Song Writing

The Evolution of "Ophelia"

by Amanda Flinner

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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the distraught prince returns home to Denmark to mourn his father and finds himself on a bloody quest to avenge his murder. But we're not here to talk about him.

For every bad boy, there's a good girl who thinks she can change him. For Hamlet, that's Ophelia. She becomes a victim of unrequited love when the object of her affection spurns her and murders her father. Driven out of her mind by grief, Ophelia unravels in front of the royals and is later found dead in a nearby brook.

Ophelia has been a popular subject with artists for centuries. John Everett Millais's 1852 painting famously captures her in quiet repose, sinking to her death among fallen flowers. On stage and screen, actresses have fleshed out the nuances of her character with conflicting interpretations. On stage, her mad scene has been both chaotic and dignified. On film, Helena Bonham Carter is a childlike waif opposite Mel Gibson's Hamlet, while Kate Winslet is a headstrong woman alongside Kenneth Branagh. Then, there's the Ophelia of song.

From Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos to the Band and the Lumineers, we look at four songs that evoke Shakespeare's tragic ingénue.
"Ophelia" by Natalie Merchant
1998

Ophelia is Natalie Merchant's second solo album after her departure as lead singer from 10,000 Maniacs. Through a collection of songs named for a troubled girl, she was trying to convey a message of hope to her young fans. She told Charlie Rose:

"I want to express my empathy and my understanding that life is confusing; the influences that affect their lives can be contradictory and that there's a lot of cruelty in the world, but they have to, rather than respond in kind to that cruelty with more cruelty, respond with patience and perseverance, and work towards a more just and humane world."

Shakespeare's Ophelia could've used a friend like her. In the title track, we catch glimpses of Hamlet's doomed damsel through the lives of different women throughout history, women who are unapologetic for embracing their identities outside of the confines of tradition.

In the accompanying 22-minute short film, Merchant portrays each character and gives us insight into their varied lives: A nun clutches rosary beads and prays in her cloistered cell, a rebellious suffragette puffs on a cigarette, a famed German athlete jumps and twirls in a field, a glamorous star dressed in black satin reclines on a sofa, a mafioso's mistress waits in a pink negligee, a circus queen delights the crowd as a human cannonball. But none of them are real. They are just figments of a broken woman's imagination. Locked in an asylum, she dreams of all the lives she can never live.

Ophelia's mind went wandering
You'd wonder where she'd gone
Through secret doors
Down corridors
She'd wander them alone


Psychologist Mary Pipher's non-fiction book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (2005) argues that modern teenage girls are suffering from a crisis of identity: "Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts."

As Merchant said, expectations can be cruel and contradictory. Ophelia had only two options: She could be a dutiful daughter or a loyal lover, but she couldn't be both. And she certainly couldn't be anything else.


"Ophelia" by Tori Amos
2009

Ophelia appears again on Tori Amos's Abnormally Attracted To Sin album as a woman who is caught in a destructive relationship and refuses to see how it's destroying her. Sound familiar? "She's not just a victim anymore, our Ophelia," Amos explained. "She seems to be drawn to these really demeaning relationships and situations."

Ophelia you must break the chain

Escaping a toxic relationship – whether it's with a lover, a family member, or a friend – is only half the battle. Ophelia must take a hard look at her own pain and ask herself why she's drawn to rejection and chaos. Hamlet remains attractive to Ophelia even as he's teetering on the brink of madness, dispensing violence and insults at every turn.

Change waltzes in with her sister
Pain waiting for you to send her away
Wish her well, break the chain, break the chain


Amos was particularly inspired by self-destructive coping mechanisms, as many young girls were showing up to her concerts with scars on their arms from cutting. "This trend has seemed to gain momentum over the last few years. I wanted to crawl inside self-destruction and rewire it in songs like 'Ophelia,'" she explained.

Marianne Faithfull, who played Ophelia onstage and in Tony Richardson's 1969 film adaptation, turned to a dark habit to help her embody the tragic character: heroin.

"I didn't take it before the play, the whole play, just before the mad scene. It was very effective, but it was very dangerous," she recalled in an A.V. Club interview. "I did play Ophelia as if I was Ophelia, and I actually believed I was Ophelia."

Life nearly imitated art for Faithfull, who swallowed a handful of barbiturates the following year and ended up in a coma for six weeks.


"Ophelia" by The Band
1975

Nobody knows just what became of Ophelia
Tell me, what went wrong?


Band guitarist Robbie Robertson was drawn to Ophelia not by her tragic circumstances, but by her lyrical name. The multi-syllabic moniker is shortened to just three syllables when Levon Helm, the song's lead singer, belts out "Oh-Feel-Ya" as he tries to make sense of her sudden departure. We don't know the relationship between the singer and Ophelia, but it seems society didn't approve.

Honey, you know we broke the rule
Was somebody up against the law?


Perhaps Ophelia is underage, or, as Shakespeare scholar Stephen M. Buhler points out, she could be a black woman on the run for having a taboo relationship with a white man during a tenuous time of race relations in the South. Hamlet's Ophelia was certainly bound by societal expectations. Living in an age when a woman is supposed to defer to a man's judgment, Ophelia tries to please all the men in her life and ends up pleasing none. Add to the mix her father's murder at the hands of her lover and it's enough to drive anyone crazy, which it does. By accident or suicide, she ends up dead in a brook. The Band's heroine fares better: She skips town.

The Band tells us the old neighborhood just isn't the same without Ophelia, and it seems that way in Denmark for a little while, too, as news of Ophelia's death sweeps Elsinore Castle. Too little too late, Hamlet professes his love for the dead girl and honors her memory by slaying her brother and forgetting about her for the rest of the play. Not so for Helm:

But I'm still waitin' for the second comin'
Of Ophelia - come back home



"Ophelia" by The Lumineers
2016

Oh, Ophelia
You've been on my mind, girl
Since the flood


The Lumineers knew Ophelia was a name loaded with cache. Aside from the Shakespearean connotations, The Band already discovered a rootsy heroine with the lyrical name decades earlier. Lead Lumineer Wesley Schultz tried to substitute different names, but he couldn't escape the musicality of Ophelia, stretched out over five full syllables: "Oh-Oh-Feel-Ee-Ah."

He toyed around with the idea of writing a retelling of Hamlet "combined with something else." Instead, "Ophelia" ended up representing the deceptive allure of fame. Schultz explained: "That spotlight can seem like an endless buffet, but in reality, you're just shiny, bright, and new to people for a quick moment - and then you have the rest of your life to live. It's about caring so much about the people around me, and wondering if we're all going to be alright."

Although Schultz abandoned the idea of writing a Hamlet-inspired tune, the ghosts of Elsinore still haunt the piano-driven stomper. It's easy to read the lyrics through Ophelia or Hamlet's point of view. A lovesick girl on the edge of madness is being used an abused by the man she loves. Or a revenge-obsessed prince realizes he can't trust anybody when he's betrayed by the girl who claims to love him. It's not fame that betrays, but love.

Heaven help the fool who falls in love

September 15, 2016
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  • John Collin from KensingtonOpehlia by Peter Hammill
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