Women and Water: A brief reflection on Ophelia

Women and water. This is something I think about a lot — the connection between women and water. As a wild swimmer and a feminist, I have always considered there to be an innate link between the two: a reclaiming of my own body as I enter a body of natural water. A connectivity between my limbs as I cut through the river, the fish that dance around my feet, the swaying of the trees that silences the noise of the world. I go swimming with female friends, and we often discuss the cleansing nature of our weekly ritual. How, when in the water, we seem to lose both our physical and our mental weights. This is what I was thinking about as I heard Jo Kukathas, in Natalie Hennedige & Michelle Tan's Ophelia, say "for a moment I am buoyed up, so for a moment I defy my inner gravity".

As well as my own love of wild swimming, in watching Ophelia through this lens of women and water, I kept coming back to a painting and a song.

The painting (perhaps unsurprisingly) is John Everett Millais' Ophelia. It was one of the many Pre-Raphaelite prints we had on our landing wall when I was young, and Ophelia's placid visage surrounded by beautiful flowers, her red flowing hair and intricately embroidered dress buoyed by the water was a constant source of fascination. I was fascinated more still by the story of Elizabeth's Siddal's illness, a terrible cold caught due to Millais letting the oil lamps go out that were intended to keep the bath warm in which she posed. This beautiful painting of Shakespeare's tragic young heroine involved the sacrifice of a 19 year old woman's body and health. A sacrifice all too often recreated for 'great men' to make their 'great art'.

A close up on the face of John Everett Millais' 1852 painting of Ophelia

"John Everett Millais - Ophelia [1851-52]" by Gandalf's Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But, crucially, the reason Millais' work kept returning to me in watching Hennedige and Tan's Ophelia was the calmness of Lizzie Siddal's face, as if drowning in a freezing cold river were no different than "to sleep". In comparison, Jo Kukathas' Ophelia gasps, and squirms, her face contorted, her eyes bulging in the moments that she feels as if she is drowning. This is in part where the core feminist performance of the play Ophelia lies. Kukathas' Ophelia is not serene, she is not placid in death, or to be looked at by a man trying to capture her beauty. She is fighting against the waves to be heard and to be seen.

A piece of music also framed my viewing of Ophelia: Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling's 2010 folk song The Water. Or, more specifically, the chorus resonated with Ophelia's admission in the closing moments of the play that the thing that has been suffocating her isn't water, but Hamlet's emotions. The chorus of Flynn and Marling's song

The water sustains me without even trying
The water can't drown me, I'm done
With my dying…

re-emphasised to me the plight of Ophelia throughout the play. Whereas water to Hamlet is something to be feared (as I'll shortly discuss), to Ophelia it is something that, though dangerous, sustains her. At times throughout the play it seems to be causing her harm (as when Hamlet causes her to nearly drown whilst asserting his power), yet that isn't actually water. Water buoys her, at times literally, even after something else (Hamlet's suffocating emotion) has 'killed' her.

"My Ophelia does not drown, in fact she turns out to be an excellent swimmer."

These words are spoken to Ophelia by 'The Actor', an authoritative figure that Ophelia embodies several times throughout the play that allows Ophelia to realise that she can rewrite her narrative. Ophelia as a play is submerged in water, refracted and distorted as it reworks Hamlet with just two actors, a few props, and a tall lifeguard chair.

Water is a form of freedom for Ophelia, but Hamlet attempts to manipulate it in order to assert his own dominance over her. In an attempt to bend her body to his will, Hamlet proclaims "water!", and a throbbing blue spotlight appears around Ophelia. She gasps for breath as screeching cries and wails play loudly over the sound system: she is drowning. Yet, after reflecting back on the play, I don't think it is water she is drowning in at this moment. Rather, she is drowning in Hamlet: his need to control, to undermine, to suffocate. As Hamlet bellows for "water" and then watches her 'drown' in silence, sipping coffee as if nothing were unusual, he is attempting to assert his power over her and bend her to his will. When Ophelia talks of water it is reassuring to her, it's vastness or strength may frighten her, but ultimately it is warm, inviting ("the water sustains me without even trying").

That the source of Ophelia's drowning is not water but Hamlet's unbearable emotion, becomes more evident as — once he gestures for the 'water' to stop he hands her the text of act 2 scene 1 (where Ophelia tells Polonius of how Hamlet has frightened her), and she runs and cowers in the corner of the stage. In the play of Hamlet, Hamlet's actions in frightening Ophelia so much that she runs to her father to relay what happened can be read as Hamlet's purposeful manipulation of Ophelia as he uses her to sow the seeds of his 'madness' throughout the court. In Hennedige's production, Hamlet's drowning of Ophelia can be read similarly. An assertion of his power, a manipulation of her, an attempt to control her body. Immediately after the drowning Ophelia turns to the audience, telling them "the miracle is endurance. There is nothing else." Ophelia as a character must endure Hamlet's attempts to control her; Jo Kukothas as a performer will have to endure this physically and emotionally gruelling play; Lizzie Siddal had to endure Millais' freezing bath. Women will have to endure.

"In water I am reborn, they crown my Patron Saint of Drowned Flowers"

Despite its potential drowning dangers, Ophelia derives a calm power from water. This is visually signified throughout the production as a shift in lighting to a deep blue which refracts off the swimming pool-like tiles. In one moment, after an argument with Hamlet, Ophelia is curled up centre stage and as the light turns blue, Wow by Kate Bush begins to play:

We're all alone on the stage tonight
We've been told we're not afraid of you
We know all our lines so well, uh-huh
We've said them so many times
Time and time again
Line and line again

The metatheatrical, refracted nature of the play reflected in Bush's lyrics is heightened as Bobo (the DSM) enters with a knife and places it in Ophelia's hand. Once she has the knife, Ophelia stands, her arms raising as if buoyed by water. She offers different meanings of the name Ophelia and then declares "in water I am reborn, they crown me Patron Saint of Drowned Flowers". The chorus of Wow comes to a crescendo as she declares "Long live me, when I am dead, outside of my manmade prisons". The manmade prisons, the dry desert, life, all are juxtaposed with the water where she is free, where she will be reborn as her own Ophelia and not Hamlet's or Shakespeare's.

The use of water as a representative of freedom and death comes to a cathartic conclusion in the final tableau of the play. Ophelia finally tells Hamlet she will leave him. He begs her to stay, smearing mud on himself (mud not unlike that from the bottom of the riverbed where I swim) as Ophelia strongly tells him "where a woman goes, she must go alone" — the water is no place for Hamlet and no place for men. As he attempts to guilt her yet again ("I'll die") she reveals to the audience that what she has been drowning in throughout the play isn't water, but Hamlet's emotions. Ophelia in this play has made a choice: she cannot save Hamlet from drowning in his own feelings because that would make her drown in them too. So instead she goes to the water, referencing Virginia Woolf's suicide (she had read from A Room of One's Own earlier in the production), she asks "what could be more poetic than disappearing into a river. Everything calm and clear and quiet?" And that is what she does. It begins to rain. Ophelia stretches her arms out to her sides, they are suspended, she is suspended.

"The waves are endless and many of them crash women onto the rocks" (Dawson, 2021, p. xxvi)

In her introductory essay to The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing, Hannah Dawson highlights that in Australia, Indigenous women were only given the vote in 1962. Whilst reading Dawson's essay, my thoughts about the connection between women and water came flooding back to me. Dawson uses water — stemming from the common cultural understanding of the 'waves' of feminism — throughout the essay as an extended metaphor for the feminist cause and struggle. Her imagery comes to a particularly pertinent conclusion when discussing the 17th century English and Scottish witch hunts and James I and VI's abhorration of dissembling women and witches, which, Dawson argues, to him were potentially one and the same. Dawson describes the accused witch's inability to sway her accuser's opinion by writing: "weep or don't weep; speak up or stay silent; you'll drown all the same." (Dawson, 2021, p. xxiii)

Weep or don't weep; speak up or stay silent; you'll drown all the same

The miracle is endurance. There is nothing else.

The water sustains me without even trying
The water can't drown me, I'm done
With my dying…

Dawson's analysis of the powerlessness of the accused witches; Kukothas' Ophelia and her determined endurance; Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling's nameless folk protagonist. All have no say in their drowning. Yet for Ophelia, this drowning is not a death, but a rebirth. This is what it feels like to me, as I brace myself to enter the 10°C river on a cold morning in September. That I will endure the cold, that my mind will clear, my body will once again become mine, and that when I leave that water I will not be the same person who entered it.

Hennedige and Tan's Ophelia, through its refracted structure, repeated theme of water, and then literal summoning of it on stage, taps into the deep rooted connected between women and water. Though we'll drown all the same, it's not the water that will do it, the miracle is endurance.

Works cited

Dawson, H. (2021), The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing. London: Penguin Classics

Flynn, J. & Marling, L. (2010) The Water. London: Transgressive Records.

Ophelia by Hennedige, N & Tan, M. (2016) Directed by Hennedige, N. [Esplanade Theatre Studio, 17 - 19 March].