As the play begins, Hamlet and Ophelia are in love. They spend time together and he writes her love letters. ( 2.2.106-125). This has come to the attention of Polonius who wants to stop it. (2.2.131-144). As Laertes departs for France he counsels her against the relationship, saying that Hamlet is not sincere, his love is fleeting, and cannot choose for himself, since he can only marry for reasons of state. (1.3.6-44). After he leaves, Polonius orders her to break off the relationship and forbids any further contact between them. She agrees to obey. (1.3.89-136). Laertes appears to have been instructed by Polonius to discourage her, probably believing that an elder brother has greater influence over a younger sister than a father. Polonius’ prohibition is more powerful after Laertes warning.
However, Ophelia is of sufficient rank to marry Hamlet. Polonius is a man of high state and nobility. Laertes protests to Claudius that Polonius was not buried in a manner fitting his high rank. (4.5.211-215) The mob cries to have Laertes as king. (4.5.101-08). In the graveyard scene, Gertrude says that she had hoped to deck Ophelia’s marriage bed with flowers after her marriage to Hamlet, rather than her grave. (5.1. 234-37) Polonius’ daughter would have been a suitable wife for Hamlet.
The real reason for Polonius’ discouraging the relationship was his position as chief advisor to Claudius. As Claudius says to Laertes: “The head is not more native to the heart, the hand more instrumental to the mouth, than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.” (1.2.46-49). He may well have helped Claudius obtain the throne. He must choose between Claudius and Hamlet. If he becomes father- in-law to Hamlet, it would put Polonius in an impossible situation. Claudius would no longer be able to trust him. If he helped Claudius to the throne, would he not try to do the same for his son-in-law and make his daughter queen? Polonius makes clear his loyalty to Claudius as “faithful and honorable” (2.2.129). He emphasizes that he forced Ophelia to break off her relationship with Hamlet, and that he told her: “This must not be,” and to “lock herself from his resort, admit no messengers, receive no tokens, which done, she took the fruits of my advice. “ (2.2.141-144). She obeyed and tells him that “as you did command, I did repel his letters and denied his access to me.” (2.1.105-107).
Hamlet’s dislike of and sarcasm towards Polonius is likely the result of his forbidding Ophelia from seeing or communicating with him. Out of his anger and bitterness he mocks Polonius and calls him names and a fool. “You are a fishmonger. . . . “These tedious old fools.. . . “That great baby there is not yet out of his swaddling-clouts.” (2.2.173, 216, 372-373). Even after killing Polonius he continues: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool. . . . This counsellor is now most still, most silent, most grave, who was in life a foolish prating nave.” (3.4.29-30, 212-214).
Yet, It is unlikely that a man as smart as Claudius would have a fool as his chief advisor. Polonius asks Claudius: “Hath there been such a time . . . that I have positively said ‘tis so’ when it proved otherwise?” Claudius replies: “Not that I know.” (2.2.152-155). Indeed, Polonius is a shrewd judge of human nature, as demonstrated by his advice to Laertes as he departs for France, (1.3.58-80), and his instructions to Reynaldo as to how to indirectly obtaining information about Laertes (2.1.4-70). Polonius prides himself on finding things out. (2.2.154-156). Had Polonius not interfered with the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet’s attitude toward Polonius, his possible future father-in-law, would have been much more friendly and respectful.
Later, Hamlet appears at Ophilia’s chamber and frightens her by his appearance and strange behavior. (2.1.73-97). She tells this to Polonius and that she has refused to see him and to receive his letters. (2.1.106-107). Hamlet is thought to be mad, and Polonius reasonably believes that his madness is due to her rejection of him. (2.1.99-103). Polonius reports his belief to Claudius and Gertrude. (2.2.145-149). They agree to test it by arranging to have Ophelia meet Hamlet as if by accident. (2.2.157-167).
When they meet, Ophelia returns “remembrances” he gave her, and accuses him of being unkind. (3.1.93-102). Perhaps this is a reference to Laertes’ warning or his frightening her. Hamlet probably suspects that he is being spied upon. Hamlet is on his guard after Rosencrantz and Guildernstern admit they had been sent for by Claudius, obviously to spy on him, (2.2.287). Claudius told Hamlet to come to the lobby. (3.1.29-31). When Hamlet arrives, Claudius is not there. Instead he finds Ophelia, apparently waiting for him, although she had avoided him up to that time. She obviously came prepared to meet him, bringing the remembrances to return to him. He may well have believed that this was a trap, and that he and Ophelia are being watched.
At this point, Hamlet also feels betrayed by women. He is angered by Gertrude’s hypocrisy and her overhasty, incestuous marriage to Claudius, (“frailty, thy name is woman”….) (1.2.146,138-158), and by her betrayal of King Hamlet, by her adultery with Claudius, (“O most pernicious woman”). (1.5.42-46,105). Although not stated, he may also feel betrayed by his mother who instead of supporting his claim to the throne, supports his rival, Claudius, in the strongest possible manner, by marrying him.
The suspicious and embittered Hamlet , rejected by Ophelia, asks her: “are you honest?”, and attacks her. (3.1.102-113). He also asks her where her father is. She lies and says he is at home, (3.1.129-130), when in fact he is hiding, and is spying on them. Hamlet, doubtful of her honesty becomes enraged and bitter, and is very sarcastic to her. (3.1.117-149) He condemns women in general: “Tis brief . . . as woman’s love.” (3.2.145-146). You “make your wantonness your ignorance.” . . . “If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.” (3.1.138-140, 145-146). After he leaves, she is despondent at his apparent madness (3.1.150-161).
At the play, Hamlet is again brutally sarcastic to Ophelia and makes lewd remarks to her. (3.2.108, 114-116, 240-241).
After Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia who loved both Hamlet and her father is driven mad by the conflict of her beloved having killed her father. (4.5.82-84, 159-160). Laertes accuses Hamlet of causing Ophelia’s madness. (5.1.236-239). At her funeral, Hamlet reveals the intensity of his love for Ophelia. “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.” (5.1,259-261).
The forced separation of Hamlet and Ophelia and the consequences are another of the tragedies of the play.