Monday, 12 July 2010

Ophelia’s Death - Three Representations

This article will explore issues concerning the representation of the death of the Ophelia character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (i). Using a short introduction of the original representation as a starting point, I will go on to analyse the corresponding scenes or sections in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film adaptation and Matt Haig’s appropriation, the novel The Dead Fathers Club (ii). In this analysis I will venture to examine the intertextual relationships between these and the original. Although one might write extensively on the subject, I will limit the discussion to particularly relevant aspects of each hypertext. All the relevant terms are taken from Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation and the web pages of Yale Film Studies, and I refer to these for the definition of “scene” outside the context of the original play (iii).

The Hypotext – Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In the play, Ophelia’s death is represented indirectly through Gertrude’s account at the end of scene 4.7. However, it is important to recognise how the representation also spans both foreshadows and later references to the character’s death. This essay will only cover these when they are given particular relevance in the hypertexts. Thus, the main focus will be on the section 4.7.163 to the end of the scene.

In this representation, the queen relates to Claudius and Laertes how Ophelia, while decorating a willow with garlands fell with her flowers into a brook and passively lay singing until she drowned. This account contains some ambiguity as to whether Ophelia’s death was suicide or not. In scene 5.1, both clowns and priests seem to think it was and so represents Ophelia’s death as such. This is an ambiguity that appropriators would have to actively engage with.

Since the account of Ophelia’s death is given through plain narration, the symbolism used becomes central in the representation. Throughout the play Ophelia is consistently associated with flowers and those named by Gertrude symbolise either pain (the nettle), loyal love, innocence, the Virgin Mary or beauty (iv). In the same way as the flowers bore significance in scene 4.5, they here represent aspects of Ophelia and her relationship to Polonius and Hamlet. The willow is associated with sorrow weeping, water and mourning. It is a popular image on tombstones and has a similar shape. It was considered unlucky in contemporary folklore and is therefore a potent signifying agent (v).

Title page of the First Quarto
(Source: Cambridge University)

Bearing in mind that water is what kills Ophelia, one might further examine the symbolic meaning of water. The first clown refers to water as an agent of decay, at several instances throughout the play characters weep over the death of other characters, most notably Laertes over Ophelia, and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death has an association to water (vi). Similarly, Old Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius are all killed by some liquid. Water can further signify the forces driving Ophelia to her death, seeing as water envelops her much the same way as the intrigues of Elsinore did. These two meanings are supported by the mention of fish. Hamlet calls Polonius a fishmonger, meaning he treats Ophelia as if he were a fleshmonger, and later identifies fish in the chain of decay after death (vii). Admittedly, the latter link is debated but in the interplay of hypo- and hypertexts awareness of such issues is rewarding as will be shown below.

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Hamlet was to become an iconic hypertext of the play informing several later appropriations, perhaps most notably Branagh’s 1997 film adaptation, but also several appropriations outside Olivier’s genre (viii). When analysing Olivier’s representation of Ophelia’s death, however, it is important to know something of the context of its creation (ix). Olivier was required by his studio, as is often the case with adaptations, to observe some requirements as to the length of the film and he therefore had to make some editorial omissions. This affects his representation of Ophelia’s death in this hypertext.

Olivier's Hamlet

Genre and narrative tools

The Olivier Film is a generic transposition where the original play has been adapted into another dramatic genre. This accounts for some of the differences between hypo- and hypertext. The adapting auteur has to balance his fidelity between his hypotext, his artistic medium and his audience. This might lead him to apply some of the techniques of his medium for the benefit of his audience and use these in his approach to the hypotext. This accounts for a mise-en-scéne and a use of deep focus, low-key lighting and chiaroscuro which is characteristic for film noir, a film subgenre with which Olivier had frequently been associated.

Also, the editing process of film allows for changes in what is represented and how. Whereas Ophelia’s death was represented through Gertrude’s account to Claudius and Laertes in the hypotext it is presented as a long take flashback scene with a voice over in this hypertext. This is a partial inversion of the original; the visual narration takes prominence and at times substitutes the verbal, which was the defining feature of the original narration, lacking in direct visual representation (x). This move can be seen as part of a larger appropriative process of generic transposition. Olivier was embracing the potential of the film medium. In shooting the film, he could emancipate himself from the fixed focus of Elizabethan theatre and represent through techniques such as panning and zooming something that had to be told in the theatre. Also, he could edit the original play by inserting flashbacks and quickly change setting, as was done with this particular scene.

The dramatic situation of the original play limits the availability of narrative tools such as visual flashbacks. Plays are generally tied to a linearity in plot and if events outside this linearity are to be represented on stage other narrative tools must be used. In the Hamlet hypotext, this is done through simple verbal narration (like Gertrude's account of Ophelia's death or the Ghost's of his own) or through the play within the play. The representation of Ophelia’s death in this hypertext, however, employs the flashback as a tool not only for representing a scene in a new and more visual way, but also to comment on and revise our understanding of the original scene and the play itself.

The use of flashback in this scene might hold the answer to a question frequently raised concerning the original scene; how is Gertrude aware of the sequence of events and who were present? The answer seems to be one of generic requirements as the only applicable medium with which to portray Ophelia's death would be speech.

Furthermore, the use of flashback is a comment on the passive role of Ophelia in the hypertext and makes her more visually present in the representation of her own death. Several commentaries have been made with a similar agenda pertaining to the original Hamlet play, most notably by Stoppard (concerning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) but also by Haig (see below) (xi). The choice to visually present this particular segment of the hypotext could also be in recognition of the influence of the visual expressions of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Voice over

In a complex play of intertextuality, the voice over serves as a way of invoking properties of one hypotext while properties of another hypotext is shown, itself a Pre-Raphaelite hypertext of the same hypotext. The narrative voice in the scene can be recognised as that of Gertrude, but no indications are given as to whom might be the audience of her narration. The plot of the hypertext moves directly from the end of scene 4.5 in the hypotext, which features the same characters as the ones concerned with said hypertext scene. Thus, the audience is by the editing choices of Olivier and perhaps by prior knowledge of the play led to believe that Claudius and Laertes are the audience. Additionally, Laertes extended reply to Gertrude’s account, and indeed the remainder of the act, is omitted presumably because it was not considered to fit well with the voice over. Here, one can once more register how the editorial choices of the appropriating agent and the iconicity of the hypotext inform the audience’s understanding of the hypertext.

Voice over is used at several other instances throughout the hypertext as a tool for narrative effect. Many of the soliloquies in the film are presented as voice overs and the combination of voice over and flashback is also frequently used, e.g. to portray the death of Old Hamlet or Hamlet’s brush with the pirates. Compared to the hypotext, the use of voice over retains some of the properties of stage performance but adds to the sensorial impression of the hypertext. Thus the use of voice over approximates the narration for an audience which is used to a medium more applicable for conveying sensory stimuli than the original, but it also underlines the subgenre of film noir with which both Olivier, this adaptation and the narrative tool is traditionally associated (xii).

Mise-en-scéne and the significance of omissions

Concerning the mise-en-scéne of this particular scene, it is important to be aware of not only the original play as a hypotext but also the Pre-Raphaelite legacy as a strong visual indicator for Olivier (xiii). Throughout the flashback the camera shows consecutively the brook, Ophelia floating down the brook singing in a manner reminiscent of painters such as Waterhouse, Hughes and Millais, a floating flower arrangement and finally the brook without Ophelia who, presumably, has drowned. However, it is worth noting that this sequence does not exactly follow the voice over, but it still includes what seem to be the main physical elements of the scene. Also, the circumstances immediately leading up to her entering the water are excluded visually. Whether this is in order to disregard the ambiguities pertaining to the nature of her fall inherent in the hypotext or to retain them is a matter of debate. Later sections, which address the issue in the hypotext, namely the clowns’ section and the funeral scene in act 5, have also largely omitted any mention of these ambiguities (xiv). The motives for this exclusion can be due to perceptions of a lack of consequence and centrality of the scene. Alternatively, the assumption that the ambiguity would be one familiar to the audience anyway could have been guiding. As a matter pertaining to Olivier's intentions, this discussion is arguably irrelevant (see Wimsatt and Beardsley (xv)). However, it is intrinsic to the hypertext and the tripartite relationship between this, the hypotext and the audience. Thus an awareness of such issues is central to our understanding of the relationship of a hypertext to a hypotext.

Similarly, the actual drowning is also omitted and substituted for a shot of the flowers which play an important associative role in relation to Ophelia in both hypo- and hypertext and are discussed below. Her death is rather shown through a combination of water and flowers, for Ophelia exits the frame and is replaced by flowers and as the camera moves on, following her, only a stretch of remarkably still water is shown. The diegetic representation of both her fall and her drowning in an offscreen space could also be seen as a "fidelity in the infidelity" to the hypotext; it somewhat echoes the narrative properties of the original play.


Throughout the hypertext as a whole, realism seems to be secondary to symbolism e.g. with Elsinore represented more as a mindscape than a realistic castle, and in the hypotext the imagery of water, plants and flowers was especially prominent in relation to Ophelia (xvi). This is also, albeit with a few moderations, true of the hypertext.

The willow, a powerful symbol from the hypotext, visually frames the account of Ophelia falling in the water and drowning. The willow in itself played an instrumental role in the original play, but as Ophelia is not shown to be in contact with the tree one must assume that the willow is present for its symbolic and associative value. Interestingly, the hanging twigs of the willow covers the inverted space of the shape of a tombstone for the better part of the scene further emphasising its symbolic aspect.

The flowers surrounding Ophelia and immediately following her downstream like a funerary arrangement are not easily identified. However, through the voice over monologue the audience is led to believe that they are the flowers mentioned. Thus, with the flowers visually representing Ophelia's death, directly following her being alive and preceding her drowning, the centrality of floral symbolism is retained from hypotext to hypertext. Bearing in mind that scene 4.5 in the hypotext is shown directly preceding the representation of Ophelia’s death in the hypertext the symbolic meaning of each flower, so central to that scene, remains so in this representation. The omission of Gertrude's notes on the long purples, particularly on the meaning-laden name "dead men's fingers", might be because the reference to Polonius, any motivation for suicide or the added botanical information seemed unnecessary in a scene with added visual symbolism. This also seems natural given Olivier’s editorial situation.

The properties of the water could act as a commentary on Ophelia’s role in the hypotext. Only fleetingly described in the original, the nature of the brook gains some significance in a visual representation. The water is remarkably still, even Ophelia's impact barely ripples the surface, raising doubts as to how controlled her descent was and thus furthering some of the ambiguity of the original (xvii). Then, the current of the brook becomes central as a contrast to Ophelia's inactivity. The current controls Ophelia and in this way becomes symbolic not only of her death but also of the causes of it, i.e. the forces in the play for which Ophelia is a pawn. This, combined with the above mentioned sudden replacement of Ophelia with a calm stretch of water seems to foreshadow the underrepresentation in the following scenes, comment on her role in the original play and also echo the definite tagline of the play; "the rest is silence" (xviii).

The motif of water in relation to death therefore is present, but seems strangely underrepresented compared with the hypotext. Although many of the foreshadowing associations mentioned in the original are present in the hypertext, Laertes’ response to Gertrude's account is omitted, the clown's thoughts on death and water at the beginning of act 5 are also excluded and only the image of water as an agent of decay is retained (xix). This serves to undermine the role of Ophelia by limiting the references to her originally prompted in the hypotext. Whether this is done due to editorial concerns, which is an aspect of the generic transposition, or acts as a commentary on the expedient role of Ophelia is beyond the spatial scope of this essay. What is certain, though, is that despite omissions Olivier’s film shows closer links to the hypotext than the next hypertext: Matt Haig’s novel.

Matt Haig’s The Dead Fathers Club

Matt Haig’s novel is an appropriation of the hypotext. It is a complex transposition, most notably in genre, setting and perspective. The characters are similar and the plot of the hypertext mirrors that of the hypotext relatively closely. However, they deviate decisively when the reader reaches the section corresponding to the Representation of Ophelia’s death in the original (xx).


The Deviation

In this hypertext the Ophelia character clearly tries to commit suicide, but survives. While Ophelia’s death is described as a solitary event on her part in the hypotext, it is far from so in the hypertext. An issue mentioned earlier was that of who were present and why Ophelia was not saved but in this section Haig offers another answer than that given by Olivier by rewriting the original sequence altogether. The appropriated Ophelia, Hamlet, Ghost and Claudius are all present as Leah, Philip, the ghost of Philip’s father and Uncle Alan and Philip and Alan ultimately saves Leah who tries to commit suicide by hurling herself off a weir. This is not as much an interpolation as a consistent deviation from the hypotext or in layman’s terms; an alternative ending. However, the drowning is retained by having Uncle Alan drown.

By having several characters present in this section, Haig is able to comment more directly on characters and their relationships in the hypotext. When faced with a suicidal Leah Philip recognises that he is to blame, something which seems far distant from Hamlet’s mind in the funeral scene (xxi). Furthermore, when having jumped in after Leah, he partly experiences the drowning of the hypotext Ophelia but where Ophelia both in the hypotext and in Olivier’s hypertext seemed strangely passive, Philip kicks off his shoes and presents a diametrically opposite alternative (xxii). This fits in well with Haig’s alternative plot. Uncle Alan whose middle name is Peter is also present, fishing (xxiii). Throughout the hypertext it is unclear whether Alan really is a bad person, as most of his actions are ambiguous. When he is the one who ultimately saves both Philip and Leah, the image of the appropriated Claudius proves to be a distorted product of the appropriated Hamlet’s mind . Without actually redeeming Claudius, Haig comments on the one-sided depiction of him and the disruptive effect of Hamlet’s mind (xxiv). However, the reader is left guessing as Alan suggestively and suddenly appears to see the ghost, precipitating his drowning but in the process having his hands washed clean (xxv).

Furthermore, other scenes from the hypotext are represented in this suicide-section. Leah has the words “dead” and “gone” written in blood on her arms before jumping. This, coupled with her earlier singing, echoes scene 4.5 in the hypotext (xxvi). Philip confronts the persistent ghost of his father, who is responsible for upsetting the situation as in the play, and then defies him by jumping after Leah. This is reminiscent not only of his doubts of the authenticity of the ghost throughout the play, but also of his resolve from scene 5.2 onwards. Philip’s decision to defy the Ghost is also indicative of Haig’s decision to defy the hypotext. Bearing in mind the symbolic value of water, also present in this hypertext, Philip’s jump mimics Hamlet’s entering Ophelia’s grave for a scuffle in scene 5.1 (xxvii). In general, Haig seems to react to the excessively tragic ending of the hypotext by merging and editing the extended last act into one section including Leah’s attempted suicide and its aftermath.

Narration and genre

In the hypotext, the account of Ophelia’s death was narrated by Gertrude. In Olivier’s hypertext the narration was done through visual means and recitation. As mentioned above, the narration in this hypertext sets it distinctly apart from both.

The narrative situation of the hypotext is briefly alluded to when the Laertes of the novel, Dane, breaks the news to Philip and his mother Carol that “she [Leah] is gone” and asks “where” (xxviii). However, one of the generic properties of a novel is a prominent narrator, often more so than in drama. Therefore, as Philip is the narrator, he intrudes on the sequence like Hamlet intruded on Ophelia's funeral. Whereas in the hypotext Ophelia's death in every practical sense was kept separate from the Hamlet character, in the hypertext the appropriated Hamlet must have an active or at least influential part because he is the narrator. In the play, however, this could be avoided by transferring the narrative voice to Gertrude. Also, through the transgeneric process of transposition Haig can emancipate himself from the confinements of dramatic narration, most notably the audience’s need for immediate appeal and stimulation. Where the hypotext had to be brief and the Olivier hypertext had to be visually appealing, the novelist is able to extend his narration, include whichever elements he wants and structure the narration freely due to this (xxix). It is of course also a question of the communicative medium employed; where dramatic forms of art communicate through sound and images, novels do so through text.

The proximated language of the narration yields more links to the hypotext. The language used is that of the 11-year-old protagonist which entails capital lettering and text size for emphasis, lack of punctuation and playful arrangement of words on the page. Throughout the relevant section, language plays an important part. At the climax of the section, which arguably is the climax of the novel, the narrator switches from past to present tense and for the duration of the climax uses minimal punctuation (xxx). This is similar to Olivier’s use of the potential techniques of his medium for effect. It also works as a comment on what in the receptive context of the novel must seem like an archaic form of English in the hypotext and argues a certain immaturity in the original Hamlet character.

Furthermore, the formulations of the associations made by this pre-adolescent mirror elements from the hypotext. Leah is described as “an animal that might climb trees”, the motif of the bestial and grotesque as well as the morbidity of the clowns from the hypotext are noted through the formulations on blood and insects and his child-like comparison of himself to Spiderman reflects Hamlet’s notions of the Ghost and the association between him and gods (xxxi). Also, formulations like “my words got drowned” mimic the wordplay of the hypotext (xxxii).


While the floral symbolism, so prominent in the hypotext and the Olivier hypertext, is largely absent in this, the imagery of water, fish and death is more prominent. The willow is exchanged for a weir which nicely incorporates many of the actual and symbolic properties of the willow and is a proximation probably more easily recognisable for the modern reader. The current beneath the weir is the main agent of death exhibiting many of the same qualities as in Olivier’s film but much more prominently and extensively. This may again have to do with the generic and dimensional properties of the original scene and the appropriation. In the water, Leah initially seems very passive, as in the hypotext, but Philip’s intervention makes her spring into action (xxxiii). If the water and the current symbolises the destructive forces affecting Leah this comments on Ophelia’s basic submissive and unassertive role in the hypotext.

The fish imagery is also highly present in the section. An often evoked image in the hypertext, the aquatic creature symbolises and at times foreshadows death (xxxiv). This is due to the habitats of the characters and the fish; both die if they enter the other’s. Thus, when Philip feels a fish brush is face and sees his disadvantage the fish is an symbol and a harbinger of death (xxxv). Alan acts as a figure of transition; moving Philip and Leah into their element but dying in the process symbolically represented as a fish on land (xxxvi).


Both the adaptation and the appropriation were generic transpositions of the hypotext. This has been fundamental in their versions of Ophelia’s death as each genre offers alternative tools for narration to the hypotext. In Olivier’s film the visual representation and the use of flashback with voiceover gave the scene a distinctly different outlook and the novel’s potential for narrative technique and extent proved beneficial for Haig. While the latter uses the death of Ophelia to more actively engage with the hypotext both can be seen to comment on Ophelia’s role in the entire hypotext through their versions of her death. Whether retaining or closing gaps of ambiguity or appropriating the original scene artistically or realistically, both in some way engage with her originally passive unassertiveness.

With a hypotext representation so heavily dependent on linguistic imagery, Gertrude’s account being rather short, it is interesting to see how symbolism is retained or abandoned and to study how it evokes and modifies the original account. Why is the water important and not the flowers in Haig’s appropriation and would Olivier’s representation have been the same without the flowers?

How the representations of Ophelia’s death inform our view of the character, how appropriations engage with the iconicity of each of the representation’s constituents and also how Ophelia’s madness is represented in the original and appropriations are fertile grounds for further analysis. Also, the role of the subplot of Ophelia’s life, death and relations in relation to the main plot and the Hamlet character as represented in appropriations could also prove a good basis for a work much more extensive than this. What is certain is that the complexity of the character and the ambiguities surrounding her death will continue to engage scholars and appropriators alike in the times to come

i. William Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. by Philip Edwards, 2nd edn, Cambridge 2003
ii. Laurence Olivier: Hamlet, [1948] (DVD), Matt Haig: The Dead Fathers Club, London 2007
iii. Julie Sanders: Adaptation and Appropriation, London 2006, The Yale Film Studies web pages:, last visited 07.06.2010
iv. Rowena Shepherd 1000 symbols, London 2002, Texas A&M University’s web page:, last visited 07.06.2010. Also, Tate Gallery has a very informative and relevant page on the floral symbolism in Millais’ painting of Ophelia:, last visited 07.06.2010
v. Shepherd 2002. The willow was a popular symbol for Shakespeare; it also appears in Othello and Twelfth Night.
vi. Shakespeare 2003: 5.1.145, 4.5.185-189, 5.2.12-62
vii. Ibid: 2.2.172, 4.3.19-29
viii. Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet, [1997] (DVD)
ix. Unless otherwise stated, the scene discussed will be Olivier 1948: 1:49:42-1:51:05
x. Branagh (1997) in this respect keeps closer to the hypotext with stage directions more or less as indicated in the play with only a minor shot of Ophelia submerged at the end of the scene.
xi. Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, London 1968
xii. The Yale Film Studies web pages, last visited 07.06.2010
xiii. See Elaine Showalter: Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism in William Shakespeare: "Hamlet", ed. Wofford, Susanne, New York 1994, pp.220-240
xv. Olivier 1948: 1:51.06- 1:59:37
xv. Monroe C. Beardsley The Intentional Fallacy in Vincent B. Leitch et al (eds): The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, New York 2001, pp. 1374-1387
xvi. See Elaine Showalter (1994) for more on this symbolism
xvii. As a curiosity, one might notice how the scene has been edited by initially playing the tape forwards and backwards to match Ophelia’s appearance with the monologue. This can particularly be seen in the direction of the ripples of water.
xviii. Shakespeare 2003: 5.2.337
xix. Olivier 1948: 1.43.32
xx. Haig 2007: 281-295
xxi. Haig 2007: 286, Shakespeare 2003: 5.1
xxii. Haig 2007: 289
xxiii. The biblical Peter was a fisherman.
xxiv. Haig 2007: 292-294
xxv. Ibid: 294, 312
xxvi. Shakespeare 2003: 4.5.29, Leah’s song in Haig 2007: 273
xxvii. Note that this is according to an early dramatic custom based on Q1. A short text on this can be found in the footnote to the appropriate line on p. 235 in the cited Hamlet edition.
xxviii. Haig 2007: 281, Shakespeare 2003: 4.7.164-165
xxix. A very good publication on this is Clayton Hamilton: Materials and Methods of Fiction, New York 1911, 95-102.
xxx. Haig 2007: 291 onwards
xxxi. Ibid: 273, 286-287, 291 (the comparison to gods can be found from Shakespeare 2003: 3.4.55 onwards)
xxxii. Haig 2007: 286
xxxiii. Ibid: 289
xxxiv. This image is established as early as Haig 2007: 14.
xxxv. Ibid: 291-292
xxxvi. Ibid: 310


Beardsley, Monroe C. The Intentional Fallacy in Leitch, Vincent B. et al (eds): The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, New York 2001, pp. 1374-1387

Haig, Matt: The Dead Fathers Club, London 2007

Hamilton, Clayton: Materials and Methods of Fiction, New York 1911, also available on, last visited 07.06.2010

Sanders, Julie: Adaptation and Appropriation, London 2006

Shakespeare, William: Hamlet, ed. by Pilip Edwards, 2nd edn, Cambridge 2003

Shepherd, Rowena 1000 symbols, London 2002

Showalter, Elaine: Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism in Shakespeare, William: "Hamlet", ed. Susanne Wofford, New York 1994, pp. 220-240

Stoppard, Tom: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, London 1968

Branagh, Kenneth: Hamlet, [1997] (DVD)

Olivier, Laurence: Hamlet, [1948] (DVD)

Web pages
Tate Gallery’s web page:, last visited 07.06.2010

Texas A&M University’s web page:, last visited 07.06.2010

The Yale Film Studies web pages:, last visited 07.06.2010

(Original article written for the course ENG3243, 05.06.2010)