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.


Is Hamlet Faking His Madness?

While Hamlet’s mourning for the loss of his father, the king of Denmark, is genuine, there are strong indications that the madness he demonstrates is contrived. Both Claudius and Queen Gertrude acknowledge Hamlet’s grief (as opposed to his madness). Claudius even finds some degree of virtue in the manner in which Hamlet grieves as he tells him “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father” (1:2:86). At the same time, however, Hamlet is chided by both Claudius and the Queen for remaining in what they consider an excessive and unusual state of mourning. This is evident as Claudius, addressing Hamlet, says; ”Filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow, but to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubbornness; tis unmanly grief” (1:2:91), and earlier as Queen Gertrude tells Hamlet “Do not forever with veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou knowest tis common that all lives must die” 1:2:70). These passages indicate that Hamlet’s behavior is attributable to a state of extreme grief.

Another indication that Hamlet, although grief-stricken, is in full possession of his faculties is suggested by his presence of mind to pick his battles verbally as he concedes to Queen Gertrude’s demands that he “cast off thy nighted colour” (1:2:68) and abandon his ideas about going to study in Wittenberg. Hamlet states “I shall in all my best, obey you, madam” (1:2:120), which signifies a healthy thought process wherein he believes it best, under current circumstances, to agree to the Queen’s wishes in order to put an end to the beratement. At the conclusion of this conversation with Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet offers a clear indication that in the midst of his emotional trauma, he still has the mental capacity to reason and make sound decisions. As he contemplates suicide, he quickly rejects the idea because he believes such an act would be unpleasing to God; “Oh that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (1:2:130). The truly mad are not likely to be dissuaded by the thought of how their actions will be perceived by others.

The exchange between Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo suggests that the three soldiers viewed Hamlet as sane. After they relate to Hamlet the story of how the ghost of his father appeared to them as they stood watch, Hamlet decides to join them on their next watch in hopes that ghost may reappear. As the ghost appears, it beckons Hamlet to go away with it (1:4:56), and Horatio, for fear that the ghost might “deprive you of your sovereignty of reason and draw you into madness” (1:4:73), recommends that Hamlet not go, an indication that at the time, they perceived no madness in him.

The position that Hamlet is not mad could be rejected. It could be argued that Hamlet is indeed mad because he sees the ghost of his father; that seeing and interacting with the ghost in itself constitutes madness. In some other context, this might prove a valid argument. For the purpose of establishing that Hamlet is mad, however, the argument fails to consider that the sanity of Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo is never brought in to question. The guards are not major players in the story, however, it is to them to whom the ghost first appears, and then once again as Hamlet stands with them during their watch. If Hamlet is guilty of madness because he has seen the ghost of his father, then this must also apply to Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo; soldiers soundly fit for duty.

That Hamlet’s madness is a well-contrived ruse is suggested by Hamlet himself as he elicits an oath from Horatio and Marcellus, that they will “never make known what you have seen tonight” (1:5:142), and further, as he asks their loyalty to not renounce him based on some unexplained, unidentified behavior they will witness of him in the future; “how strange or odd so’er I bear myself as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (1:5:170). The antic disposition of which he speaks refers to the staged madness which he plans to stage before Ophelia. Rarely, if ever, do the mad make specific plans to demonstrate it freely and openly at some future time.

An opposing view might point to Hamlet’s wild appearance and violent demeanor toward Ophelia as evidence of his madness. When Hamlet enters Ophelia’s sewing room, he is unkempt and looks “as if he has been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors” (2:1:83). As she reports this to her father, Polonius, he questions whether Hamlet is “mad for thy love?” (2:1:85). Hamlet’s wild  appearance and strange behavior is the actualization of the plan he hatched earlier, the antic disposition to which he earlier referred as he made Horatio and Marcellus take vows of secrecy.

Another point that could lend support to the counter-view, the view that Hamlet is mad might be drawn from Polonius, who outright tells Queen Gertrude “Your noble son is mad” (2:2:92). Polonius believes this to be so because his daughter Ophelia, acting on advice from her father, has rejected Hamlet’s romantic advances. To Polonius, Hamlet’s unusual behavior toward Ophelia in her sewing closet, his madness, is the result of Ophelia’s rejection of him. Polonius, however, does not have all the facts. He is unaware that the madness was feigned.