Ophelia and Virginia – two important literary women with one similar end

When I studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet during my English A Level course, I became fascinated with the character Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover. Though met with some critical judgement of her character for being weak for succumbing the male protagonist’s ‘powerful influence’, I like to agree with the alternative arguments that Ophelia is so much more than merely a vapid, dependent woman.

I am not alone in my linking of the historical figures; whilst searching online to confirm the concept of combining the painting of Woolf and Ophelia had not already been done, I stumbled across an extensive article titled, ‘Gender and Identity in Hamlet: A Modern Interpretation of Ophelia‘, by Heather Brown.

Brown’s line on Ophelia’s upbringing, ‘females [were] basically without a tradition to draw upon, leaving them unconfident and confused amongst a history pervaded by male figures‘¹ is an unfortunate truth, but brings all the more importance for Woolf being a strong female figure in western culture for the modern woman. Her shameless questioning of gender and sexuality, and passion for the equality of the sexes, is refreshing to see from a woman of her era.

‘Ophelia suffers from a lack of female tradition–not only from the absence of women in history but also from the absence of any reliable female influence in her life’¹

A literal, visual comparison of the two women which brought about my comparison in the first place appears in their untimely, water-related deaths.

In the fourth act of the play, Ophelia is reported to be found dead in a river after she fell from a branch, ‘her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death’³, Hamlet (4.7.183-185). Though the account of her death given by the Queen is detailed and appears genuine, there is speculation by both the play’s characters and literary critics as to whether her fall into the river was an accident or an act of suicide – as she was previously in a state of mental unrest.

Similarly, Woolf died in March 1941 when she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in a river next to her home in Sussex. The notably intelligent and sharp-witted woman struggled with depression towards the end of her life, and this appears to have been the main reason for her suicide as noted in the opening line of her heart-wrenching suicide letter written to her husband, ‘I feel certain I am going mad again’². It is also important to consider the devastation of World War 1 that must have affected Woolf, which is likely to have been a factor in her mental state.

At face value the deaths appear merely coincidentally similar due their nature and whereabouts, I believe that the events have more in common than one might assume. Both women ended their own lives in a certain state of ‘madness’, whether that be assumed or diagnosed, leaving behind a significant legacy behind them and influencing the lives of many to come.

Though I aim to make no claim that Woolf’s inputs into the feminist movement, or the rights of women in general, are a match to that of a fictional character, I do think it’s interesting to look into the differences in the treatment of women’s mental health and approach to their own sanity

John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project
Sir John Everett Millais. Ophelia. 1851-1852. Oil on canvas.

John Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ is a piece IMG_3536adored by both myself and many others, as countless alternative interpretations have been made of the picture. In fact, I used the painting as a direct reference for my GCSE Art exam based on the word ‘floating’ in which I photographed my younger red-headed sister in a tin bath [right]. Though the subject matter and context of the imagery lacked in my mind when I was younger, and before I had read ‘Hamlet’, I still think my naive take on the iconic painting has a lot of merit as it highlighted my fascination with her natural beauty.

  1. Brown, H. (no date) ‘Gender and Identity in Hamlet: A Modern Interpretation of Ophelia’, The Myriad: Westminster’s interactive academic journal. Available at: https://www.westminstercollege.edu/myriad/?parent=2514&detail=2679&content=2680 (Accessed: 3 August 2016).
  2. Popova, M. (2014) March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter and its cruel misinterpretation in the media. Available at: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/28/virginia-woolf-suicide-letter/ (Accessed: 4 August 2016).
  3. Shakespeare, W. (2000) Hamlet. Edited by John Seely. Heinemann advanced Shakespeare edn. United Kingdom: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
  4. Millais, J.E. (1851) Ophelia [Oil on canvas]. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (Accessed: 3 August 2016).

Mashup

I started my painting by making a really rough collage on Photoshop using the original Millais’ painting, combined with two different photographs of Woolf. These were only for scale and proportions, so I did not spend time on making the cut-and-paste anything but basic. I opted for a portrait of Woolf’s face in which she looked the most relaxed, but I was keen to still keep some life in her face as I don’t want the only observations of the figure to be that of a dead, floating figure. In addition, the side portrait was especially important in this ‘mashup’ as Woolf had a very distinct large nose which makes her face characterful and unique. Obviously no coloured photographs of Woolf are available to me, so I left the colour of her hair and clothes were left down to a combination of online research and imagination.

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