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“Still better, and worse”—Ophelia’s words to Hamlet in 3.2 carry a poignant echo of traditional marriage vows. However, the play in which they find themselves is not a romantic comedy but a tragedy in which the two characters are exploited by their manipulative parents.
Hamlet’s uncle-father and ghost-father trap the prince in contradictory male roles of compliant subject to a tyrant (“Am I a coward?”, 2.2) and murderous, hell-bound avenger (“Now could I drink hot blood”, 3.2).
Ophelia’s only parent successively casts her into the opposing female stereotypes of coy maiden (“Think yourself a baby”, 1.3) and then seductive temptress (“Ophelia, walk you here …”, 3.1).
Neither character is free to follow the advice given to Laertes: “To thine own self be true” (1.3).
#Hamlet and Ophelia: a relationship of "purposes mistook / Fall'n on th' inventors' heads."
Ophelia reports in 1.3 to her cynical-about-love father (“Affection! Pooh”) that Hamlet “hath importuned me with love / In honorable fashion.” Yet the prince also wanted to return to the life he loved at Wittenberg University, and stays at Elsinore only on the royal command of King Claudius: “remain / Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye” (1.2).
Moreover, how plausible is it that the “inky cloak” (1.2) wearing Hamlet could at the same time be in the grip of a deep depression (“all the uses of this world … weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”, 1.2) and under the spell of romantic love (“almost all the holy vows of heaven”, 1.3)?
We the audience may well wonder with Ophelia: “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1.3).
Prince #Hamlet professes love for Ophelia, yet also wishes to leave Elsinore.
After Hamlet’s “doublet all unbraced” (2.1) visit to her closet, Ophelia worries her father’s interpretation of the prince’s behavior (“Mad for thy love?”) may be correct (“My lord, I do not know. / But truly, I do fear it.”) and that her rejection of him has driven insane the prince on whom depends “The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3).
Hamlet intends his closet visit to “let belief take hold” (1.1) that her denial of his love is the cause of “the madness wherein now he raves” (2.2).
His other purpose is to ensure her safety; by pushing the “so affrighted” (2.1) Ophelia away from him, he seeks to ensure she is not punished as a co-conspirator in the event of a failed overthrow of the usurping “dread lord” (1.2) King Claudius.
Prince #Hamlet's attitude towards 'fair Ophelia' is both exploitative and protective.
Having exposed his two old schoolfriends as spies serving the king and queen (“Were you not sent for? … Come, come, deal justly with me”, 2.2), Hamlet naturally reacts with suspicion on suddenly encountering the woman who for two months has shunned his company.
Is it only obedience to her father that motivates Ophelia to collude in the “’twere by accident” (3.1) scheme to “sift” (2.2) Hamlet? Or, by encouraging the prince to recall his past love for her (“words of so sweet breath composed”, 3.1), does she also hope to rekindle it?
The prince responds with an abusive and self-contradictory rant—against women, men and himself (“I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious”, 3.1). And in his “it hath made me mad” rage he blurts out his murderous intention regarding the eavesdropping king: “Those that are married already, all but one, shall live.”
Ophelia tries and fails to trap Prince #Hamlet into revealing his past love for her.
Hamlet, through theater, and Ophelia, through the symbolic language of flowers, each exposes Elsinore’s dark secret: that the king and queen owe their position to a secret murder followed by politically convenient marriage.
“What means this, my lord?” (3.2), Ophelia asks about The Murder of Gonzago. “It means mischief” is the reply of the prince whose play reenacts his father’s murder and mother’s hasty remarriage. Similarly, Ophelia’s later distribution of fennel and columbines to Claudius and Gertrude conveys very specific messages that highlight the guilt of their recipients.
Polonius demands Gertrude discipline her son for his “pranks” (3.4). Horatio cautions Gertrude that Ophelia’s traumatized outbursts “may strew/ Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5).
#Hamlet through theater and Ophelia through flowers each expose the dark secrets of the Danish court.
Ophelia’s surrender to death in a “weeping brook” (4.7) recalls Hamlet’s earlier despairing wish that his “flesh would … resolve itself into a dew” (1.2). Moreover, her death leads to Hamlet’s, for it is at her grave that the prince challenges Laertes: “I will fight with him upon this theme … I loved Ophelia” (5.1).
Elsinore is a world where the old literally destroy the young. The self-serving motives of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s parents lead inevitably to their children’s deaths. The play cannot end with the marriage of Hamlet and Ophelia because of the “mirth in funeral” (1.2) wedding of the prince's “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2) that is celebrated at its beginning.
In an “unweeded garden” (1.2) poisoned by deceit and betrayal, the story of the unwed couple of Hamlet and Ophelia ends in Elsinore’s graveyard.
Like Ophelia, did Prince #Hamlet go to his death "se offendendo" - in his own defense?
The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in. If at the cost of his life, Hamlet does in the end “win at the odds.”
His “ambition” for Denmark’s crown leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she, to the water; he, to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.
A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.
Hamlet and Laertes journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of Old King Fortinbras on Old King Hamlet.
“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.