Every time I come across this 1852 rendition of Ophelia by John Everett Millais, my mind starts searching for a metaphor to relate back to my project Tangled. I’m drawn to it almost entirely because of the abundant detail and intense colors Millais used, which are typical of the complex compositions of the Pre-Raphalite painters.
The story behind Millais’ painting is interesting and strangely aligned with the story of Ophelia. Elizabeth Siddal modeled for this mysterious Shakespearian death scene, in a bathtub with lamps beneath to warm the water. On one occasion, the lamps went out and the water grew icy cold. Siddal became ill, apparently willfully, for she remained in the water without protest as Millais painted on for hours. She eventually died of a drug overdose that is widely held to have been a suicide.
From Gertrude’s speech about the death of Ophelia we learn that she accidentally fell into the water and then simply neglected to save herself from sinking. This passiveness is very much in line with the way Ophelia lived her life throughout the play – always going with the flow, doing what she was told to do, never making a decision for herself. What is intriguing to me beyond the sublime aesthetics of the painting is how Ophelia’s story takes a turn with Gertrude’s further observations that Ophelia’s death seemed natural and that she was mermaid-like or a “native” creature in the water. This is something she had never shown an inclination toward in life. It’s almost as if the flora of the river and the riverbank, so beautifully depicted in Millais painting had the power to seduce Ophelia to surrender her life to the growth and decay of the natural ecosystem.
I’m still searching for my metaphor. I feel it very much within reach.
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 tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.