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William Shakespeare





    The father of Laertes and Ophelia is clearly a knowledgeable man. He holds an influential position at court, though the text never specifies what title he holds- or whether he is a holdover from King Hamlet's reign or newly appointed by Claudius, who appears to hold him in very high esteem. We know from Gertrude's reaction to his death that she is fond of him ("the good old man"), and that she has considered a marriage between her son and his daughter. In the context of the Fortinbras subplot, Polonius' name, which means "from Poland," is worth noting. Though a comic figure at whose bureaucratic doubletalk we are meant to laugh, he has a visibly sinister side as well, a penchant for political intrigue and spying. While his tactics are shady, his intentions are usually good, making him, like Claudius, a mixture of good and evil.


    Polonius' son is one of several young men whose behavior is explicitly contrasted with Hamlet's. A courtier in training, he is not a politician like his father, but proud, hasty, sincere, and utterly devoted to fulfilling the demands of honor- traits that will sadly prove his undoing when he falls in with Claudius' plot. Apart from the implied running comparison with Hamlet, the chief interest of his character is the genuine intensity of his passion for the outward forms of honor. To get his sister a decent burial, for instance, he will openly quarrel with the priest; to avenge his father, he will violate the code of honor and even the dictates of his conscience with the poisoned weapon. In his own way he is an innocent like his sister, comparing himself at the end, as Polonius compared Ophelia at the start, to a game bird caught in a trap.


    Ophelia is Polonius' daughter. Her name is generally thought to be derived from the Greek word apheleia, meaning "innocence." This is certainly a good description of her outlook on life, every bit as ingenuous as her brother's. It may not, however, apply to her sexual activity: The intensity of her feeling for Hamlet suggests that something more than a flirtation has gone on between them, and the bawdy "St. Valentine's Day" song that she sings in her madness must have been learned somewhere, though its words should not be taken as literally describing the state of their relations. Some commentators have expressed shock at the coarse language Hamlet jokingly uses toward her in the Play Scene, but aristocratic manners were looser then, and it is really no worse than some of the interchanges between courtly lovers in Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Ophelia's meek reactions to Hamlet's language presumably come not from shock, but from confusion over his abrupt change of mood and attitude toward her since the Nunnery Scene. She of course has no idea of the state he is in, and it is possible that she thinks his condition has indeed been caused by her following her father's instructions and refusing to see him. Note that in the conflict between her love for Hamlet and her duty of obedience to her father's orders, she bows to Polonius' wishes. Hamlet is less obedient to the orders of the ghost, his father.


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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