Ophelia is a tragic character from Shakespeare's Hamlet who loses her mind when she's rejected by the title prince, who also killed her father. By suicide or by accident, she ends up drowning in a brook.
Merchant's song envisions Ophelia living varied lives throughout history as a Spanish nun, a German athlete, a sultry French star, a Depression-era American activist, a Vegas gambler's Italian mistress, and a Russian circus performer. In the end, they appear to be delusions from a mental patient (the real Ophelia).
Ophelia's mind went wandering You'd wonder where she'd gone Through secret doors Down corridors She'd wander them alone
The album's cover image shows a dolled-up Merchant wearing a slinky black satin dress while lounging on a sofa. It's a shocking departure from her days as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, when she embraced an earthy, makeup-free style. But fans needn't be worried. The image is a teaser for the song's accompanying short film, where Merchant brings the Ophelias to life. Aside from playing the women in song, she gives interviews from the perspective of each character (with dubbed-in accents). At the end, she portrays the mad Ophelia mimicking the exploits of the women as she's locked in an asylum.
Shakespeare's Ophelia struggled to fulfill contradictory roles as the dutiful daughter to Polonius and the loyal lover to Hamlet. In modern days, teens still struggle with conflicting messages about their identity, whether its through peer pressure, body shaming, or expectations for their future. With the Ophelia album, Merchant hoped to offer encouragement. 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."