Joseph Severn. Ophelia, c. 1831.

Oil on canvas, approximately 43 x 55 inches. Pre-Raphaelite Trust.

Severn's picture is the silliest realization of a scene from Shakespeare I have seen. Ophelia has bound together sticks and twigs to spell out "Hamlet" and then decorated the letters with a variety of flowers. In her hand she clutches one of the Hamlet's letters, but her expression conveys none of the emotion or the look of madness we see in other paintings on the same subject. Her obvious fixation on Hamlet does, however, unequivocally state that the cause of Ophelia's madness is Hamlet's cruelty rather than her father's death. But the dubious conceit of a mad woman spelling out her lover's name in branches and flowers just before she dies is too great a stretch for the imagination. Are they meant to be the "fantastic garlands" described by Gertrude in Act IV, Scene vii, in her account of Ophelia's death?

Shakespeare was one of Severn's favorite sources for pictures. He also painted Hermia and Helena (1819), several pictures of Ariel from The Tempest, Cordelia at the Bed of Lear (1828), Puck (1836), and in 1840 Portia with the Casket (Christian 177).