Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Hamlet's Ophelia: How imagery supports characterization

By Jill Burdick-Zupancic

In English 10, I chose to study Macbeth with the students this year. However, because we were also looking at how imagery supports characterization, I decided to get them back into the world of Shakespeare with a look at Gertrude’s recount of Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet. I’ve recently been really into taking scenes from a variety of plays to support the study of a larger piece. This scene, as described by the queen, has taken root in pop culture as well; there’s even a band! But, what we did is take a look at the speech (as shown below, courtesy of Folger Digital Texts) and explored how artists interpreted the imagery to support characterization.

Hamlet: 4.7.190-208

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows hishoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

I gave the students a little context – the speaker, a nutshell account of the subject’s relationship with Hamlet, etc… and gave the students the following images:

  1. Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Ophelia, 1853
  2. Odilon Redon, Ophelia, 1910
  3. Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2
  4. Alexandre Cabanel, Ophelia, 1883


This was the first year I’ve done this with students and although there was a learning curve, for all of us – they made some solid comments and had really interesting questions. A few highlights:

  • Who’s the artist/viewer here – is it Gertrude? Is the artist using her account, or getting too far away from the text?
  • (at this point, another student volunteered) – It could be subtext… it’s not that it didn’t actually happen in a certain way – but between the lines – this could have been a single moment.
  • A student mentioned that the peacefulness present in all of these pieces doesn’t really match the idea of someone drowning, which led students to where I was hoping they’d go in terms of the imagery supporting Ophelia’s madness. Specifically, when the queen states, “And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” – the clothes are holding her up – there is no struggle.

A few things happened that I didn’t anticipate –

  • They struggled with the less-than-representational Redon – perhaps I’ll give them a bit more context on the post-Impressionist painter, or perhaps I’ll make all the choices representational next time. Or perhaps I’ll include additional modern pieces… a quick Google search identifies quite an array!
  • The Delacroix painting stumped students in terms of what they interpreted as a more “sexualized” Ophelia – as the text doesn’t support this interpretation. This led to interesting discussion and a suggestion that Delacroix’s painting was more “based on” as opposed to a true “representation.” But the study of how the imagery supports characterization was problematic here.

End result (practicing brevity): Was this a successful practice? Yes! Does it need fine-tuning? Absolutely! Will I try this with other iconic scenes from Shakespeare’s plays? Without a doubt!

Upon reflection, it was thrilling to see students reading and analyzing Shakespeare’s language and really digging into how visual artists interpreted a single line – or more aptly, a moment between those lines.

Jill Burdick-Zupancic is in her sixth year of teaching and currently teaches Honors English and AP Art History at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA. She is a Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) alumna from 2012 and can be reached at jeburdickzup@fcps.edu.