CHICAGO- The name Ophelia can hardly be uttered without evoking William Shakespeare’s lovelorn, lunatic, and lamentable character from his play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In one scene, she distributes sundry flowers to those around her, each specimen acting as a sign whose meaning was likely not lost on Elizabethan audiences -two scenes later, she has drowned herself. What is meant by “sign” here is “a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified”, as per Daniel Chandler’s definition in Semiotics: The Basics. Chandler’s treatise delineates two major models of the sign: Ferdinand de Saussure’s dual model and Charles Sanders Peirce’s triadic one. Ophelia (or Shakespeare), on the other hand, innovates a new model, specifically a floriographic sign system in which the sign is contingent upon the materiality and temporality of its signifier, lifting semiotics from the realm of the abstract and the conceptual and grounding it in physical reality.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, Oil on Canvas, 76x112cm, 1851-1852, Tate Britain (wiki.org)

According to Chandler, there are two predominant models of the sign: the Saussurean and the Peircean. In the former, a sign simply consists of signifier (such as a stop sign) and signified (the command to stop). In the latter model, the signifier is referred to as the representamen and the the signified the object, and a third component is added: the interpretant, the sign’s effect on, or the way it is processed by, the person. Floriography, or the language of flowers, is a sign system in which flowers of various species and characteristics are signifiers with specific signified concepts, such as love or death. What the character of Ophelia exemplifies is a different semiotic model, one which considers the physicality of the representamen or signifier, and hence one which is perhaps a more apt analytical tool in art history as it is more comprehensive. Using a model such as Ophelia’s, substance and medium begin to bear as much weight in our analysis of an artwork as do things like its formal elements and historical context. However, the legitimacy of Ophelia’s sign model faces considerable pressure under adaptations of her story across different art forms.

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, Oil on Canvas, 124.4 x 73.6 cm, 1894, Private Collection (commons.wikimedia.org)

In the fifth scene of Act IV of Hamlet, Ophelia happens upon Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius and hands them fennels, columbines, rues, violets, pansies, and rosemary. For the purposes of this discourse, neither the Elizabethan symbolism of these floral species nor their histories are pertinent. What is important to keep in mind is Chandler’s assertion that signs “have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning.” Although Ophelia only explicitly ascribes meaning to two flowers, it is important to note that she is not the sole author of her bouquet –Shakespeare likely handpicked its contents in accordance with his contemporaries’ floriographic associations. In other words, the meanings of the other flowers are implicit, if not overtly mentioned. Regardless of the specific meanings of the other flowers, it is Ophelia’s signification of rosemary that bears lethal gravity.

Ophelia specifies that her rosemary is “for remembrance”. This corresponds to French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida’s reinterpretation of the myth of the origin of writing in his Plato’s Pharmacy. According to Derrida, the written word is an externalization of memory and a tool for reminding; it stands in contrast with speech, logos, which bolsters the memory. Ophelia’s flowers are clearly akin to the former of these, acting as mementos of her experience rather than as exercises which will fortify others’ memory of her. Her brother Laertes even describes her floral offering as “a document in madness”. However, a key difference between a written letter and a flower petal is that the latter etiolates and eventually enters such an “undiscovered country, from whose bourn/no traveler returns”, as the Bard himself aptly puts it. This raises the possibility that Ophelia is trying to erase herself from the others’ memories. By externalizing and hinging the other characters’ memory of her on a perishable plant, she dooms herself to oblivion and effectively commits suicide long before her actual expiration.

Alexandre Cabanel, Ophelia, Oil on Canvas, 77 x 117.5 cm, 1883, Private Collection.

At this point, it may be useful to investigate the way this sign model holds up when it leaves the realm of the stage and enters those of painting, sculpture, photography, and film. Since the play’s debut, the character of Ophelia has continually managed to capture the hearts and imaginations of artists, resulting in a variety of artworks dedicated, perhaps ironically, to her memory. In some cases, this has meant compromising the physicality of Ophelia’s flowers as her story is immortalized in static works of art in which the symbolism behind the flowers becomes purely abstract. John William Waterhouse, for instance, painted Ophelia several times in his life, often portraying her in the final moments before she drowns herself, flowers strung around her like sentences on a page. Alexandre Cabanel‘s more Academic-style painting takes a step further in the chronology to the moment Ophelia just begins to sink, daisies and poppies vivid in the dark waters. Odilon Redon, on the other hand, turns more towards an expressionistic vision of Ophelia, curbing not only the symbolic powers of the flowers but the emotional forces inherent in color and form. In all these cases, materiality is sidestepped, as painted flowers do not whither as real ones do.

Among the artistic testaments to the tragic heroine, of especial renown is John Everett Millais’ painting thereof. Millais illustrates in oils what Shakespeare had commemorated in a speech delivered by Gertrude in scene 7 of Act IV:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down the 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 her drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious buy
To muddy death.

Indeed, the painting features the “Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daysies, and long Purples” Gertrude mentions. Ophelia herself is seen “Mermaid-like” and semi-floating, at the precise moment during which her clothes “bore her up”. However, the reason MillaisOphelia easily outshines other depictions is that it transcends the Gertrude’s above formula. Whereas Cabanel poses Ophelia almost decadently, with a facial expression betraying something like aristocratic boredom, Millais captures his model (Pre-Raphaelite sweetheart Elizabeth Siddal) with much more suspense and at a much more critical moment. There is almost a tension between a minute desire to live and utter surrender in the nearly awkward way Ophelia lies in the water, head slightly tilted backwards as if to capture her final breath, her dress doing more work to keep her afloat than she is. The fact that Cabanel’s Ophelia reaches for a branch above greatly diminishes the drama of the scene, while in the Millais, Ophelia’s half-reluctant hands just barely float, still clutching some flowers, which, along with her surroundings, are rendered meticulously and bear much more weight in the composition than in the Cabanel or even the Waterhouse.

No particular attention is diverted from said background in favor of Ophelia; although her faded lavender dress does stand out from the brilliant greens of the surroundings, and even the dismal pond water, it also seems to melting into it. Boundaries are obfuscated, albeit not completely; Millais takes advantage of the water’s translucence to make it seem like Ophelia is vanishing, as if dissolving, into its depths. Stray flowers on the pond seem to be interlacing themselves into the delicate embroidery on her gown, which’s form echoes the curvature of the green bank in the foreground. The image seems to be moving, breathing, settling. Though plastically paralyzed, Millais’ work proposes motion instead of executing it, as one would expect a play or a film to do. Despite all this, Millais’ painting does not fit into the Ophelian model of the sign, his painted flowers being immortal.

Antoine-Augustin Préault, Ophelia, Bronze Relief, 75 x 200 x 2 cm, 1876, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (wga.hu)

Meanwhile, other works tend to forgo the floriography to some extent. A relief by Antoine-Augustin Préault immobilizes in bronze the swirling waters and buoying fabric around the distressed maiden as she drowns, the impressions of flowers barely visible at her feet, near the edge of the relief. Préault shines the spotlight on the despair of the drowning Ophelia as she seems to decompose into the waters, the organic shapes of its ripples melding seamlessly into those of her dress and even her limbs. A more contemporary image is Gregory Crewdson’s, who brings Ophelia into the 21st Century, supplanting pond with flooded living room, flowers with furniture, and paintbrush with camera. Crewdson’s work stands out for its surreal environment comprising a plethora of contextual clues modern viewers can relate to more than settings such as Waterhouse’s or Cabanel’s. Perhaps, sensing that today’s audience might be less acquainted with the language of flowers than their Elizabethan or even Victorian predecessors, Crewdson decided to shirk the flowers so strongly associated with Ophelia to innovate a new image thereof. Comparing Crewdson’s work with others might shed light on a more archetypal Ophelia -the reason compelling and inspiring so many throughout history.

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Ophelia), Digital Chromogenic Print, 127 x 152.4 cm, 2000-1, Art Institute of Chicago.

Various film adaptations of Hamlet have similarly abandoned the language of flowers. In Gregory Doran’s 2009 adaptation, for instance, Ophelia recites the original script, naming rosemary, pansies, and the other flowers, but is seen handing out different plants that do not match the script. It might be suggested that Doran chose to deviate in this way to highlight Ophelia’s insanity and hallucinatory state. Meanwhile, in Grigori Kozintsev’s Russian film, Ophelia gathers some twigs from a nearby fireplace and assigns those the names of the flowers in the original script, and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version employs reeds, bones, and a nail, both in a similar vein to Doran. In contrast, Michael Almereyda’s Ophelia utilizes unseen polaroid photographs, perhaps indicating the way photographs can hold more meaning than flowers do nowadays. Additionally, in Kenneth Branagh’s film, a distraught Kate Winslet mimes the act of giving, when she actually has nothing in her hands. All these cases may be seen as concessions that floriography is a relatively dead language in the contemporary moment, which is a fair claim, but in making it, the inherent meaning encoded in the sign’s ephemerality within the Ophelian model is lost. Doran’s version is the only one which retains it, for unlike photography, which freezes time’s onslaught on living flowers and immortalizes them, there is in film’s suggestion of motion the implication of decay that is foundational to the Ophelian model.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” -Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film adaptation of Hamlet, Mariah Gale plays Ophelia in Gregory Doran’s 2009 Hamlet and Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Ophelia in Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version of Hamlet.

Plato’s Pharmacy is Derrida’s response to what Plato writes of the myth of the origin of writing in his Phaedrus. According to the, myth, Egyptian god of writing Theuth offers writing as a gift to Thamus, the god-king who then exposes it not as a remedy to help memory, but merely as an external reminder. Shakespeare’s Ophelia co-opts this concept to hijack the predominant Saussurean and Peircean models of the sign in order to establish her own, one in which meaning is no longer arbitrarily assigned to a set of signifiers, but is insead dependent on the materiality, ephemerality, and legacy of that signifier.

Read more from Jad Dahshan.
Image courtesy indicated in captions.


Jad Dahshan
Jad Dahshan

Having grown up in Amman, I am current majoring in Art History and Chemistry at the University of Chicago; I am interested in learning and writing about the conceptual, aesthetic, and material history of art. Beyond academics, I also run the social media channels for Logan Center Exhibitions, edit for the Arts Section of the Chicago Maroon, and perform and teach as an aerialist at the student-run Le Vorris & Vox Circus.

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