One of my good friends loves art in the way I do – she becomes emotionally attached to it and it informs her own creative process and writing. One such piece is Ophelia – Millais. She loves it. We had dinner last week with two other friends and I had such a violent reaction to her raptures it led to an interesting discussion. She and one other emphasising how beautiful it is with the other side of the table not disputing the beauty but saying it’s also really, really horrible.
I just can’t bear this fetishising of death. Ophelia is not a lost love-lorn princess asleep in a river – she is a person who made the choice, the final choice to kill herself in a horrible way. Her death is not about flowers floating in dark water, it’s about sinking away from the light. It is such classical male gaze – to take a decision made by a girl and strip it of any meaning beyond aesthetics. I actually didn’t realised how angry about this until a) I wrote Ophelia and b) how surprised everyone was to my visceral disgust at seeing a postcard.
Ophelia In Souliloquy deals with this directly. She is at once accepting and embracing the she has chosen and also quietly furious at how it has been memorialised.
She doesn’t care if we do not understand why, but there is a why far beyond the absence we get in the play and the famous images of her death that litter our art history. In truth the images of her lying back forever half submerged make her skin crawl. Ophelia is honest, she does not care for beauty.
As you watch this performance, watch the lovely and talented Lilian Schiffer work her way through the shifts in the text as she rises above her grave. At some key moments her eyes focus on you watching and she won’t let you look away. Don’t paint over her pain, she says – I am far more than written. Listen to what I am saying and hear my grief, my anger, my despair and finally my salvation.
I think as artists we have responsibilities to engage with what has come before. There is no doubt that Hamlet is an incredible piece of writing and that Millais’ Ophelia is an exquisite rendering of a pre-Raphelite aesthetic – but think on this. The girl whose death is reduced to how it effects another and is only remembered as beauty? The female voice is so often removed or silenced from history. Ophelia is so much more than that. We are all more than that.
Perhaps one of the most important gifts we have as writers is that we can give others a voice. Think of how much richer our understanding can become by listening.