Today I visited the Tate Britain Museum in London and I stood in front of one of my favourite paintings:
John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-2)
It shows Ophelia, drowned, carried by the current. Her flowers are strewn on the surface of the dark water.
The colours are beautiful – the vibrant green of the riverside, Ophelia’s fiery red hair, and striking blue eyes that still have light in them. She has her hands open as if accepting her fate, letting the water take her. Her mouth is open as if she would speak…
If you’ve read Hamlet, you know this.
Ophelia suffers a lot in this play. She is in love with Hamlet who denies ever having loved her. She is ordered about by everyone, Hamlet, her brother, her father, Polonius, the Queen, and the usurper Claudius. She is used as a pawn against Hamlet. Her needs and desires are disregarded and she is given little room to speak even narratively by Shakespeare himself.
When her father is killed by Hamlet… she goes ‘mad’.
Her speech becomes ‘incoherent’, her songs become ‘inappropriate’. In her madness, Ophelia finds freedom – freedom to speak, freedom to express, and to emote: grief, desire, longing… Because one of the things ‘madness’ does is that it frees your mind from this mad world’s constraints and fears. ‘Madness’ makes you fearless and therefore you can speak.
It is in her ‘madness’ that Ophelia is finally able to speak. She sings songs and gives different flowers to each of the characters:
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember.
And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts …
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.
We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.
– Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.
There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets,
But they withered all when my father died.”
(Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)
Her flowers have meaning, they are symbols. Ophelia’s songs and flowers speak for her.
In Millais’ painting, Ophelia’s flowers are still with her, speaking to the viewer in her stead. I wonder what each of us hear…
Ophelia’s death is left ambiguous. It happens off stage and we are only told of it by the Queen who implies that it was an accident – “an envious sliver broke”, and she “fell in the weeping brook”. “Her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled [her] to muddy death” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7).
Ophelia drowns… her death as passive as she was in life.
This is one of the readings.
However, suicide is also suggested further along in the play.
We may never know what really happened, we may never know if her death was intended or an accident. I wish I knew Shakespeare (and that he was alive, of course) so I could ask him this and a few other million questions.
I thought of all of this as I sat on the almost-empty gallery, looking at Millais’ Ophelia. The fact that today, October 10th, is World Mental Health Day made it twice as significant for me to be there in front of Ophelia.
For the longest time, I paid no mind to my mental health… Until something happened to me that made it impossible not to. Since then, I’ve realised the true importance of caring for our minds as much as for our bodies. Both are precious tools with which we, spiritual beings that we are, manifest in this world. It is our responsibility and privilege to care for them.
Your mind needs love. It needs care and nurturing. Be careful of what you hear, see, watch… all that is the food you give to your mind.
Your mind needs you, it needs your presence and awareness. This world needs that too.
I am sad to realise that there is still a taboo about mental health in most parts of the world. This makes people ashamed to address it, to share their experiences, to seek help.
I am pleased to realise that in the UK, mental health is taken seriously and a lot has been done to raise awareness and to open up the conversation about mental health.
I hope that in my own country, Mexico, we can break the taboo and start doing this too, more and more. I believe we are, slowly but surely.
However, it is not enough to open up the conversation. We have to actively care for it. And it isn’t just about sharing your own experiences or listening to others’ experiences. It’s about taking a look at your own habits, your mind diets, your thoughts…
I’ve realised that most people only really care about their mental health when they start to suffer because of it. Only when they start having anxiety attacks, or when they get triggered, or when depression sets in… It doesn’t have to come to that… it shouldn’t have to. Preventive medicine is the best kind of medicine.
So, share, talk, seek help. Please do. But also, on a daily basis, meditate, exercise, make sure you get enough sleep, find ways to destress, eat healthy food, connect with others… Do everything you do with mindfulness. Care for yourself. No one else will if you don’t. (I am saying this to myself as much as I am saying this to you, I too need to prioritises my health – mental, emotional, physical)
And if something has happened to you, or if something is happening to you right now, I send you lots of light and love with these words. You are a brave soul, your heart is courageous to be braving this world. And you are not alone, even if you think you are. You are not crazy. You are not mad. You are not a bad person. You are not a misfit. You are not sick. You are not weird, or strange, or too different. You are none of these things.
You are a perfect soul. And don’t let anything or anyone convince you to feel otherwise.
And do reach out. Even if you feel ashamed or worried about what others might think… I can assure you, there is someone who understands, there is someone who has been there too, and there is someone who can help. Write it, cry it, say it, feel it. You are not alone. No one really is. Because ultimately, We Are All One.
I feel extra happy that I was able to behold Millais’ painting today. It reminded me of what I have been through, of what I’ve learned, of how much I’ve grown, and of what’s important. It made me happy to be alive. I wish Ophelia was too, but her flowers and songs will forever remind us of what was in her heart.
Thank you, Shakespeare. Thank you, John Everett Millais. Thank you, Ophelia, may your flowers speak forever for you.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2006.
John Everett Millais. Ophelia. 1851-2. Tate Britain, London.