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The Collation

Should Ophelia Die in the 21st Century?

A print of a painting Ophelia lying down in a river, her hands out to her sides in a pleading gesture

During a discussion with one of the Folger librarians (who always have something astounding to say), I came across rare paintings of the dying Ophelia, partially submerged in water, in the Folger collections. I could instantly imagine an Elizabethan crowd in the theatre, hailing and cheering at her ‘beautiful death.’ Shakespeare certainly knew the vein of his audience. He conditioned the viewers to accept her insanity as natural and her death as inevitable. Ophelia gained the character of an invalid as a result of her insanity, and the intrinsic passivity of her death intensifies her sensuality. She lay still in the water like a mermaid, wearing a flowy white gown, entirely at the mercy of the onlooker’s gaze. A dead female body is a timeless fetish and becomes more attractive and sensational when the corpse is of a mad woman. A woman mad in love has been a popular trope in drama, literature, and cinema for centuries. Be it the violent Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights or the innocent Bride of Lammermoor, they ultimately reach the deathbed.

An engraving from a book depicting Ophelia in an ornate gown wading into the river with her arm over her head.
Drowning Ophelia – A Wood Engraving ART File S528h1 no.58

As is well known, Sappho died as a result of unrequited love. After being turned down, she plunged from the cliff. There is a sensation around people dying in love. As a culture, we embraced this phenomenon long ago. Lovesickness is closely linked with melancholia and as noted by Foucault, “melancholia never reaches violence; it is madness at the limits of its powerlessness”.1 Whereas Hamlet’s sadness is filled with philosophical brooding, Ophelia’s lunacy is simpler and gentler. She is too sensitive to live after a rejection. The sacrifice of her life as a virgin is her only mode of salvation. The ‘soft death’ of a delicate woman as a product of unrequited love became a romantic element. The legacy of lovesickness was carried by numerous popular heroines like Madame Bovary.

Gertrude narrates Ophelia’s death in beautiful words. Her decision to choose death over such a life is applauded. Her womanhood is finally acknowledged and validated. There is no indication of medical or religious condemnation when Gertrude recounts her death. Her death is romanticized, and her corpse is treated as a ‘pretty’ sensual object:

“Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself/ She turns to favor and to prettiness”  (Act 4: Scene 5).

A print of a painting Ophelia lying down in a river, her hands out to her sides in a pleading gesture
A Painting by Sir J. E. Millais. ART FILE S528h1 no.121

In 1959, Lacan presented his ideas on Ophelia during a psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet in Paris. He interpreted the play as being about Ophelia’s grieving rather than Hamlet’s guilt. He went on to explain that she only played a part in the play as the target of Hamlet’s sexual desire.2 Her own identity wasn’t really on Shakespeare’s list. He doesn’t offer us a detailed background of Ophelia. Just five of the play’s twenty scenes include her, and much of the information about her is provided by other characters. Her tragedy has also been downplayed in comparison to Hamlet’s. The insufficient information provided in the play does not actually allow one to deduce her biography. Ophelia’s only purpose for existing is to love and marry Hamlet. She presents herself to him as a potential wife as a result of her family’s aspirations and the patriarchal system.

Should Ophelia die in the 21st-century screen and stage adaptations of Hamlet? It appears that little has changed over time for women who are in love. The way that men and women react to social and cultural influences differs. Women self-destruct because it completely adheres to their gender role. By moving out of the way, they make the lives of their beloved men smoother. Since the beginning of time, this specific characteristic of a ‘good woman’ has been residing in our collective unconscious. As stated by Simone de Beavouir, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”3 We all are socialized in the social position of a man or a woman through certain sets of behaviors. The sacrifices made by women have always been glorified and several taboos have been created and employed by society to keep women in a purely domestic zone over the course of human history. Witch trials, foot binding, female circumcision, segregation of women during menstruation, required wearing of chastity belts, etc. are all examples of methods designed to oppress women and make them aware of their subjugated status. In the twenty-first century, women are still subjected to sexist behavior, and the pandemic has only made things worse.

According to The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, the pandemic’s worldwide ramifications have given women a setback in their quest for equality. The gender gap will now take 135.6 years to close globally if things continue as they are.4 The Indian government’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reflected that 22,372 Indian housewives committed suicide in 2020. This equates to one suicide every 25 minutes or 61 every day on average.5 Women are more likely than males to have lost their employment or income, and they are less likely to be covered by social welfare, according to World Bank research on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality in Croatia.6

In the post-pandemic world, where women are struggling harder than men to receive employment and get back to a normal life, the portrayal of weak, sensitive, and invalid women on the screen and stage, is likely to have serious repercussions for them in a long run. Media largely shapes our perspectives and impacts our lifestyles. A modern-day Ophelia certainly has more to look after than her feelings for Hamlet. She is the breadwinner and is struggling with larger issues in life. She is fighting against misogyny, racism, body shaming, and gender discrimination at work. She still goes mad, but her madness takes the form of rage. If Ophelia keeps dying young, she will never be able to build her own empire.

  1. Foucault, M., & ) M. F. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason; Translated From the French by Richard Howard. Penguin Random House. 111
  2. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2013.
  3. Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex. 9th Printing. Vintage Books / Random House, 1965. 267.
  4. “Global Gender Gap Report 2021,” World Economic Forum, n.d.,
  5. Murali Krishnan, “Why Are so Many Indian Housewives Killing Themselves?,”, December 20, 2021,
  6. Valerie Nga Thi Viet Nguyen Morrica, “Gender (In)Equality: The Pandemic Has Impacted Women in Croatia on More Levels than Men,” World Bank, March 10, 2021,