Viewing Ophelia

Parisa Zangeneh writes about seeing Ophelia, a film about the female character in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet


Viewing the 2018 film Ophelia during lockdown was an intense and emotional experience. It was also a highly visually stimulating experience, as the film contains many visual gems, including a reference at the beginning to Sir John Everett Millais’ painting.

The film depicts the story of Ophelia, a female character in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, prince of Denmark.

Hamlet occupies a unique space in popular culture and English-language education. Millions of students around the world spend hours attempting to master the play in high school and/or university, and understanding the language presents a veritable challenge to readers at any stage of their education.

One of the advantages of a modern film interpretation is making the themes and concepts in the plot more accessible to a wider audience. In the case of Ophelia, however, the film is based on the novel by Lisa Klein, which is itself a re-telling of Hamlet through the lens of reimagining Ophelia’s life. In this case, the film allows the reimagining of Ophelia to be amplified.

While the play focuses on Hamlet as he seeks to avenge his father’s death, the film is devoted to Ophelia, his love interest. The film portrays Ophelia as a strong woman with an independent mind. She thinks for herself and acts on her own decisions. Interestingly, she chooses to devote herself to Hamlet after they fall in love. In a sense, if the film can be characterized as a feminist re-telling of Hamlet, it is in the depiction of the female characters as strong people trapped and limited - not just by the system in which they live, but by the characters, namely Claudius, who brutalize them and use the women for their own purposes. The film is less about female solidarity than about depicting women as people who display strength through the many tragedies that they encounter during their lives.

Naomi Watts plays both Queen Gertrude and her sister, Mechtild. Queen Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother, who is the wife of the deceased King Harold, and becomes the wife of his brother/murderer, Claudius. Mechtild is woman with knowledge of plants and potions, whose knowledge contributes to the death of King Hamlet - as well as Ophelia’s survival.

The film reveals the intimate nature of Claudius’ relationship with both Mechtild and Gertrude as well as his role in the extinguishing of their lives. Watts’ casting as both Gertrude and Mechtild provides an interesting opportunity to show the duality of the sisters’ fates reflected through the image of the same face occupying both characters.

Queen Gertrude spends her life reigning over Denmark, while her sister Mechtild spends hers in reclusion making poisons and other concoctions. However, Queen Gertrude’s downfall comes about because of her association with Claudius, as does Mechtild’s. The duality and dynamism of the sisters’ associations and sorrows that result from being mixed up with Claudius is definitely something that could have been teased out more from the perspective of highlighting the vulnerability to brutality at the systemic and individual level, which is perpetrated by a powerful, amoral man.

Mechtild, Gertrude, and Ophelia’s lives are all indelibly shaped by the forces of patriarchy, brutality against women, and the fleeting nature of fortune. Yet all three share qualities that allow them to exercise some degree of autonomy in the situations in which they find themselves. Mechtild uses her knowledge of plants to make potions that saves her life and also saves Ophelia’s life. Ophelia makes the choice to use her knowledge and wits to feign insanity and to escape from danger, and Gertrude also uses her knowledge, wits, and individual autonomy to change the direction of the course of events at crucial moments.

The significance of amplifying the character of Ophelia in the present climate of deep political division regarding women’s rights cannot be understated. Portraying the stories of women who suffer yet remain strong due to involvement in high politics is an incredibly strong counternarrative to the public displays of blatant misogyny that have been centerfold in American politics over the past several years.

Ophelia is not a feminist retelling of Hamlet designed to portray the characters in a contemporary understanding of what feminist characters would look like or how feminist characters would act in Shakespeare’s portrait of medieval Denmark. Rather, it allows the characters to display their own individualism and personal attributes that make them actors rather than wallflowers in the plot of one of the greatest plays in the English literary canon.