View Full Version : hamlets treatment of ophelia

06-01-2007, 04:01 PM
I cannot understand Hamlets harsh treatment of Ophelia in the play. Why was he so unfeeling towards her? Ad why does he contradict himself owards the end by saying that he loved Ophelia?

06-01-2007, 06:56 PM
Here's what happens in this part of the scene. Hamlet is wrapping up his 2B speech within ear shot of Ophelia, Claudius and Polonius. It may well be that Hamlet is aware that he is under observation which may explain the cryptic nature of the soliloquy, but that's another subject. Ophelia is presented as the vision of piety, engrossed in her prayer vigil. Hamlet's first words to her are a request for her to remember his sins in her prayers. He has recognized her "pious action": her prayers. Other terms that jump out are "remember" and "sins".

Their opening lines to each other are distant and formal which is a bit of a suprise given what we have heard about this budding romance. As she formally greets him, How does your honor for this many a day?; he responds as if to a stranger, I humbly thank you, well. This the same formal response with which he receives Osric in 5.2 (I humbly thank you sir.) and the Captain in 4.4 (I humbly thank you, sir). Hamlet is being (or acting) very distant because he has become disillusioned by women. Casual observers of Hamlet accord too much credit for Hamlet's antics to the death of his father and the search for his revenge and not enough on his mother's fall from grace and his subsequent disillusionment with women.

We have been forwarned how Hamlet will receive Ophelia from her encounter with him in her closet (2.1). He does not see her the same way he used to. It is incorrect to conclude that he is merely acknowledging her (and her father's) rejection of him. Hamlet is the one who has changed, it is not that he is rejecting Ophelia specifically, it is that he is rejecting women in general. She accuses him of forgetting her, for abandoning her and what they had. The incorrect analysis says Hamlet is the one has been abandoned. That he is the one who is justifiably indignant, but this gives credence to Polonius' theory that Hamlet's antics are a result of neglected love. We know Polonius' assessment is wrong. Hamlet's reactions are not justified and are not rational.

To stir his memory, Ophelia returns some gifts (remembrances). He denies giving her anything. She even offers the circumstances of there delivery by him with words of so sweet breath composed. We have to believe her on this because of her description of Hamlet's attention as told to her father back in 1.3. At this point she uses an interesting term, to the noble mind. The noble mind is a rational mind, a reasoned mind, a mind that Hamlet aspires to. It echoes Hamlet's opening question in his 2B soliloquy. In other words if Hamlet was in his right mind he would understand. As Laertes suggested before he left for France, the perfume is lost. So she gives back the gifts.

Hamlet then takes control of the discussion to unburden himself. He isn't burdened with remembraces and noble minds (much as the Ghost would like him to be). He is confounded by the baser side of life and though he has more understanding of men acting like animals, he is hung up on the agility with which women can be so. Hamlet puts his "frailty thy name is woman" test straight to Ophelia. Is she honest and fair? In all senses of those terms Gertrude was not and though Hamlet is aiming at a particular definition of those terms, we as the audience are struck by Ophelia's dishonest confrontation of Hamlet. With that hanging in the air, Hamlet launches into his attack on womanhood.

This is without a doubt one of the more difficult concepts Hamlet delivers in the whole play. In this passage honesty=chastity and fair=beauty:
That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?

Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof. I did love you once.

Hamlet is telling Ophelia that if you are both chaste and beautiful, your chastity should not permit anyone to converse with your beauty. Chastity keeps away the lure of beauty that would draw it into bawdy acts, i.e., sex. Ophelia's reaction proves Hamlet's point, beauty has no interest in guarding chastity though by its very nature chastity has to guard beauty. Beauty has such power that it would sooner turn chastity into bawdiness, rather than chastity forcing beauty to be chaste. In other words for Hamlet, beauty is stronger than chastity though he used to believe otherwise (sometime a paradox), his mother's behavior proves it (the time gives it proof).

As Hamlet is talking to Ophelia his mother's bretrayal to him and his father presses on his brain. What he sees in Ophelia is a future Gertrude with him as her victim. But, let's back up a second and focus on an intereesting word Ophelia uses; "commerce". Here we are drawn into a subtext that is often mistaken for the main point of ths scene. Go back to 1.3 where Ophelia speaks of how honorable (equate that with noble) Hamlet was in words of affection to Ophelia as she tells her father of their budding relationship.

The subtlty of the word "commerce" connects with "bawd" which then gives greater depth to the use of the word "nunnery". But again this is an undercurrent of the scene that is more an indictment of the Queen than Ophelia. The direct use of the term "nunnery" ties back to Ophelia's pious action in devotional prayer. The use of "nunnery" as a brothel should not bury its literal sense as a place for nuns. A place that encourages prayer and where chastity is not endangered by beauty. And as Hamlet continues in his rant it protects her from the evils of marriage and the weaknesses women are inclined to, such as face painting, jigging and ambling, etc.

Hamlet is not pleading to save Ophelia, rather his tone is for her to wise up. Men are arrant knaves who don't love. We lust. His words of so sweet breath composed were not based in love but lust. She should not have believed him. Virtue cannot innoculate against our nature. Men are sinners. Why would she want to breed the likes of him. She should just get herself to a nunnery before she destroys herself and him along with her. This scene parallels and foreshadows his confrontation with his mother in 3.4 where the tone is the same.

06-03-2007, 09:04 PM
You have clearly explained the reason behind Hamlet's strong words against Ophelia.............But further in the play.......in the grave scene ....Hamlet cries out in remorse...."I lovd Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers"..........Is this a sign of his realization of Ophelias love......or merely another crafty statement to infuriate Laertes?

06-05-2007, 07:55 AM
I think Hamlet loved Ophelia. Its what drives his grief. It is an interesting irony that everything we know of this love is told to us second hand and it stands in contrast to what we actually see between the two on stage. Now that she is dead, Hamlet and Laertes' exclamations of love can go unchallenged except by each other. What we see in Ophelia's grave is first Laertes profess brotherly love by ranting to pile dirt on him as high as Mount Pelion or even Mount Olympus. Hamlet after making his grand entrance one-ups Laertes by challenging Laertes to match his tasks of professed love. These labors are just words and the scuffle between the two not only foreshadows the fight to come but it reminds us of past declarations of duty. Laertes in the grapple gets his fingers on Hamlet's throat and does nothing. Back in 4.7 the following exchange took place between Laertes and Claudius:

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?
To cut his throat i' the church.

As for Hamlet, for someone who departed 4 scenes prior with, O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth and now presenting himself as "Hamlet the Dane" in direct challenge to the King, he has completely forgot the Ghost.

So, I don't think Hamlet's aim is to infuriate Laertes. Rather, the play is very pointed in its portrayal of man's difficulty in translating resolve into action.