestrife may signify the futility (the lack of purpose or uselessness) of Ophelia’s death.

  • Detail of forget-me-nots from Ophelia

    The pale blue forget-me-nots on the river bank below the purple loosestrife and in the immediate foreground, carry their meaning in their name.

  • Detail of pansies from Ophelia

    The pansies that float on the dress in the centre, refer to Act IV, Scene V where Ophelia gathers flowers in the field (‘that’s for thoughts’). They represent thought and they can also mean love in vain (the name comes from French, penses).

  • Detail of pheasant's eye flowers from Ophelia

    Ophelia’s sorrow is symbolised by the pheasant’s eye floating near the pansies (similar to the poppy).

  • Detail of fritillary from Ophelia

    The fritillary floating between the dress and the water’s edge in the bottom right hand corner also symbolise Ophelia’s sorrow.

  • Detail of poppy from Ophelia

    The vivid red poppy with its black seeds represents sleep and death.

Most of the flowers in Ophelia are included either because they are mentioned in the play, or for their symbolic value (see slideshow above). Millais observed these flowers growing wild by the river in Ewell. Because he painted the river scene over a period of five months, flowers appear next to those that bloom at different times of the year.

Detail of daffodils from Ophelia

Detail of daffodils from Ophelia

Millais originally included some daffodils in the painting not observed in Ewell but later bought from Covent Garden in London as he felt the painting needed more yellow. But his friend and poet, Tennyson, suggested that they were not appropriate as they symbolised false hope. Perhaps they are primroses? There is a reference to primroses in Act 1, Scene 3, when Ophelia speaks to Laertes:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

There are similar phrases in Macbeth Act 2, Scene 3, ‘the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire’ and All’s Well That Ends Well Act IV, Scene 5, ‘the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire’.

Detail of skull from Ophelia

Detail of skull from Ophelia

Some people believe there is a skull hidden within the painting. Before the location is revealed, have a look and see if you can see it (once it is pointed out, it is hard not to see it). Look to the left of the forget-me-nots on the right of the painting, a nose and two hollow eyes can just be made out. This may well be just the light and shade in the foliage or the skull may be a reminder of death and hint at what is about to happen.

Detail of robin from Ophelia

Detail of robin from Ophelia

The robin in the branches of the willow tree may refer to the line, ‘For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy’, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind in Act 1V, Scene V. This may be a reference to the fictional character Robin Hood, or as birds are also symbolic of the spirit, it could suggest that as she floats down the river, her spirit flies away.

Rebecca Virag, Interpretation Assistant in the Interpretation and Education department, Tate Britain writes:

For the robin, I am tempted to suggest that Millais chose it specifically for its red breast. Red is traditionally the colour of martyrdom (deriving from the Catholic church), bearing connotations of spilled blood and thus death. These associations are made more dramatic because it is difficult to spot the bird in the undergrowth, save for its red breast which provides a startling colour note of scarlet amidst all the brown. In the summer, robins, male and female, are fighting for territory and finding mates. Perhaps Millais’s use of the lone robin is a reference to Ophelia’s abandonment by Hamlet, which leads to her death?

Top left corner of frame

Top left corner of frame

© Tate, London 2003

Ivy was often used to symbolise the notion of gendered spheres for men and women in the Victorian period, where the ivy (woman) needs the sturdy oak (man) for support. This idea derives from Christian doctrine, as does the association of ivy (an evergreen plant) with the notion of resurrection. (Ophelia is holding her arms out in the shape of a cross). Ivy also has associations with melancholy and decay; the image of ivy covered ruins was a popular motif of the Romantic movement.