Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is William Shakespeare’s best-known and arguably his greatest play, and ranks among the greatest literature in the world. Most probably written at some time between 1598 and 1601, it was an immediate success and has remained one of the most frequently performed plays ever since.
It’s also one of the most painted stage productions, with several non-British artists painting series of scenes from the play. Of all the themes and scenes, though, by far the most popular is one which takes place off-stage and is only described by Gertrude: the death of Ophelia. To provide adequate coverage in paintings, I have divided my account over three articles: this summarises the whole plot, and is accompanied by paintings of the rest of those scenes; in the following two articles, I show paintings of the death of Ophelia, dividing them at 1889.
The ghost of the late King Hamlet appears to the guards at Elsinore Castle, who inform the young Prince Hamlet, son of the dead king. King Claudius, old Hamlet’s brother and now his successor as the king of Denmark, has married the widowed Queen Gertrude. He sends ambassadors to Fortinbras in Norway to warn him not to try to repossess lands won by the old king.
Claudius allows Laertes to return to his studies in France, but denies Prince Hamlet’s request to go back to his studies in Wittenberg, Germany. The Prince is horrified at his mother’s hasty remarriage, and is then told of the sighting of his father’s ghost.
Meanwhile, before he leaves for Paris, Laertes and their father caution his sister Ophelia not to take the Prince as her suitor.
Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s The Young Lord Hamlet (1868) is unusual in depicting the Prince in happier days before the death of his father. Hamlet plays the fool to entertain a young child, while three female relatives rest under some trees.
The ghost of King Hamlet appears again and tells his son in confidence that he was murdered in his sleep by Claudius, after his brother had seduced the queen. The ghost tells his son to seek vengeance, but to spare Gertrude. The Prince swears his companions to secrecy and warns them that he might choose to pretend madness.
Laertes’ father Polonius sends a spy to keep an eye on his son in France. Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet has apparently gone mad, which Polonius decides to pass on to the king. The King and Queen welcome two student companions of the prince, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are then sent to discover why Hamlet has gone mad. The ambassador sent to Norway returns to inform the king that Fortinbras is to take on Poland instead of Denmark.
Hamlet plays mad with Polonius, before meeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who tell the Prince that a company of players is about to arrive. The Prince privately asks the players to perform The Murder of Gonzago before the King and Queen, with a special speech of his own added to its script. This is to enable him to assess the guilt of Claudius.
Claudius and Polonius hide themselves so they can watch Hamlet meet with Ophelia. The prince first reflects on suicide and fear of death before Ophelia arrives, then tells her to go to a nunnery (convent) before leaving. She laments his madness, the king decides to send him to England, and Polonius intends overhearing Hamlet speak with his mother.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s watercolour of Hamlet and Ophelia from 1866 shows the couple together early in the play.
Mikhail Vrubel’s watercolour double portrait of Hamlet and Ophelia (above) was painted in 1883, and the second version below the following year. They’re sufficiently similar in content and composition to be variations on the same theme, but the whole tenor of the painting below is sombre, and its impression is as disturbing as the play.
Before the play starts, Hamlet instructs the players on the art of acting, then explains to his friend Horatio the purpose of the play, telling him to watch the reaction of Claudius. The court arrives, and the play re-enacts the ghost’s account of the murder of King Hamlet, in which the king’s nephew kills the king by putting poison in his ear when he’s asleep. That drives Claudius to stop the play, and Hamlet and Horatio conclude that Claudius did murder King Hamlet.
Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take the prince to England immediately. Hamlet catches the King at prayer, seeking forgiveness for King Hamlet’s murder, but delays killing him in case that repentance were to save his soul.
With Polonius secretly hidden behind the arras (a heavy tapestry screen) in Gertrude’s room, the prince meets his mother. Hamlet’s response is so forceful that Gertrude fears for her life, making Polonius cry out aloud.
Richard Dadd painted a successful series of scenes from Shakespeare, of which Hamlet and his Mother; The Closet Scene (1840, or 1846) is a survivor. There’s some dispute as to the date of this oil painting, which appears to have been exhibited in 1840. The actors shown are one of the most famous Shakespearean double-acts of the century, Charles Kean and Ellen Tree.
Hamlet, presuming that Polonius is the King, stabs him to death. He then turns on his mother for marrying Claudius, before his father’s ghost reappears telling the Prince to get his revenge. Prince Hamlet then reveals to his mother that he isn’t mad, swears her to secrecy, and drags the body of Polonius away.
Claudius has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bring Hamlet to him, and informs the Prince that he is to be sent to England immediately, but discloses in soliloquy that he is also telling the English to have the Prince killed.
Ophelia becomes mad following her father’s death, and goes to the King and Queen singing pitifully.
Benjamin West’s painting of Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), painted in 1792, was originally made for inclusion in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. Ophelia is seen in white, in a state of madness, with the King and Queen at the right showing their growing concern for her. Inevitably, given the nature of Boydell’s project, the painting is more theatrical than conventional painted narrative.
Two years after his wife Lizzie Siddal’s sudden death, Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted this watercolour of The First Madness of Ophelia (1864). This shows Ophelia being comforted as she talks in riddles and rhymes in front of the king and queen.
Henrietta Rae shows Ophelia as she scatters flowers and herbs while reciting their names and symbols in front of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, saying:
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love,
remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you,
and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays.
O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I
would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father
died. They say he made a good end.
For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
Laertes returns from France and blames Claudius for the death of his father, but calms when he sees his sister. Claudius assures Laertes that he will help him obtain vengeance.
Prince Hamlet had been on his way to England when his party was intercepted by pirates, and he alone returns to Denmark. Claudius and Laertes conspire to kill Hamlet in a fencing match, using poison. Gertrude arrives and tells how Ophelia has drowned (to be covered in the following two articles).
Hamlet arrives to find two gravediggers at work. One of the skulls they have just dug up is that of Yorick, court jester when Hamlet was young. This prompts the prince to reflect on mortality in his famous speech “To be, or not to be…”, only to be interrupted by Ophelia’s funeral procession.
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s Hamlet and the Gravediggers (1883), shows the prince about to lament the passing of Yoric to the gravediggers, against a rich floral background.
Laertes jumps into Ophelia’s grave, where he’s joined by Hamlet, and the pair fight until they’re separated.
Hamlet tells Horatio how he discovered the King’s note sent with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, telling the English King to have Hamlet killed. He therefore substituted a forgery altering the instruction to the murder of the two students.
Laertes challenges Hamlet to the fencing contest rigged by Claudius, which the Prince accepts. Initially Hamlet has the upper hand, but his mother Gertrude inadvertently drinks from a poisoned cup intended for her son. Laertes then wounds Hamlet with his rapier with a poisoned tip. When the fighting gets even rougher, the pair unwittingly exchange weapons, and Laertes is wounded with his own deadly poison.
Gertrude, who knows that she has been poisoned, collapses and dies. As Laertes lies dying, he blames Claudius for the plot to murder the Prince. Hamlet stabs the King and makes him drink poison, which kills him. Laertes and Hamlet forgive one another before Laertes finally dies. Hamlet tells Horatio not to touch the poison, so he can tell others what happened. The Prince hears Fortinbras’ army approaching on its way to Poland, and predicts that it will be Fortinbras who is the next king of Denmark. Hamlet then dies. With that army come English ambassadors who report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Fortinbras then arranges Hamlet’s funeral.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.