Ophelia and Hamlet. Love?

To Laertes, Hamlet’s affection for his sister, Ophelia is a mere dalliance; a temporary condition which she should not mistake for lasting love. He tells Ophelia “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour, hold it as a violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting. The perfume and suppliance of a minute; no more” (1:3:8). Laertes tells Ophelia these things because he understands that because Hamlet is a prince, he is subject to one day be king. As such, the decision about his future wife is very important and cannot be left solely to his discretion. Laertes understands that tradition does not permit Hamlet to make such an important decision based on fleeting emotions. He explains to Ophelia that “His greatness weighed; his will is not his own. He may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself; for on his choice depends the safety and health of the whole state; and therefore must his choice be circumscribed” (1:3:16). Because of these things, Laertes warns Ophelia to guard herself emotionally, to which Ophelia responds that “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep” (1:3:45).

Like Laertes, Polonius attributes Hamlet’s insincere affection to temporary youthful dalliance; “I do know, that when the blood burns, how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows” (1:3:117), and he also advised Ophelia against Hamlet’s advances: “Affection! Pooh! You speak like a green girl” (1:3:101). He tells Ophelia that Hamlet is “A prince, out of thy star” (2:2:141), and admonishes her to not be so free with her time with Hamlet, and she agrees to obey. Although she replies “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1:3:103) when her father asked if she believes Hamlet to be sincere, Ophelia is swayed by Hamlet’s affection. She seems to believe that Hamlet is sincere, and even to return his affection as she tells Polonius “My lord, he hath importuned me with love in honorable fashion” (1:3:110). She believes Hamlet loves her and those feelings are requited, yet she still finds it more virtuous to heed the warnings and the wishes of her father and brother, and rejects Hamlet.

Knowing that Claudius and Polonius are listening in hiding, Hamlet tells Ophelia that he indeed once did loved her. She replies that he made her believe so, to which he coldly replies “you should not have believed me…I loved you not” (3:1:118). At this point, Ophelia concedes that she was deceived.

This deception, although it too may have been contrived as Hamlet was aware that Polonius was listening, contributes to Ophelia’s eventual madness, but the major factor in her decline is Polonius’ violent death by Hamlet’s sword. In an attempt to identify the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior, Polonius, with the Queen’s consent, hides behind a curtain during a conversation which the Queen begins by telling him that his behavior has offended the King. Having never acknowledged Claudius as King, Hamlet replies that it is the Queen’s behavior which offends; “Mother, you have my father much offended” (3:4:9).

Hamlet tells the Queen to sit and “you will not go till I set you up a glass where you may see the innermost part of you” (3:4:20). His outrage over her marriage to the murderous Claudius has reached a dangerous point. Overhearing this, Polonius yells from behind the curtain where he is hidden, prompting Hamlet to draw his sword, killing him sight unseen but believing him to be Claudius.

Initially, the Queen refuses to receive Ophelia at Elsinore. She is persuaded to do so by the   Gentleman, who provides her with an account of Ophelia’s state of being. He describes her as “importune, indeed distract” (4:5:2), and further reports that “She speaks much of her father; says she hears there’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speak things in doubt that carry but half sense, her speech is nothing” (4:5:4). To this, the Queen replies “Let her in” (4:5:15).

I think Ophelia’s mad songs were for both her father and for Hamlet. This is evident in her first lyric where she sings “How should I your true love know from another one?” (4:5:23).  This question could only be posed to Hamlet. Where she sings “He is dead and gone; at his head a grass-green turf, at his heels a stone” (4:5:30), and “White his shroud as the mountain snow,” (4:5:30) we can be reasonably sure that in her despair, this lyric she sings is a reference to her dead father.

e is dead and gone; at his head a grass-green turf, at his heels a stone” (4:5:30), and “White his shroud as the mountain snow,” (4:5:30) we can be reasonably sure that in her despair, this lyric she sings is a reference to her dead father.


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