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Shakespeare's Ophelia - 'Cursed'?

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Lalla Ward as Ophelia in a 1980 BBC production of 'Hamlet'.

Sometimes when there is a hot topic, certain events can be traced back and threads linked when the connection is mere coincidence. Curses abound in popular culture, like the one invented by newspaper reporters when the intact tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, or the attempt to explain the calamities involving the Superman actors and stuntmen.

Probably the most well-known theatre superstition involves Shakespeare's play Macbeth, which some people believe is cursed because of the unusual detrimental incidents during various productions. Actors prefer to call Macbeth 'the Bard's play' or 'the Scottish play' – if the name is mentioned, a routine of unknown origin was devised: leave the room, quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream, turn around three and a half times, knock and wait to be asked to re-enter, but there are others. A hilarious rendition of the effects of speaking out loud the name Macbeth to superstitious actors was performed in an episode of Blackadder 3; it involved hand-slapping, turning and spitting to counteract any bad vibes.


Some people think the character of Ophelia was inspired by pregnant 16-year-old Kate Hamnet, who drowned herself in the River Avon when William Shakespeare was a child. He named his son Hamnet, apparently after her. Ophelia was the name given to the tragic daughter of the character Polonius by Shakespeare for his play Hamlet. Ophelia's love for Prince Hamlet of Denmark was unfulfilled; she went mad and later committed suicide.

Bad stuff can happen to anyone at any time, but the accusation of 'cursed' could be said of playing the part of Ophelia, because several of the actresses who have portrayed her have indeed suffered some bad luck:

Susan Mountfort

In 1720 former actress Susan, the sister of Sir Charles Mountfort, out of her mind following a broken love affair, rushed the stage at Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre in London just as the actress playing the part of Ophelia was about to perform her mad scene.

  • Susan, later described as having 'wild eyes and wavering motion', astonished the audience with her accurate portrayal of the insane character, but the exertion killed her.

Sarah Siddons

Famous Welsh actress Sarah Siddons née Kemble (1755 - 1831) played Ophelia in 1785. She was better known for her performances of Lady Macbeth – her contemporaries knew her as 'the undisputed queen of Drury Lane'.

  • Sarah had married at age 18, but of her seven children, five predeceased her, and her marriage did not last.

Mary Catherine Bolton

Mary (1790 - 1830) played the part of Ophelia to John Kemble's Prince Hamlet at Covent Garden in 1813. In the audience were members of the aristocracy and Mary caught the eye of one of them; later Mary became the Right Honourable Lady Thurlow (Countess Thurlow) when she married Edward Hovell-Thurlow, 2nd Baron Thurlow (1781 - 1829) on 13 November, 1813. They had three sons; Edward, the oldest, inherited the title of 3rd Baron Thurlow upon his father's death.

  • After a happy marriage lasting 15 years, Countess Thurlow never recovered from the shock of her husband's death. She was treated for melancholy1 but her broken heart would not mend, and she died aged just 39 years, less than a year after her beloved husband expired.

Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons OBE acted as Ophelia in the 1948 cinematic outing of Hamlet directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, plus three other Oscars including Best Actor for Olivier's Prince Hamlet. Jean was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost out to Claire Trevor for her portrayal of Gaye Dawn in Key Largo.

  • Jean had two marriages which both ended in divorce, and she was treated for alcohol addiction. She contracted lung cancer and died aged 80 in January 2010.

Carolyn Sue Jones

Carolyn played two parts in the 1960s TV series The Addams Family, that of Ophelia Frump and her sister Morticia. Ophelia was originally engaged to Gomez Addams but he dumped her when he met her sibling Morticia and married her instead.

  • Carolyn was married three times; her first two marriages ended in divorce, and she wed her partner of five years Peter Bailey-Britton just ten months prior to her death from colon cancer on 3 August, 1983, aged just 53 years.

Marianne Faithfull

Marianne became the girlfriend of rock legend Mick Jagger in December 1966. In the 1967 film I'll Never Forget What's'isname Marianne recreated Ophelia's drowning scene in a bath while being watched by Oliver Reed's character. Marianne became pregnant by Jagger in 1968 but she was addicted to cocaine and their daughter Corrina was stillborn.

Marianne performed as Ophelia to Nicol Williamson's Hamlet in 1969. Jagger, apparently, attended every screening. The film was directed by Tony Richardson, father of Natasha mentioned below. He contracted HIV, later developed full-blown AIDS, and died in November 1991.

  • By 1970 Marianne was battling heroin addiction, and was in and out of medical establishments to try and kick her drug habit. She lost a custody battle for her five year old son Nicholas Dunbar, had a nervous breakdown (Jagger saved her life after a suicide attempt), and later separated from Jagger. In 2006 Marianne was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Natasha Richardson

The actress daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson played the part of Ophelia in the stage production of Hamlet in 1985.

  • Natasha Richardson was on holiday with her sons in Quebec, Canada, when she fell during a skiing lesson and bumped her head. At first refusing hospital treatment because she 'felt fine', an hour later her severe headache forced her to seek medical assistance. Unfortunately by then it was too late, she slipped into a coma having suffered a cerebral aneurysm (brain haemorrhage), and her life support machine was turned off on 18 March, 2009. Natasha was 45 years old.

Helena Bonham Carter

Helena played Ophelia in Franco Zeffirelli's musical production of Hamlet in 1990. Her co-star playing Prince Hamlet was Mel Gibson.

  • In 2008 Helena lost four members of her family in an accident while they were on safari.

Kylie Minogue

Kylie Minogue OBE recreated the pose in the famous 1852 painting of Ophelia by British artist Sir John Everett Millais2 on the promotional material for her 1995 collaboration with Nick Cave on the 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' single. The death of Ophelia was a suicide but in the 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' video, the young woman is murdered by her lover to preserve the image of her youth and beauty in his mind forever.

  • Kylie was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in May, 2005, just before her 37th birthday. Following a lumpectomy and chemotherapy Kylie's cancer was declared in remission.

Kate Winslet

Kate3 took the part of Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated Hamlet (1996) for which she won an Empire Award.

  • At the time she played Ophelia, Kate was dating her first boyfriend, the writer and actor Stephen Tredre (1963 - 97). However, when he learned he had terminal bone cancer he decided to end the relationship so Kate could concentrate on her acting career. She missed the première of Titanic because it clashed with the date of Stephen's funeral.

Julia Stiles

Julia starred as amateur photographer Ophelia in a modern-day adaption of Hamlet in 2000. The film received a critical mauling as it was thought by film critics that mixing the olde English dialogue of Shakespeare's day with modern elements like cameras and CCTV just did not work. Even Ophelia's suicide scene was changed from the original brook to a hotel forecourt fountain. One New York film critic wrote that it 'may well be the dullest and most pointless version ever filmed' and another wrote 'Shakespeare massacred'.

  • Julia was a dedicated vegan until she became chronically anaemic. Now her diet contains some red meat 'but not all the time', because being forced to consume animal flesh for the sake of her own good health is against her principles.

Emily Lloyd

Emily, daughter of Roger Lloyd Pack, was just 16 when she was BAFTA-nominated for her starring role in Wish You Were Here (1986), and she was expected to have a great acting career ahead of her. Starring in films alongside A-list leading men like Brad Pitt (A River Runs Through It), Bruce Willis (In Country), Kiefer Sutherland (Chicago Joe and the Showgirl) and Peter Falk (Cookie) earned her fees of up to £250,000 a time. Emily made her stage debut as Ophelia in 2003 at the Shakespeare Festival.

  • Emily has rarely worked as an actress since then, as her numerous health problems, including insomnia, severe anxieties and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder  (possibly caused by a bad reaction to anti-malarial medication), have culminated in various issues like the inability to concentrate and memorise lines. In 2009 Emily was reported to be living off the royalties of her previous film roles while she struggles to regain her health.

Sybil Vane

Sybil Vane is a character in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. She is an actress who catches Dorian's eye, playing the part of Ophelia in Hamlet. A sweet and innocent virgin until Dorian seduces her, she succumbs to his charm and falls pregnant. When he subsequently leaves her, she drowns herself in a river, and Dorian is tormented by thoughts of her dead body floating on the water like Shakespeare's Ophelia.

Curse - What Curse?

Obviously not all the actresses who have portrayed Ophelia on stage and screen have suffered bad karma, but they are not widely reported unless they are highly unusual. One can hardly call the domestic arrangements of Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton 'bad'. Tilda, who voiced the part of Ophelia in Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in 1992, resides in Scotland with the father of her twins, John Byrne. Tilda and John are no longer a couple and unusually their new partners are welcome visitors to the family home. Such an amicable set-up is rarely pulled off but Tilda insists they are all 'good friends' because she and John are no longer sweethearts. She doesn't understand why the press made such a fuss after she attended the BAFTA awards in 2008 with her boyfriend, German actor and artist Sandro Kopp. Tilda insists that their unconventional lives are really very dull, and the priorities are the children who live in 'a house full of love'.

People Named Ophelia

Ophelia has not taken off as a Christian name, which is unusual considering the popularity of the Bard's other heroines like Bianca, Margaret and Juliet, although those names were not invented by him.

African-American Robin Ophelia Quivers (born 8 August, 1952) is the producer and co-host of The Howard Stern Radio Show; that's her cackling laugh you can hear in the background. Also an actress, she starred in Stern's 1997 comedy Private Parts. She was sexually abused as a child by her own father, and now works voluntarily for a charity helping other abuse survivors.

The name Ophelia has been used in other works of fiction:

  • The Claymore manga and anime character 'Rippling Ophelia' is a sadistic sociopath.

  • Ophelia St Clare features in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

  • There was also the unfortunate Ophelia Oliver in James Thurber's The Wonderful O: the island of Ooroo is taken over by a pirate. He has a phobia regarding the letter O following his mother being pushed out of a porthole, and he therefore bans all use of the letter O. Thus the island's name becomes R, peple live in huses, dgs bark at strangers, and Phelia Liver 'disappears frm the haunts f men'.

Things Named Ophelia

  • In 2005 Hurricane Ophelia caused widespread destruction of property estimated at US$50m and power cuts affecting a quarter of a million people. One man drowned off the coast of Florida due to the storm surge.

  • One of the smallest moons in our Solar System with an equatorial radius of 21km is Ophelia, the second innermost satellite of Uranus, which was discovered in 1986 by Voyager 2. This moon is doomed – gravitational tidal forces are causing the orbit to decay.

  • There's a street named after our heroine in Oakland, California. In 1950 a fire occurred at the intersection of Ophelia and Hamlet Streets – the authorities said it was rubbish!

  • There is an asteroid named 171 Ophelia. This main belt asteroid was discovered by French astronomer Alphonse Louis Nicolas Borrelly (1842 - 1926) on 13, January, 1877. So far, nothing bad has been discovered about it, but time will tell.

1Today we would call this depression.2Millais died of throat cancer aged 67 years.3Kate and her husband Sam Mendes have a home in England which previously belonged to Raoul Millais, the grandson of Sir John Everett Millais who painted the 1852 portrait of Ophelia mentioned earlier.

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