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Ophelia - death by water

One of the most tragic and haunting images from Shakespeare plays that you ever read would be that of Ophelia lying drowned in the still water. She lay in the glassy stream weighed down by the viscous gravity of her tunic, unable to wade through the whirlpool of worldly woes. An image that is so earthy, erotic, deathly and saintly gleaned effortlessly from Gertrude’s soliloquy (from Act 4 Scene 7):

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

She is the alter life of Hamlet and a possibility of the other side of the reluctant nihilist. She died opening her arms and gazing upwards as if she sought redemption for the lives ravaged by revenges. The flowers floating about the stream and leaning on the bank garlanded the shining body of Ophelia. The symbol of death by water has never looked as enchanting anywhere in literature ever.

Water symbolizes the cauldron where human propensities for passion, envy, love, hate and revenge submerge, drown and flow far and wide into a timeless insignificance. Hamlet’s spiritual agony and his quarrel with the ghost of his father (an archetype for mankind’s alter ego and hunger for legacy that go beyond physical death), preponderances on existential values and the eventual gory end inexorably gravitate towards the lyrical and unforgettable image of Ophelia’s death by water.

In the world of Nietzsche, triumphs were nothing but a series of fratricides where Claudius kills his brother, King Hamlet; Hamlet kills his school mates and Ophelia’s brother Laertus. Nietzsche marked the similarities between his Dionysian man and Hamlet as those who have a real glimpse of the essence of things:

“They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their actions can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that it is expected of them that they should set right a world turned upside down. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion.”

“In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia. It disgusts him.”

Nietzsche held out a remedy for this.

“Here the will is in the highest danger. Thus, to be saved, it comes close to the healing magician, art. Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs, which permit living to continue.”

The madness that Hamlet dallied with takes a grandiloquent expression in Ophelia’s death by water. Though she appears only for brief period in the play, the torments and fragility of Ophelia are the perpetual source for art and redemption.


The metaphor of Ophelia also provided a psychoanalytical artifact to analyze and represent adolescent girls’ state of mind for right or wrong reasons.

T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land which has a well known section titled Death by Water. Nonchalantly it points to the Upanishad-ic references of elemental water carrying death even in the throes of regeneration.

Nietzche Text.


Ubermensch said…
Beautifully assorted, had me mulling for a minute. Nothing like water.Nothing.
Thanks for the above.
Rajesh said…
S, Yeah it was but an assorted set of thoughts on Ophelia. Doesn't it impact a reader's imagination so much more than a visual and complementing it at the same time?

Exactly. Nothing like water. Thanks dude.

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