The Ophelia Project

The Folk Artist Takes a Stab at It, Having Tired of Roosters, Fish, and the Angel Gabriel

The artist has sculpted a weathervane in the figure of Ophelia wrapped in a sheet. Her feet are bare. She is festooned in garlands of flowers. We are meant to admire the artist’s hammerwork. She is holding a crow beneath one arm. Her other arm sticks straight out, pointing whichever way the wind blows. 

Artist unidentified 
Possibly Massachusetts or New York 
c. 1800
Molded copper
36 x 43-½ x 4 inches 
gift of Mr. and Mrs. Francis S. Andrews, 1982

Nan, age seven, sits on the floor in front of the weathervane. She is sucking her fingers. They taste of the pebbles surrounding the gingko tree outside the museum where she played while her mother finished her cigarette.

There is something terrible about that crow, Nan thinks, and the girl. Why would you make a sculpture of someone you didn’t like? 

Nanrecently learned that people—she and her mother and everyone here—are made mostly of water, which is soft, except when it freezes. She does not think she would like to be made of metal. 

Every morning the meteorologist on TV makes note of the wind, as if it’s an essential fact. South-by-southwest at thirty-two miles per hour, northerly winds about five miles per hour. Her mother loves The Weather Channel. Grown-ups are weird. 

Nan tries to sound out the name on the placard, but she can’t remember what to do about the digraph. 

Nan’s mother is leaning against a pillar. Sometimes her mother will tell her how words are pronounced and sometimes she just sighs and says something snarky about the state of elementary education. Nan wipes her shriveled fingers on the back of her skirt. “Only babies put everything in their mouths,” her mother says. 

The placard states that the weathervane is made of copper, but it looks green to her. Weather vane, weather vane, the weather is vain.

A door slams. A group of school kids wearing dark green uniforms stomps in. The air shifts and so do Ophelia and the crow.

Nan remembers that “ph” sometimes sounds like “f.” The name forms in her mouth. Ophelia. Ophelia.


Family Feud 

Fifty people were asked, “What is the first thing you think of when you hear ‘Shakespeare’s Ophelia’?” 

Your job is to accurately come up with the most popular answers.

Survey says:

(7) flowers

(6) water

(3) hair

(2) drowning

(2) nunnery

Other answers include: eye, floating, escape, wandering, flotsam, small feet, song, go take a swim you dirty hooker, hands outstretched with petals, honor, desperate, ankle, a cold stream, Hamlet is a jerk to her, Kate Winslet, Levon Helm, he’s just not that into you, Natalie Merchant, John Everett Millais, pawns, death, bad swimmer, vaginal mist, rejection, wrong dude, wandering, willows, suicide, a tree by a river, lily pads, lungs, mad, honor, misdirection.


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Ophelia Reads the Tea Leaves

They gather like something exploded in the bottom of her cup. Fecund, sodden, scant. She closes her eyes, relaxes her gaze. She makes out a wing, no, two wings and large green eyes. 

What does it mean, we might ask. What do you see?

“They say the owl was a baker's daughter,” she replies, and who are we to say otherwise? 

Do you have any other words of wisdom?

“For to the noble mind / Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

We wonder if she’s pulling our leg.


A Feminist Response to Ophelia’s Burial

“Why is it, I want to know, that a playtext crowded with male bodies presented in all stages of post mortem recuperation, from ghost-walking Hamlet to fresh-bleeding Polonius to moldering Yorick to Priam of deathless memory; a playtext whose core issue exhaustively and excessively examines the imperatives of male reaction to the death of men (‘remember’; ‘revenge’); a playtext that valorizes killing and heroic death (but nicely condemns murder): why is it that this playtext, when it finally arrives at the grave, lays out a woman's body for speculation?”

Dr. Carol Chillington Rutter asks, “How do we look at it? What do we see?”


Ophelia Serving Many Masters, or Ophelia’s Fourteen Questions

Do you doubt that? 

No more but so?

Good my lord, /How does your honour for this many a day?

My lord?

What means, my lordship?

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?

What is, my lord?

What means this, my lord?

Will he tell us what this show meant?

Where is the beauteous Majesty of Denmark?

How should I your true-love know / from another one?

Say you?

And will he not come again? 

And will he not come again?


The various lords are jackals. The queen as well. 


Future Ophelias

Ophelia at the beach. She is re-reading The Bell Jar. She loves the book but is distracted by a man walking by, humming. She reads, “I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another,” and then there he is again. About a half-inch of his penis is sticking out the bottom of his swim trunks. He walks by and by and by, as if he is lost, his diagonal shadow moving over her. She can’t decide if he knows his dick is winking at her. 

Ophelia holding the Ophelia doll (by American Girl). The doll is wearing a pink-and-white striped lacrosse jersey with lime-green trim, a sporty skort, striped knee socks, and shoes with cleats. (Not pictured are Ophelia-the-doll’s game-time gear, including a protective face mask with a stretchy strap, a lacrosse stick she can really hold, a bouncy orange ball, removable mouth-guard stickers, and two fabric hairbands.) The doll is wet in the Ophelia’s wet arms. 

Ophelia undrowning. It’s like watching a time-lapse video in reverse of a candle, wax and wick reconstituting themselves until the flame flickers on the match. Air bubbles are exhaled, water drawn out and out and out through the woman’s nostrils and mouth, until she stands, walks backwards, pauses, clothing and hair dry. There’s a director, directing the illusion. Even from a few feet away, the photographer who was hired to film the performance can’t figure out how they’re doing it. Each time the woman lays back down in the water, she looks dead, for real, heavy in a bad way.

Ophelia, the rock opera. Lyrics and music by Pete Townsend. Hamlet, a bit part, is played by Sir Elton John. 

Ophelia at Coney Island. Ophelia riding The Cyclone: one minute and fifty seconds of centrifugal force and gravity having their way with her. Ophelia winning a giant pink rabbit at the Whac-a-Mole game.

Ophelia celebrating the Day of the Dead. Down a cobbled street, she is pushing a wheelbarrow containing a facsimile female skeleton. Ophelia’s shoulders are draped in Claudea elegans, a red algae shawl. She has a swing in her step despite the weight of the barrow. A bit of seaweed is stuck to her cheek.


Ophelia Rearranging the Silverware Drawer

Ophelia is troubled by the sight of cutlery slung loose in the drawer. She stacks them in sets, each according to its kin—soup spoons, porridge spoons, forks, knives—but they commingle in the dark, urged together by the opening and closing of the drawer. 

She orders a bamboo silverware organizer online from The Container Store, but it doesn’t fit her drawer. 

Perhaps you saw this one coming. There is only one solution—to discard all but the knives.


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