The character of Ophelia has fascinated directors, actresses, writers and painters since she first appeared on stage.
It is impossible to reconstruct Ophelia’s biography from the text.
According to the critic Lee Edwards, ‘we can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet’.
Yet Ophelia is the most represented of Shakespeare’s heroines in painting, literature and popular culture.
Over the past 400 years, she has moved from the margins to the centre of post-Shakespearean discourse, increasingly becoming a female counterpart to Hamlet as a portrait of conflict and stress.
Her role was sentimentalised, and often assigned to a singer rather than an actress.
But the 19th-century Romantics, especially in France, embraced the madness and sexuality of Ophelia that the Augustans denied.
When Charles Kemble made his Paris debut as Hamlet with an English troupe in 1827, his Ophelia was a young Irish ingénue named Harriet Smithson.
In the mad scene, she entered in a long black veil, suggesting the standard imagery of female sexual mystery in the Gothic novel, with scattered bedlamish wisps of straw in her hair.
In recent years, she has become a strong feminist heroine, even surviving Hamlet in some fictional versions of the story, to lead a life of her own.