Crowds are flocking to the Mead this month to see First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Surrounding the 1623 book, which lies open to Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, are two Hamlet-inspired artworks from the Mead’s collection.
One is an oil painting by British artist Thomas Dicksee (1819–1895) depicting Ophelia at the edge of the pool she’s going to drown in, robe torn, eyes mournful, a classic abandoned heroine. Dicksee completed the painting in 1875, just as Henry Clay Folger ’79 was matriculating at Amherst College. Folger went on to a successful career with Standard Oil, and became a renowned collector of Shakespeareana. He founded the Folger Shakespeare Library, currently administered under the auspices of Amherst College.
Also on view near the First Folio is Hamlet and Ophelia, a lithograph made in 1996–97 by French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). It shows Ophelia drowning in Hamlet’s embrace. Is he drowning too? Hard to say. Their figures are melded together, tied by red stripes, as if they’re wearing a single giant red-and-white striped sweater.
The two works give us differing interpretations of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet, something readers and critics have been hotly debating for centuries.
A visit to see the First Folio only confirms what a noncommittal mess Hamlet is when it comes to Ophelia. Read a few lines past his famous “To be or not to be?” speech and you come upon the greatest he-said-she-said (what-did-he-say?) in the history of English writing. “I did love you once,” Hamlet says to Ophelia, which he cleverly follows up a few lines later with “I loved you not.”
To quote Ophelia, What means your lordship?
Looking closely at this page in the First Folio may not clear up the confusion about Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, but the works on display around the historic volume give two distinct artistic impressions of the romantic problem at the heart of the play.
Dicksee’s Ophelia is depressed and ready to kill herself.
Bourgeois’s Hamlet and Ophelia are locked in a crazy embrace, a cloudless blue sky overhead.
First Folio! is on view at the Mead through May 31.