The work encountered a mixed response when first exhibited at the Royal Academy, but has since come to be admired as one of the most important works of the mid-nineteenth century for its beauty, its accurate depiction of a natural landscape, and its influence on artists from John William Waterhouse and Salvador Dalí to Peter Blake (artist) and Ed Ruscha.
The painting depicts Ophelia singing while floating in a river just before she drowns. The scene is described in Act IV, Scene VII of Hamlet in a speech by Queen Gertrude.
The episode depicted is not usually seen onstage, as in Shakespeare's text it exists only in Gertrude's description. Out of her mind with grief, Ophelia has been making garlands of wildflowers. She climbs into a willow tree overhanging a brook to dangle some from its branches, and a bough breaks beneath her. She lies in the water singing songs, as if unaware of her danger ("incapable of her own distress"). Her clothes, trapping air, have allowed her to temporarily stay afloat ("Her clothes spread wide, / And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up."). But eventually, "her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay" down "to muddy death".
Ophelia's death has been praised as one of the most poetically written death scenes in literature.
Ophelia's pose—her open arms and upwards gaze—also resembles traditional portrayals of saints or martyrs, but has also been interpreted as erotic.
The painting is known for its depiction of the detailed flora of the river and the riverbank, stressing the patterns of growth and decay in a natural ecosystem. Despite its nominal Danish setting, the landscape has come to be seen as quintessentially English. Ophelia was painted along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, near Tolworth, Greater London. Barbara Webb, a resident of nearby Old Malden, devoted much time to finding the exact placement of the picture, and according to her research, the scene is located at Six Acre Meadow, alongside Church Road, Old Malden Millais Road is now nearby. Millais' close colleague William Holman Hunt was at the time working on his The Hireling Shepherd nearby.
The flowers shown floating on the river were chosen to correspond with Shakespeare's description of Ophelia's garland. They also reflect the Victorian interest in the "language of flowers", according to which each flower carries a symbolic meaning. The prominent red poppy—not mentioned by Shakespeare's description of the scene—represents sleep and death.
According to wikipedia