Benjamin West. Ophelia.

This is one of the engravings from Boydell's Shakespeare Prints. The caption reads, "XLV. ACT IV, SCENE V. Elsineur. King, Queen, Laertes, Ophelia, &c. Painted by B. West, President of the Royal Academy. Engraved by F. Legat." The original painting by Benjamin West was bought by a Mr. Felton in 1805 and shipped to America to be exhibited at the museum in Philadelphia, but the whereabouts of the canvas is now unknown. West was unhappy with the Boydell engraving by Legat and felt it was stilted and did not adequately capture the motion and spirit of his original (Friedman 151-2).

Altick quotes the reviewer for the Examiner (1808), who describes Ophelia in the original canvas as "robed in white; her flaxen locks hang in loose disorder over her forehead and down to her waist; with her left hand extended she carelessly strews around the rue and thyme; her eyes exhibit a wandering mind and delicious indecisiveness, yet she is gentle; rage makes no part of her character." This description, Altick adds, "could have served for almost any of the Ophelias to be painted in the next hundred years" (299). In a sense he is right: the crown of flowers and the white dress, influenced by theatrical performances, are fixed elements in the depiction of Ophelia. We shall see, however, that erotic elements will be introduced into the tradition before too long. Granting that the engraving may deviate from the original painting, I see more despair in the staring eyes and a disordered abandonment in the casual gown, the bare feet and the spilling flowers. Notable too are the reactions of Claudius and Gertrude, so obviously disconcerted by the crazed girl they see before them.