What is particularly interesting about Ophelia is the way she has been subject to constantly changing interpretations even though there is not really all that much to interpret. These have at times been rather ridiculous, but some give interesting glimpses into human nature and even French fashions. "How is this, Sir Bob?". Well, it comes about as follows...
The play was first performed about 1600. In 1603 a printed version known as the "First Quarto" or the "Bad Quarto" was published, presumably by an actor bootlegging it. (Theories point to the one playing Marcellus since his lines are the ones most true to the other versions). Then, in 1604, the official "Second Quarto" was published, and finally the "Folio" version was published in a "Best of"-publication in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. All three versions differ in various respects, though not so much in respect to Ophelia. What is interesting, though, is two contextual pieces of information.
Firstly, at the time there were concerns about the male characters being too unmanly. When Laertes cries over Ophelia's death he has to say "when these are gone, the woman will be out", on other words, his tears are an aspect of femininity which he has to rid himself of. Also, while Ophelia was originally played by boys, Hamlet was the only heroic male of Shakespearean drama who was repeatedly played by actresses (following the middle of the 17th century). Secondly, as Ophelia was portrayed as innocent and naive, Shakespeare could have a little joke on her through Hamlet. In Act 3, Scene 2 we find this dialogue (110-113):
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.As it turns out, "nothing" was slang for the female genitalia in Elizabethan time, which just goes to show how the Renaissance had blessed Shakespeare's contemporaries with enhanced powers of observation as well as refined language. This also puts Shakespeare's "Much Ado about Nothing" in rather a new light.
HAMLET: That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.
OPHELIA: What is, my lord?
Then came the 18th century with its Neo-Classicism and their emphasis on self-control, respectability, seemliness and decorum. Ophelia became curiously self-controlled for a madwoman. Originally singing rauncy songs and throwing flowers about (deflowering herself, hm-hm-hm), she now wore a white dress, loosely organised hair, strategically placed wildflowers and an attitude of dignified suffering. How on earth they were supposed to imagine her climbing a tree and falling/jumping into the river in a manner consistent with this representation, I do not care to imagine. (By the way, the jury is still out on the question of suicide mentioned above).
In the Victorian 1800's with all its repressed creative madness, Ophelia became a channel for all kinds of weird behavior. Pre-Raphaelite Romantic painters such as J.W. Waterhouse, Arthur Hughes and J.E. Millais discovered that the death of Ophelia not being actually enacted during the play allowed them to impose their own perspective on the scene. Thus, a number of highly sensual, flowery depictions of nymph-like, watery sirens were made, allowing the Victorians to give vent to their repressed sexuality through the appreciation of art and literature.
As if this was not enough, the invention of photography presented new opportunities for weirdness. Ophelia mad, and her version of madness (flowers, wild hair, flowing garments etc.) was becoming the standard way of presenting madness, that is, mad women were expected to derss and act like Ophelia. This was taken a step further with the introduction of photography. Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, working in mental asylums such as the Surrey Asylum and Bethlehem ("Bedlam"), claimed that being photographed could cure madness. He then dressed up his patients as Ophelia and had them pray as he photographed them. His photos may have inspired the French Jean-Martin Charcot, who in addition to taking pictures of his patients hypnotised them and had them perform roles from Shakespeare.
In 1827, a young Irish actress called Harriet Smithson took Ophelia to new levels during a performance in Paris. She dressed in a black veil in which he stuck some straws. She also made a few hortocultural additions to her hairdo. Following a most unorthodox performance, including a cross made of flowers on stage, her straw-interwoven costume became the inspiration of the Paris fashion milieu. This is why old ladies today wear capes with patterns of coloured straw in them.
Finally, the 20th century arrived with its explicit focus on sexuality (thanks a lot, Freud!). While a large bed was added as a prop in the closet scene of the play, theories of Oedipus complexes and incestous relationships in Hamlet abounded. Ophelia was resexualised and the most extreme, Freudian theories argued that Ophelia had an incestous, Oedipal relationship to Polonius, parallel to that of Hamlet and Gertrude. Other creative critics invented a past for Ophelia, involving child molesting, unfaithful knights raping and killing her friends and Ophelia experiencing several different consecutive forms of mental illness.
The best version, however, and in my opinion the best example with which to conclude this article, is Melissa Murray's play "Ophelia". This was performed in 1979 by the English women's theatre group "Hormone Imbalance". In this play, Ophelia becomes a lesbian, runs off with a serving maid and joins a Danish guerilla commune. You cannot possibly get better drama than that.
Sources: Shakespeare, William: "Hamlet", ed. Wofford, Susanne, New York, 1994
Pictures: http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/ophelaimillais.jpg and Link, last visited 8.2.2010