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.
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