As early as 1854, Rossetti had begun to explore the subject of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Ophelia and the moment in Act III, scene i, when Ophelia returns letters and gifts that Hamlet had given her.
‘My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver;
I pray you, now receive them.
… for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.’
In an 1854, sketch, now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Surtees, op.cit., no. 108A) Rossetti depicts Ophelia with her hands clasped in her lap, seemingly exhausted with emotion, whilst Hamlet kneels on a seat with his hands raised to his chest. In 1858, he elaborated on this earlier sketch, in a highly finished pen and ink drawing. (British Museum, Surtees, op.cit., no. 108). The figures are in an ornate bower, Ophelia is turned away from Hamlet, holding out the ‘remembrances’ to him. Hamlet dominates the scene, his arms outstretched, almost Christ-like. There is a further pen and ink study of the subject, from circa 1854, in the British Museum, which explores the emotional responses of the figures; Ophelia stands, her face hidden in her hands, turning away from Hamlet who stretches over her empty chair, hands outstretched.
By the 1860s Rossetti had refined and simplified the composition. In the three works which he executed at this time, Hamlet clasps Ophelia’s hand and the two figures are standing framed by architecture, the earlier detailed settings rejected. The present drawing appears to have been unknown to Surtees when she compiled her catalogue raisonné. The year after the present drawing was executed, Rossetti produced a watercolour based on this study (Ashmolean Museum, fig. 1, Surtees, op.cit., no. 189). There is a further pen and brown ink drawing of the same composition in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Surtees, op.cit., no. 189A).
Hamlet, more than any other of Shakespeare's plays, captured Rossetti’s imagination and in particular its themes of rejection and betrayal. Rossetti’s work was often autobiographical and he responded to and explored themes and ideas which had a particular or personal resonance. As John Christian has suggested it is difficult to ignore the links between the themes explored in Hamlet and the artist’s own behaviour towards Lizzie Siddal in the years before their marriage in 1860; his dalliance with Fanny Cornforth and others, and his feelings of guilt, which can only have been magnified by her suicide in 1862. Lizzie Siddal had sat for the figure of Ophelia in the earlier works, in itself unsurprising as she dominated his art throughout this period. However, it is interesting to note the similarity with the features of the model in this later sheet, when Siddal had been dead for three years.
In a letter to George Eliot (18 February 1870), Rossetti discusses his ideas; ‘In the Hamlet I have wished to symbolize the character and situation, as well as to represent the incident. Perhaps after all a simpler treatment might have been better. … As regards the dramatic action, I have meant to make Hamlet ramping about and talking wildly, kneeling on one of the little stalls and pulling to pieces the roses planted in a box in the angle-hardly knowing all he says and does, as he throws his arms this way and that along the edge of the carved screen. Ophelia is tired of talking and listens to him, still holding out the letters and presents she wishes to return’.
The highly worked technique employed by the artist in the present drawing can be found in other drawings of the 1850s and 60s, including Hesterna Rosa (Surtees, op. cit., no. 57) and How they met themselves (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Surtees, op. cit., no. 118) ), reflecting the influence of Ruskin upon the young artist's work. In The Elements of Drawing, published 1857, but based on long experience of teaching at the Working Men's College, Ruskin urges his readers to begin with this medium. Ruskin made much use of Dürer's prints as teaching aids, and there can be little doubt that he lent Rossetti examples as a guide. The Elements of Drawing abounds in references to Dürer's engravings, which the reader is told to acquire and copy as aids to painstaking, accurate draughtsmanship.
The elaborate, detailed penmanship here immediately recalls those master engravings, giving a fascinating insight into Rossetti's influences, and the crucial role Ruskin played in his artistic development.