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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT III, SCENE I

Ophelia and Hamlet greet each other rather formally. Ophelia increases the coolness between them by presenting Hamlet with the "remembrances" (presumably trinkets or love letters) he has sent her. Hamlet refuses to take them, saying, "I never gave you aught," a remark that must be interpreted in a nonliteral sense. Ophelia, in her straightforward way, flatly contradicts him- "you know right well you did"- and begs him to take his gifts back, as they are meaningless when the giver is unkind. This rattles Hamlet, who feels that it is Ophelia who has been unkind to him. Not realizing that she has been influenced by her father's and brother's view of his intentions, he begins badgering her, challenging her honesty, and claiming that her beauty has corrupted it. "I did love you once," he says, and her reply, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so," only goads him into cruelty. When he takes back the remark ("I loved you not") her modest reply ("I was the more deceived") produces a violent outburst of disgust with himself, her, all men and women, and the whole process of sex and procreation. Does it seem out of character for Hamlet to lie about his true feelings toward Ophelia? Is it possible that he never loved her? Is he trying to return some of the hurt she has caused him? Has his mother's incestuous marriage caused him to lose faith in love itself?


Wanting to believe in Ophelia's virtue, he repeatedly urges her to isolate herself from the world's corruption, including his, by going into a convent or nunnery. He interrupts his tirade abruptly with the question, "Where's your father?" which suggests he may know or suspect that he is being spied on. Ophelia's answer is a lie: "At home, my lord." It is the only reprehensible action we ever see her commit. Hamlet, however, does not challenge it, and continues railing at her, causing her to call on heaven to cure him, for she now genuinely believes he is insane. He curses her marital prospects, attacks her and all women for their makeup and flirtatious ways, and proclaims that marriage will be abolished. "Those that are married already- all but one- shall live," he says, which must confirm Claudius' worst suspicions about what is really upsetting Hamlet. Urging Ophelia once more to go "to a nunnery," Hamlet stalks off, leaving her to moan miserably about the difference between his former nobility and his present demented state, "Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh."

The king and Polonius come out of their hiding place and ignore Ophelia's distress as they discuss their observations of Hamlet. The king, now surely realizing that Hamlet knows his secret, insists the prince is not mad (though his talk "lacked form a little") but is dangerous. His solution is to send Hamlet to England to collect an unpaid tribute to the Danes. (What else he has in store for Hamlet we can only suspect.) Polonius agrees, though still insisting that love is at the core of Hamlet's grief. He at last turns to Ophelia, but only to tell her she does not need to report what Hamlet said, as they have heard it all. To the king he suggests withholding announcement of Hamlet's embassy to England till the next day. After the play tonight, Polonius will arrange another interview for Hamlet, this one with the queen:

And I'll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference.

(lines 194-95)

If the queen cannot discover the cause of Hamlet's grief, Polonius argues, then send him to England or confine him "where / Your wisdom best shall think," presumably meaning a madhouse. As they leave, the king piously agrees with the old man that "madness in great ones must not unwatched go."

NOTE:

You can see here that Claudius, unlike Hamlet, is able to take decisive action without revealing his motives or his feelings. He is able to do this in part because he surrounds himself with gullible or obedient people. Whatever Gertrude may think, she registers no disagreement with his plans, while the doddering Polonius is not likely to be suspicious. In the previous act Hamlet warned Polonius not to let his daughter walk in the sun, which is exactly what he has done in this scene, and with distressing consequences. His plan to eavesdrop on Hamlet's meeting with his mother will shortly prove even more disastrous.

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