Ophelia Essay Section 1

Section 1. Introduction: Ophelia and Web 2.0 

In the past few decades, new forms of digital media, particularly those associated with the internet, have led to new forms of communication that have profoundly and globally affected cultural experience. One of the most prominent kinds of new electronic communications media is commonly referred to as "Web 2.0," a convenient catch-all term for social-networking sites, video- and photo-sharing sites, wikisblogsvlogs, and folksonomies. Collectively, these permit users to post their own material, to interact among themselves, to comment (usually through blogging) upon each other's text postings, videos, and images, and to add to and/or change each other's web content. To examine the contents of Web 2.0 is to open a remarkably revealing window into popular culture. Those who open this window quickly discover that, contrary to the predictions of certain commentators,[1] Shakespeare awareness is not in decline in our age but within popular culture possesses a vigorous and burgeoning afterlife.[2]

 My purpose here is to argue that the constant reinvention of Shakespeare that Gary Taylor described in such telling detail in 1989 is as vital as ever in the Web 2.0 environment.[3] Furthermore, the interactive tools that are so central a feature of Web 2.0 encourage the exponential growth of that process of reinvention.
    More than a few Shakespeareans will no doubt be hesitant about giving serious attention to Shakespeare's presence within the world of Web 2.0. The current situation is somewhat analogous to that in the past when many Shakespeareans looked with distaste upon film and television adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, particularly those by such directors as Peter Greenaway, Richard Loncraine, and Baz Luhrmann that engaged in narrative and visual experimentation.[4] However, certain commentators resisted this kind of thinking and instead endeavored to explore the adaptation and appropriation of Shakespeare as significant components within an ongoing cultural process. Their work has done much in recent years to mitigate against the negative attitudes of conservative Shakespeareans.[5]  But now Shakespeare's heavily-weighted visual presence in Web 2.0 poses even more of a challenge to traditional scholarship. Not only does Web 2.0 favor forms of visual media, but it is an anarchic environment where anyone, whether professional or amateur, knowledgeable or ignorant, may post almost anything, often under an assumed name and identity. Once posted, material can give rise to interactive commentary and, particularly in the case of images and videos, reworking, refashioning, remixing, and remediation.[6] Furthermore, Web 2.0 is an unstable world because it is in constant flux. New material appears daily, but material can also shift from website to website, or simply disappear. For those used to the fixity of print as central to the conduct of Shakespeare studies, any attempt to track and analyze the significance of Shakespeare's presence in Web 2.0 can be alarming. Yet, if Web 2.0 is indeed a window to popular culture, if it is important to look through that window to try and understand the manifestations of Shakespeare's presence that are revealed there. Whereas college and secondary level students (unlike many of their elders) are generally as comfortable within the Web 2.0 world as they are in experiencing the media of film and television, then their mentors and anyone else who takes Shakespeare seriously will surely find it worthwhile to grapple with the various issues outlined above. It is worth knowing where Shakespeare is within our world today, and it is surely worth assisting students to come to a deeper critical understanding of the versions of Shakespeare that new media have made available within Web 2.0.
    As an example of Shakespeare's presence in Web 2.0, I will discuss in the material to be found on this website the figure of Ophelia, drawing examples from among the thousands of photographs and videos depicting the drowning or drowned Ophelia that have been posted on Web 2.0 sites.[7] Chief among such sites are those such as YouTubeVimeoPhotobucketFotoCommunity, and Flickr that have been specifically designed to facilitate the sharing of videos and images. 

    The original inspiration for the Web 2.0 material concerned with Ophelia's death is, of course, Queen Gertrude's description in Hamlet  4:7:

There is a Willow growes aslant a Brooke,
That shewes his hore leaues in the glassie streame:
There with fantasticke Garlands did she come,
Of Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daysies, and long Purples,
That liberall Shepheards giue a grosser name;
But our cold Maids doe Dead Mens Fingers call them:
There on the pendant boughes, her Coronet weeds
Clambring to hang; an enuious sliuer broke,
When downe the Weedy Trophies, and her selfe,
Fell in the weeping Brooke, her cloathes spred wide,
And Mermaid-like, a while they bore her vp,
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her owne distresse,
Or like a creature Natiue, and indued
Vnto that Element but long it could not be,
Till that her garments, heauy with her drinke,
Pul'd the poore wretch from her melodious buy,
To muddy death.
(From 1623 First Folio text. TLN 3158-3175.)

Sometimes, in acknowledgment of this supremely evocative source,[8] images depicting Ophelia's drowning are accompanied by the text of Gertrude's speech, something that Arthur Hughes did over a century and a half ago when in 1852 he completed his well-known painting of Ophelia by the Brook.[9] On either side of this painting, but placed within the picture frame, are Shakespeare's words. Some of the videos posted on Web 2.0 are also accompanied by the text of Gertrude's speech (or portions of it). These (like a number of film adaptations of Hamlet that have included Ophelia's death) often provide viewers with access to the speech by employing another form of mixed media, in this instance a voice-over recitation of the speech. Such creations offer the viewer a direct link with a portion of Shakespeare's original text; however, even without any such explicit textual link, most of the videos and images are tagged and titled "Ophelia." But who Ophelia is and her origins in Shakespeare's Hamlet are frequently not mentioned.

    This latter phenomenon adds a teasing complexity to the ongoing negotiations between the experience of Shakespeare that Web 2.0 offers and the text-based and performance-based experience and study of Shakespeare to which most Shakespeareans give priority. Because of this, the thousands of Web 2.0 Ophelias are perhaps best viewed not as copies of Shakespeare's original but, like films of Shakespeare's plays, as accretions to an ever-developing construct named "Ophelia." Whereas a body of critical theory has developed to deal with film versions of Shakespeare's plays as accretions to cultural constructs labeled, for example, "Hamlet" or "King Lear" or "Titus Andronicus," [10] a parallel critical response perhaps now needs to be developed regarding the Shakespeare materials uploaded to Web 2.0 sites. Discussion of the materials I intend to refer to on this website and their significance as part of Shakespeare's presence within popular culture clearly require one to track into a non-Shakespeare-centric environment that is outside the boundaries of text studies. That is not to say that one should forget the text. Indeed, knowledge of the text should illuminate what is seen, and what is seen should in turn illuminate the understanding of text. But before discussing some specific examples of depictions of Ophelia's death, it will be helpful to make some additional general comments about Web 2.0 and the Ophelia material to be found there.

    The contemporary video and still images of Ophelia that are posted on Web 2.0 sites are the work of both professional and amateur artists, photographers, and videographers. Viewers are typically presented with a beautiful young woman, who is wearing a long, often white dress. She is bare-foot, her hair is often undone, and she is submerged fully or partially in water. In most examples, she lies face up in the water. She is usually holding flowers or is surrounded by flowers, and in a large number of cases, she is placed in and perhaps even merges into a natural setting. In videos, we are shown her actions prior to her final moments, as well as the drowning itself.

    Such images of Ophelia place before our gaze innumerable young women, both professional models and amateurs. To assist those women wanting to appear as "authentic" Ophelias, there is even online advice available on e howto.com about obtaining an appropriate dress. In the matter of Ophelia's dress and accompanying makeup, for example, one anonymous blogger recommended: "Use light- or medium-blue nail polish on your toes and finger nails to complete your oxygen-deprived look."[11] One site suggests that a discarded wedding dress can be used for Ophelia pictures.[12] The deliberate use of a wedding dress in ways that may harm it (immersing it in water, for example) has in recent years become something of a fashion, variously referred too as "Trash the Dress," "Fearless Bridal," or "Rock the Frock." Photographs recording Ophelia-like young women wearing a wedding dress and in many instances immersed in water have become a sub-genre of wedding photography. Consciously or not, the photographs often seem akin to the Ophelia images discussed in this essay.

    Another "how to" website suggests that a would-be Ophelia should find a long, old-fashioned dress or nightgown at a thrift store. She should rip off the hemline of the dress in a crooked fashion, tear the cuffs on the sleeves, and rub in dirt to give the dress that "laid in a stream" look. She is also advised to get her hair wet, and then to comb plenty of hair gel through it so that it dries looking wet and stringy. Additional advice then deals with makeup and flowers. Going barefoot is also recommended.[13] The would-be Ophelia is also told, "Cover your face with white makeup, [. . .] Create dark circles under your eyes using gray eye-shadow," and "Give your lips that drowned hue with just a tinge of blue eye shadow." In addition, "Put some dead flowers in your hair and carry the rest in a small bouquet." There is also the experience recounted by a Flickr user who sought to imitate Millais's painting: " I found a vintage wedding gown and dyed it a plum colour to make it look like the gown in the painting." 
    That the white dresses worn by the online Ophelias often do look as if they may be discarded wedding dresses, thereby introduces a curious and I assume unconscious ironic symbolism regarding the woman whose love has seemingly been rejected by the title character in Hamlet. Significantly, after Ophelia is dead, Hamlet declares that he did love her, and Gertrude states that she had hoped her son Hamlet would marry Ophelia.

    Having acquired an appropriate dress, would-be creators of Ophelia images can also obtain detailed instructions online concerning how to make an Ophelia image using Photoshop: "In this lesson we will learn how to change colors, to do unusual imitation of hair and to create effect of placing of object under water." The step-by-step guide is accompanied by a series of screen shots to illustrate the creation of such an image.

    The countless Web 2.0 Ophelia images, as might be expected, draw upon our fascination with death, and they sustain the mythic relationship between water and femininity, and the intimate relationship between madness and femininity so often commented upon by feminist scholars.[14] The Web 2.0 images also permit us, as do many earlier art works, to gaze at the vulnerability of Ophelia's youth and beauty, an often erotic process that in extreme cases invites comparison with the invitational pornographic images of young women now so ubiquitous elsewhere in the darker corners of the world wide web. As will be discussed below, what is altogether new and in a number of instances appears to be the prime motivation behind certain images is the use of the iconic dying or dead Ophelia as the basis for self-portraiture.[15] 

    In other sections of this web essay, I shall attempt to delineate examples from Web 2.0 of some of the principal kinds of Ophelia images to be found on various video and photo-sharing sites and to demonstrate some of the ways in which they are employed. I shall also attempt to show the extraordinary potency of the icon of the dying Ophelia, its broad appeal within contemporary popular culture, and its continuing evolution. A central concern will be to suggest that such an excursion outside the Shakespeare-centric world can be a valid and illuminating part of Shakespeare studies.

Go to:
Section 2. Ophelia Images and John Everett Millais
Section 3. Appropriation and Remixing of Ophelia Images
Section 4. Ophelia in Bath Tubs and Swimming Pools
Section 5. Self-Portraits as Ophelia
Section 6. Fragmentation and Absence: Postmodern Images of Ophelia
Section 7. Some Concluding Thoughts on Ophelia and Web 2.0

Section 8. Principal Video- and Photo-sharing Websites Consulted

[1] Gary Taylor, for example, has argued that Shakespeare's omnipotence is "shrinking,"and that "the number of people attending to Shakespeare, the intensity of their attention, the frequency and complexity of their appropriations, will inevitably diminish" ("Afterword: The Incredible Shrinking Bard," in Shakespeare and Appropriation, edited by Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer [London and New York: Routledge, 1999], 197, 205). Statistically, Taylor may perhaps be correct, but Web 2.0 reveals a huge growth area that has appeared sinceTaylor's rather gloomy prediction.

[2] For a discussion of Shakespeare's presence in blogs, see Erin Presley, "'Ol' Billy Shakes': Shakespeare in the Blogosphere,"Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare Appropriation, 2:2 (Fall/Winter 2006) (http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/cocoon/borrowers/request?id=781466. Accessed 4 January 4, 2010).

[3] Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989).

[4] I have in mind Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995), and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet(1996). See also, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996), Juli Taymor's Titus (1999), Kristian Levring's The King is Alive (2000), Michael Almereyda's Hamlet (2000), Billy Morissette's Scotland, PA (2001), the BBC TV production of four Shakespeare works with the umbrella title ShakespeaRe-Told (2005), and Volfango De Biasi's Iago (2009).

[5] See, for example, Peter S. Donaldson's "Remediation. Hamlet among the Pixelvisionaries: Video Art, Authenticity, and 'Wisdom' in Almereyda's Hamlet" in A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen, edited by Dianne E Henderson (Oxford and Maldon, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 216-37; and Thomas Cartelli and Katherine Rowe's New Wave Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007). See also the multi-faceted discussions of Shakespeare appropriations that inform Desmet and Sawyer's Shakespeare and Appropriation.

[6] For an account of "remediation"-- the adaptation and restructuring by emerging new media of material employing existing media -- see J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000); Cartelli and Rowe, New Wave Shakespeare, 40-41; and Donaldson, "Remediation. Hamlet among the Pixelvisionaries," 216-37.

[7] The three Yahoo image-sharing groups entitled "Ophelia's Pool"contain, for example, 2200 images concerned with Ophelia. The majority have to do with her death (http://groups.yahoo.com/adultconf?dest=/group/OpheliasPool/photos/album/1331793248/pic/list. Accessed January 24, 2010). A search of the DeviantArt site on 21 November 2009 produced 14,796 Ophelia items (3,718 items of photography; 2,579 items of digital art; and 1852 items of traditional art) (http://www.deviantart.com/. Accessed January 24, 2010). Searches of other photo-sharing sites reveal many more. For a list of the principal video- and photo-sharing websites consulted, see the appendix to this essay. The website Wikipedia has a more extensive list of such sites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_photo_sharing_websites (accessed November 24, 2009).

[8] See, for example, http://www.flickr.com/photos/zcn/3809332162/ (accessed January 13, 2010).

[9] http://www.manchestergalleries.org/the-collections/search-the-collection/display.php?EMUSESSID=a71faa74ef7b5c82add00388021e858a&irn=6087 (accessed November 24, 2009). Hughes's painting is now in the ManchesterCity Art Gallery. Like a number of other nineteenth century depictions of Ophelia (see below), Hughes's work is currently often reproduced on video- and image-sharing websites.

[10] See, Cartelli and Rowe, New Wave Shakespeare, 26-7.

[11] http://www.ehow.com/ (accessed November 24, 2009) is a characteristic Web 2.0 site. It offers a platform for those posting advice about how to do things while at the same time offering space for interactive commentary and further suggestions. On dressing as Ophelia, see http://www.ehow.com/how_6954_create-ophelia-costume.html (accessed November 24, 2009).


http://www.ehow.com/how_4513475_recycle-that-used-wedding-gown.html (accessed October 20, 2011). Another posting (since removed) made the suggestion that anyone getting rid of a wedding dress might consider parodying a famous painting is a note to the effect that "Many of the floating in water trash the dress pictures look a lot like 'Ophelia' by Sir John Everett Millais.Though not modelled on Millais, an evocative series of photographs entitled "Ophelia Submerged" by the Canadian photographer Geoectomy employs a wedding dress (http://geoectomy.deviantart.com/#/d4d48r2http://geoectomy.deviantart.com/#/d4d48tkhttp://geoectomy.deviantart.com/art/Imogenetic-Ophelia-71-263897828).

[13] http://www.ehow.com/how_6954_create-ophelia-costume.html (accessed November 24, 2009).

[14] For an admirable summary of the critical thinking on these matters, see Caroline Solomon Kiefer's introductory essay to the catalogue of the exhibition The Myth and Madness of Ophelia, 11-39.

[15]See Section 5 of this essay.