How can you show the inner emotions and turmoil of characters like Hamlet and Ophelia?

Artist links: Conrad Felixmüller, Käthe Kollwitz (printing), Muntean & Rosenblum (painting), John Everett Millais (painting), Alban Grosdidier (photography).

Key Stage 3

Watch Hamlet, the animated story afterwards, ask students to make an educated guess on the questions below:

  • Who are these characters? What visual clues give away their identity?
  • Did they expect Hamlet to look like this? Why? Why not?

Students can create an illustrated character file for Hamlet or Ophelia including main character traits, appearance and key relationships.  Analyse the costume design for Hamlet compared to Claudius; what do their clothes reveal about each character.

Look at German Expressionism (particularly woodblock printed portraits by Conrad Felixmüller and Käthe Kollwitz) and discuss the key characteristics: semi-realistic, strong contrast of black and white, thick and strong lines, making the feelings / emotions more important than the realistic depiction of the person, etc.  Then, make a German expressionist style print using a polyprint block (or use recycled polystyrene pizza trays), taking inspiration from the photograph of Hamlet above.  

Key Stage 4

Ask students to compare the painting by Muntean & Rosenblum, Untitled (We are afraid...) 2012 and John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851–1852).

  • Produce a brief biographical fact file on each painter and then ask students to focus on comparing similarities and differences in the process of how they were painted, the subject (particularly the character, Ophelia) and context; how young women are portrayed in different centuries.
  • Students could then make a modern Ophelia wearing modern clothes in the same pose using a photo montage of magazine images and paint in Millais’ style.

Students could investigate how artists show inner emotion and fragile mental states, taking inspiration from the character Hamlet who progressively breaks down during the opera.

  • Alban Grosdidier’s drowning images would link well with the Millais painting of Ophelia as they both use water to show how the subject is trapped; with Millais it is more literal, with Grosdidier’s photographs it shows the psychological state of the subjects.  
  • Students could make a series of photographs in black and white in a bath at home, showing a variety of expressions and emotions. If this is difficult, they could photograph a partner through a glass door or window at school, the subject can distort their facial expressions in the glass to show the variety of emotions.

Homework Extension

Recreate this iconic painting of Ophelia or make it Hamlet by setting up the scene in a bath using fake or real flowers, costumes and wigs and taking a selfie on a smartphone.  Use free apps such as Prisma, or any others that have filters, to make the photo look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

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