One thing that is often lost in translation is how Shakespeare created the heroine Ophelia as a road map for the manic pixie dream girl complex in our culture. Ophelia walked so that Tara from Tamasha could run. More often than not, this eternal assistance to the hero’s narratives is also portrayed as the all-consumable muse—a trope that’s been overdone but has finally come close to its expiry date.
The word Ophelia means “to offer”—Ophelia was an eternal lover who is used as a metaphor for being a fool in love, often neglecting her conviction and individual story. In the initial readings of Hamlet, one may not strike a lot of complexities in her persona. Even the gendered lens of understanding Hamlet has also seen her as one-dimensional.
Ophelia was Hamlet’s girlfriend who was forced to choose between her toxic boyfriend and her strict idealistic father. Her boyfriend had madness that the culture suggests had a method in it, and her father’s expectations of her are read as the product of their time. She was forced to choose between her love for Hamlet and her duty as a daughter.
These two polarising men and their behaviour towards her quite literally drove her to madness, and yet her depiction in five scenes of Hamlet is merely seen as a tragic story of a young girl who is either infantilised or sexualised, but most of all, her conviction for love for pleasure is often overshadowed by fetishising her picturesque death.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.”
Ophelia’s story is eminent to Hamlet, but she does not exist without him; she exists to serve the ideals of men and, in failing that, has to pay the price with her sanity and then her life. Her grave is what the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stands on.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia, contrary to popular belief, is not a feminist icon. It has been suggested that Ophelia giving up her life was a way to stand up to the unjust patriarchal standards that she didn’t want to live up to. I have read Hamlet more than any play I have ever read, and I think this vapid feminist reading of her character takes away responsibility from the people who gaslit her, slut shamed her, and oppressed her.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia paved the way for another version of Ophelia, which we can understand through an artist, poet, and model by the name of Elizabeth Elenor Siddal.
During the Victorian age, there were a couple of artists who went by the name of pre-raphaelites, they believed that art should be depicted how it is as opposed to the Raphelian understanding of art which heavily relies on grandeur. One of the most talked-about artworks of this era is the portrayal of Ophelia by John Everett Millais, the model immortalised in the painting is Elizabeth Siddal. She was a vibrant young woman who was an artist and a poet too. Critics often compare her life with Ophelia. She had become the obsession and muse of another pre-raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who consumed her not just through his work but also through his flawed love.
The relationship began as an all-consuming affair where it seemed like both of them inspired each other to create more art, however, Rossetti started to cheat on her and she began using a drug called Laudanum. Rossetti also had trouble committing to the institution of marriage due to Siddals societal status.
Eventually, when they did marry, it didn’t last for long, Siddal was often sick, and after giving birth to a stillborn daughter, still struggling with her lover’s infidelity, she succumbed to suicide. It is said that when Rossetti found her, he was consumed with guilt, and he went to Ford Madox Brown with her note, and he instructed him to destroy it since it was illegal and considered immoral at the time. Her death was ruled as an accident, and that’s how her life and death showed exhausting parallels to Ophelia—a little problem there, though.
It is unfair to see Siddals story through the lens of Ophelia; she was an artist and a poet herself. Her work suggests to viewers of her complexities more than the point of view of her lover or of critics who view her as another fool in love. Ophelia and Siddal were not mere fools in love; they were victims of their conviction. This conviction to love so deeply, just because their counterparts can’t do it, does not make it any less important.
This conviction is only infantilised for women, their insanity is never justified, and they live in the pages of history as the “mad woman” who wished for unattainable love. This interpretation doesn’t even bother to step back and see these characters as a whole. Their madness, however, is always seen as either a fragile choice or is given the pedestal of martyrdom.
Ophelia had no business being burdened by the men in her life at such a young age whereas Siddal was a brilliant artist and poet whose potential and youth were wasted away for love on a man who used up a young woman’s potential only to neglect and mistreat her. Yet Siddal is the immortalised muse for so many—this patriarchal notion of muse for women is why we have so many Imtiaz Ali films that have no understanding of the female character beyond her contribution to the protagonist’s story.
The manic pixie dream girl is a testament to our society failing Ophelia and then Siddal. These trappings of a woman’s passion for the sake of art and a man’s story arch have caged women, and yet somehow, the narrative of a muse is sold as a romantic.
Our culture puts the idea of a muse as the stepping stone for an artist’s self-actualisation. No one bothers to ask writers and artists what good is your inspiration if it’s sucking a woman dry of her potential and life. Or what happens to your muse once you have your art? Is your muse allowed to have human traits, or this made-up version is the only version that you are willing to see and accept?
I also want to shine a light on the fact that a woman’s conviction for love is often seen as her only conviction—this isn’t the case for men. They have to have a second plot, a dilemma, a conflict that comes in between their conviction for love, but when it comes to stories of Siddal, we rarely see her postpartum depression or her battle with addiction to make sense of her story.
Ophelia and Siddal had dilemmas and grief that they were fighting, so to see their stories as fragile women succumbing to love only to be called a martyr for it is both unfair and inaccurate. Tara’s and Annie Hall’s are just the modern consequences of this failing troupe, the blatant assistance to narratives of men has been a vapid trait of these characters but if we think about it, separating most of these women’s stories from the men in their life makes for a far more enriching and entertaining experience than to keep watching an exciting woman playing a saviour or a muse to a seemingly mediocre creator that needs to exploit someone else’s experience to create.
Women writers have their lived experiences as their muse, in love, in grief, in passion. How come womanhood is enough? Not to miss queer writers and the perusal of their muse, which is often being navigated through secrets and longing. No young woman should aspire to be a muse, but more importantly, no writer or artist should have dependency on a lazy idea of a woman to create art, especially when this idea doesn’t even bother to see them. Here we can learn from the pre-raphaelite movement.
The brilliance of art is not dependent on Raphael-like grandeur. We must see all the details, flaws and all. There is a reason why a lot of films with manic pixie girls will fail the test of time, and that’s because modern-day cinema and art have started to see how brilliant the spin-off season of Ophelia, Siddal and Tara could look.
Sweet, never weep for what cannot be,
For this God has not given.
If the merest dream of love were true
Then, sweet, we should be in heaven,
And this is only earth, my dear,
Where true love is not given.
- Elizabeth Siddal, Dead Love.
“Oh, Ophelia Heaven help a fool who falls in love“— most modern artists depict Ophelia like this Lumineers song has. The only fair depiction of her so far has been through Arshia’s character and song Do Jahan in Haider. The song offers an understanding of her psyche and how her love had torn her into worlds. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ophelia is probably the only one whose story can be imagined without Haider’s bloodthirsty journey of seeking vengeance and justice.
I don’t know a single woman yet who cannot relate to giving in too much too soon for a toxic relationship but to see any woman only through that depicted flaw does a great disservice to our lens and to her voice. I see Ophelia, Siddals, and manic pixie dream girls as the protagonists who may or may not see a way out of all-consuming love, but I do acknowledge that their stories are not limited to their grandeur-Esque commitment to love.
Also read: Book Review: Medical Muses By Asti Hustvedt
These women have been and will continue to be so much more than mad women who destroyed themselves in love. Like Elaine Showalter says, “Ophelia has become a heroine. Plot devices of pretended madness, feigned death, and amazing rescue has allowed her to survive the trauma of dating Hamlet, and to choose her path. Ophelia may have no usable past, but she has an infinite future”.
Featured image source: Classic FM