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.
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’.
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.
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?
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.