The character of Ophelia has been long debated: her role in the Shakespearean play is quite marginal, yet full of meaning. With the passing of time, she became a more and more important character, worth being examined and described in many other novels. This was the beginning of Ophelia's afterlives, her story being told -and sometimes reinvented- from different points of view and described with cognizance and attention to her feelings. This essay will analyse how the figure of Ophelia evolves in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius and in Graham Holderness’s The Prince of Denmark. In particular, it will examine how these texts convey some of the main differences regarding her character, always connected to a deep symbolism: her physical description, her personality and her madness and death.
First of all, in these three masterpieces, Ophelia's physical description is quite corresponding and always associated with the colour white, even though this connection has different undertones. On stage and between the pages of those two novels, she is immediately related to the most delicate, brightest and purest colour. Furthermore, she is usually described by the adjectives “fair” and “white”, largely used in particular by Holderness. Evidently, being Gertrude and Claudius a prequel and The Prince of Denmark a sequel of the Shakespearean play, the reader can imagine her age to be slightly different, but no signs of these changes can be found in the texts. This could be a proof of how everlasting her beauty is, not touched by the passing of time.
In the play, her "virginal and vacant white" creates a striking contrast between Hamlet's "nighted colour" , his “solemn black" . Shakespeare's Hamlet also defines her “the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia” , and Holderness quotes him putting the exact same words into his Hamlet's mouth . However, her physical description is never detailed.
In Updike's book, she is a flower blossoming in Elsinore. She is in her prime, just seventeen, and “she has become a beauty, with a sweet and impish wit, though still shy, as a maiden should be” . She is described through the Queen’s eyes, as a gorgeous girl characterized by “a luminous beauty” , even though her fairness could not be linked to chastity anymore –or, at least, this is what Gertrude starts to suspect during their encounter-. Gertrude, in fact, states that “there was something about this fey beauty in her gossamer dress that smelled not quite right, a touch polluted” .
Nonetheless, Holderness insists on her physical description more than Shakespeare or Updike. Even though the original Ophelia, namely the Shakespearean one, is supposed to be pure and chaste, in Holderness there is an original twist in the story that leaves nothing improper untold. Her body, still described as “white”, “pale” and “fair” is strangely, but not so unexpectedly, connected to lust and sin. In fact, “her body suggested with every...