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‘The Fair Ophelia’ in 18th Century Art

In honour of International Women’s Day, this post looks back at 18th century attitudes towards femininity through contemporary depictions of Ophelia.

Whilst researching the ‘Say it with Flowers’ exhibition within the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections, I came across a really interesting item. It was a thesis for a MA entitled “Representations of the mad and suicidal Ophelia in late eighteenth-century art” and was written by none other than our very own Collections Librarian, Mareike Doleschal.

Inspired by Mareike’s thesis, and the fact that tomorrow (8th March) is International Women’s Day, this post looks back at 18th century attitudes towards femininity, through depictions of one of Shakespeare’s most famous female characters.

Painting of Ophelia, by Benjamin West for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, 1789
Painting of Ophelia, by Benjamin West for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, 1789

Mareike’s thesis focuses on the painting of Ophelia by Benjamin West. This painting hung in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall in 1789 (find more information about Boydell’s Shakespeare project). It depicts Ophelia in act 4, scene 5 of Hamlet, distributing flowers that express her feelings of grief for the death of her father and perhaps her attitudes towards the other characters.

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that's for thoughts.

With staring eyes, a strong physique, and loose, wild hair, this was not how the 18th century audience were comfortable seeing “the fair Ophelia”, or any woman at court for that matter. Benjamin West’s Ophelia painting was not well received by the critics, who even labelled it “disgusting”.

The flowers in this painting do not necessarily depict the individual emotions such as remembrance and thoughts that they do in Shakespeare’s text, but instead we see a collection of wild flowers in Ophelia’s hair, in her clothes and on the floor. They symbolise other-worldliness and link her with nature and perhaps also mythology. They emphasise Ophelia’s incongruity with court and the characters around her.

It is interesting to point out that Thomas Stothard’s depiction of the flower scene in Hamlet, produced six years earlier in 1783, was very well received (you can see an engraving from his painting on the British Museum’s online catalogue). Stothard’s Ophelia does not look mad. She appears polite and friendly, her hair is neatly tied up, and her flower distribution appears more as a sweet, girlish activity than a distressed and frenzied one. This representation was perhaps one that people were more at ease with in the 18th century.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a global event celebrating the past, present and future of women and their achievements. To celebrate that event, Mareike will be blogging about some research she has done into representations of the most important woman in Shakespeare’s life, Anne Hathaway.