Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why Did Ophelia Break Up With Hamlet?

Here's another one in the "timeline immediately before the play" series. When the story opens it's been two months since the king's death, right? And we've got Laertes telling Ophelia to watch out for Hamlet, and Polonius coming right out and saying "I forbid you to see him anymore" (paraphrased drastically).

Why? Why then? Does that mean that for the previous couple of months Hamlet and Ophelia have been cool, a couple even, and that the melancholy prince has actually had a girlfriend to rely on for some emotional support? And then, for no reason at all, the rug gets swept out from under him and she's all "Nope, can't see you anymore, sorry, take your presents back." It seems odd to think that right in the middle of all this is when Hamlet decided for the first time "Hey I think I'll ask Ophelia out." Gertrude even later says "we'd hoped you would be Hamlet's wife" or something to that effect, so surely they have a previous relationship.

Like the "Hamlet's friends" question, I'm trying to recreate, in terms a modern reader could empathize with, the lead up to the play itself. Guy's dad died. We know his mom is messed up at first, but seems to get over it awfully quickly, too quickly for most people's taste, and then goes and does something that's just so awkward it borders on gross. A couple of Hamlet's friends come to pay their respects. So the next logical character is his girlfriend.

What I want to do is blame Laertes. He's dragged back to the kingdom for the funeral, and can't wait to take off again. While he's home, he seized on the opportunity to say face to face what he's no doubt told his little sister many times in the past - Hamlet's no good for you. Only this time, their father Polonius hears the conversation. Who knows? Maybe Polonius is so out of it with respect to his daughter's actual life that he had no idea they were already a couple, and all he's really doing is picking up on what Laertes said and expanding it.

Looking at the text I see this line from Polonius: 'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:', so clearly he's got some idea. But I don't know how to interpret "very oft of late". I mean, I know what it means, but what does Polonius think it means? Did Hamlet's father die and then all of a sudden, with no other emotional support, Hamlet threw himself at Ophelia? Is Polonius arguing that Hamlet and Ophelia used to spend time together, and he realizes that, but now they're spending way *too* much time together, and that's what he doesn't like?

I guess I've come around full circle. The clues are all there that Hamlet and Ophelia had some sort of relationship prior to the play. But the Polonius says "Nope, give him back his gifts and don't see him anymore." We can explain away Laertes, the big brother away at college, who has probably never liked the idea of his sister and Hamlet. But why does Polonius suddenly take an interest, and make her shut him down?


Monica said...

I offer a counter-question: Why did Hamlet break up with Ophelia?

In II.i., Ophelia tells her father Hamlet has come to her room like a madman, shook her hand without talking to her, and looked at her as if to etch her face into his memory.

She can offer no explanation of this, though her father tries. We, however, know that by this point Hamlet has resolved to kill the king to avenge his father's murder.

We could see this scene in many different ways, but the way I've always like the best is that he is saying his own goodbye.

Revenge is no place for love. Hamlet says “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” IV.iv. He has no time for love.

But he also may want to protect her. In the nunnery scene, he truly seems concerned (for a bit) that all men are evil and she would be better off trusting none of them. He quickly changes his opinion when he perceives the set up. To this he hurt and lashes out, showing perhaps that he is still quite in love with her.

For me, Hamlet's lines sum up Polonius best: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool," (III.iv.) Polonius' attempt to meddle in his daughters love life, may actually be what causes her death in the end.

blog nerd said...

There was an impossibility to their relationship, socially. Polonius and Laertes know that he cannot marry Ophelia, they question whether or not his feelings of love for her are authentic or just lust, knowing that a marriage would be highly unlikely to be accepted.

They warn her against entertaining him--should he "tamper" with her sexually she would be ruined for an eligible marriage and she must guard her virginity and they, as father and brother, are custodians of it.

They are protecting her from sexual advances which could have no end in marriage.

One might also suspect that they know Hamlet is considered a potential enemy to the state and see him as all the more threatening to Ophelia.

She returns the "remembrances" to him because Polonius considers and presents to the king that a true passion for Ophelia, however unlikely an actual marriage might be, is what motivates Hamlet's "madness" and they set her out to return these letters in order to test his reaction to it.

Ophelia is being obedient, her true motives and feelings are rather opaque, though her later mad scene tells us that she suffered grief over Hamlet and quite probably loved him truly.

Duane said...

If their relationship was so impossible, why does Gertrude say that she thought (or was it hoped?) Ophelia would be Hamlet's wife? The girl's dead at that point, it's not like she's saying it to make anybody comfortable - she's saying it for her own benefit because she means it. I suppose there could be an air of "I wish that could have happened even though I know it never would", but that's just guessing at that point.

What I'm trying to get at is what the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship was like before the play begins. I understand that if he suddenly starts nosing around Ophelia in front of her brother and father, then it's logical for them to say "He's not good for you, stay away from him." But that would suggest that he's only just shown an interest in her, and it seems like the indicators are that they had some sort of relationship, and then it was terminated.

Monica said...

Social class is perhaps as problem. Laertes and Polonius both think it is for sure. But I don't trust their judgment. Hamlet says he loves her.

Laertes and Polonius say that he can not consider this assertion valid even if he does, because he must be ruled by what is best for Denmark. But remember they use an Election system. So, Hamlet doesn't necessarily have to marry a princess.

Gertrude says that she had hoped to make Ophelia's Marriage bed.

Polonius rather than trying to find out what could be done, instead tries to stop what could be the most advantageous marriage for his daughter.

blog nerd said...

What Monica said. And.

Their relationship was a secret--the play is littered with secrets bubbling to the surface. The beginning of the play has Laertes and Polonius suspecting what has been going on. Not until she reports the bed chamber scene does she come clean with the nature of their intimacy.

Mystic said...

I'm of the same opinion of Monica here. Laertes in particular points out that Hamlet will ultimately have to make the choice that is best for Denmark. As Ophelia is not royal, the problem of social class arises.
The fact that the queen TWICE remarks that Ophelia would be accepted into the family, a. When she says that she hopes that Ophelia's rejection of Hamlet is truly Hamlet's problem. b. When she stands at Ophelia's grave and states that she had hoped her to be Hamlet's wife, only ADDS to the tragedy of the play.
I often tell my students, "Hamlet is often a play of questions and not of answers." I think this is one of the reasons it is often considered one of, if not the best of Shakey's works.

Duane said...

Mystic's coming from the same angle as me, I'm just experimenting with how to answer those questions (even if they have no definite answers).

Put it this way : Imagine Hamlet was a friend of yours, and this story happened. Now, tell the story to a friend. How do you fill in the blanks that Shakespeare left? Because those blanks wouldn't be there for real people.

Steve Roth said...

Yeah, I think they've had a bit of a thing, I wouldn't even rule out her being pregnant.

At this point, though, the political camps have firmed up. Polonius and family are on Claudius's side. "What would you think of me," P asks G and C, if I let this continue?

They'd think that Polonius was in Hamlet's camp--not "faithful and honorable."


Mystic said...

I think Polonius asks G and C "What would you think of me..." simply because he is trying to worm his way out of a situation he has created. G has asked how O received H's advances. P must admit it was he who stepped in and forbid O to see H. If O's spurning H is the cause of H's "madness" then it is in fact P's fault. Naturally, we know that it is not the sole cause. P is trying to suck up to G and C, of that there is no doubt, but at this point in the play, they are still trying to find what ails Hamlet. C hasn't truly taken up a position against H, and the queen is most certainly not against her son.
As for the pregnant O theory.
There is no textual evidence to support it that I know of. The Valentine song, and Hamlet's "Get the to a nunnery" and "Nymph, in thy orisons
be all my sins remembered" are possible pieces of evidence that they had slept together.

MrShanley said...

Of all the major characters, Ophelia has perhaps the least power and control over herself. Everyone, even Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, outranks her in social class, political status, gender, birth order, or a combination of these things. She's at the bottom of the hierarchy, and we all know what rolls downhill. She breaks up with Hamlet because dad ordered her to. If she goes against dad, she can't depend on her boyfriend to protect her. And since Hamlet has personal and patriotic revenge on his mind, dating has to suffer. Ophelia, as well as whatever relationship she has or may have had with Hamlet, is the first casualty of the play. And Ophelia is powerless to stop it.

After frequent readings and class discussions, I've come to the conclusion that, in Act I, Laertes is more concerned with Ophelia's feelings and potential heartbreak in advising her to avoid Hamlet, whereas Polonius is concerned only with how Ophelia's behavior would disgrace him. A lot of this play would have been different if Laertes were to stay at Elsinore for Acts II and III.

Ray Eston Smith Jr said...

I think the turning point was the moment when Claudius said "you are the most immediate to our throne." It was then that Hamlet was "from himself...ta'en away" (or perhaps it was a little later, when he "wiped away" himself from his own brain and promised that his father's commandment would "live all alone" within his brain). He was compelled to forget Hamlet the scholar and become, tragically, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, who was no longer "free to carve for himself."

Polonius was wrong in thinking Ophelia was not a suitable prospect for the newly-designated heir - Gertude liked her. But Hamlet did not want to make Ophelia, like Gertrude, "the imperial jointress to this warlike state," a "breeder of sinners" - bloody, warlike Princes and Kings like himself (now) and his father and his uncle and Fortinbras.

Hamlet's tragic flaw is that he was untrue to himself - he let his uncle, his mother, and his father's ghost usurp the "sovereignty of his reason." Ophelia had the same flaw - she let her father tell her what to think.

Without that tragic flaw, Hamlet and Ophelia would have eloped to Wittenberg and lived happily ever after.