Did Hamlet Love Ophelia?: and Other Thoughts on the Playby Lenny Everson
Did Hamlet Love Ophelia?
and Other Thoughts on the Play
By Lenny Everson
rev 3: 2017-06-09
Copyright Lenny Everson 2017
Cover design by Lenny Everson
Chapter 1: Get Some Perspective
One of the biggest mistakes you can have in analysing Hamlet is imprisoning your mind within the play itself. Do not do this; judge the action and the characters in terms of the Elizabethan world.
Or, if, like any sensible human, you rate that sort of scholarship as something for people who need to get a life, then do the logical thing; measure the characters against your friends and yourself. (And against logic.)
I did some looking into books about the society of the time, but haven’t looked at a scholarly dissertation on Hamlet since I was young, and may be travelling well-worn trails in some of the things I say. It’s just that I wrote a novel, Hamlet; The Comedy, and these thoughts came up like groundhogs in a cow pasture. Download the novel; there are more useful ideas in it.
Societies change but people are people and always were. Hamlet’s 30, in an age when most people marry before 20 and princes are usually being matched up even before that as a matter of duty. Does that tell you much about Hamlet? Not the marrying type, or too creepy for women?
Shakespeare probably knew diddlysquat about Denmark, so Hamlet is modelled on English society. The feudal system. The royal family would own Elsinore and a bunch of other, less fortified, estates. And the nobles would be obligated to house and entertain the royal entourage when they came for a visit.
And so many are already crowded into cold, damp (it’s on the sea coast) Elsinore castle. Construction crews are working three shifts a day, banging on boards, building ships, and chiselling at rocks. Well, there’s a war in the offing and it’s safety first. But the result is like something between an asylum for people with “problems” and a submarine. Or maybe like a reality TV show where everybody’s plotting. Definitely unnatural.
Treat the characters like people who have been confined together just a little too long and it all makes more sense. It’s a very special situation. And download the novel, Hamlet, the Comedy. Check out the “pirate” theory (and other items).
Chapter 2: Did Hamlet Love Ophelia?
At the start of the play the prince has been sending love notes to Ophelia. Maybe he’s finally going to marry! But even before Ophelia’s father shoots down the relationship, Hamlet is asking to go back to school in Wittenberg. Can you imagine being a prince, with undoubtedly a generous allowance (gotta keep up royal appearances), in a rich and far-away city? Personally, I’d have a really good time there. Ophelia might look rather… provincial.
True, he sent her love stuff, momentary thoughts, but, as mentioned, he was rather eager to go back to school a week’s hard riding away from anything like battles and arrows and all that stuff. I don’t get the impression he mentioned this little fact to Ophelia before he asked Claudius for permission to go. You call that love? Well, hang on; there’s more.
Polonius, Ophelia’s father orders her to cut relations with the prince. He’s concerned that all Hamlet wants is a mistress within the castle, not a mate. He might know something; it’s logical to assume he’s been with the royals for a long time and knows Hamlet pretty well. He might even have helped raise the kid.
Shakespeare had only to look around at his British heritage as evidence. Given the number of dalliances between English princes and village wenches, a goodly proportion of the English probably have a bastard ancestor, fathered by a prince, somewhere in their background. Shakespeare certainly must have known about the appetites of Henry VIII for use as a model. Polonius is not so much the fool as he’s been made out to be; he was probably right in this case.
But that’s not the main reason to doubt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.
Polonius would, obviously, have no objection to Ophelia actually marrying Hamlet; he just doesn’t want to see her as Hamlet’s mistress. Fathers would understand.
Later in the play, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, tells us how she’d long hoped that her son would marry Ophelia. So there would have been no objection on her part to a marriage.
Is it interesting that Hamlet mentions love a couple of times, but never marriage? He sends a couple of poems (so schlocky that even I groaned. They were like the stuff you find in dollar-store cards). He could have written something more original. Or just added, “by the way, would you like to get married?”
Yes, it’s true, as Polonius points out, that princes are normally offered to foreign princesses to bond countries together. A marriage with a princess from one of the Holy Roman Empire principalities or kingdoms would have helped both national security and trade for Denmark.
But with both Hamlet’s mother and Ophelia’s father favoring a marriage, all Hamlet really had to do is ask Polonius for his daughter’s hand. Wasn’t done; doesn’t even seem to have been discussed. Maybe he wanted to go back to Wittenberg because he had a few girlfriends there. That would be reasonable, though there’s no way to prove it.
But that’s not the main reason to doubt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.
Now I hear you saying, “whoa, there, Lenny; aren’t you being a bit hard on true love?”
Well, dude, consider this; if it were Romeo and Juliet, the lovers wouldn’t (and didn’t) let parental disapproval stop them. Ophelia forbidden to receive missives from Hamlet? Pish – a technicality. Hamlet could have passed a note to his manservant to could have passed it to Ophelia’s handmaiden, and it could be argued that Ophelia received an unsigned note from her handmaiden with no proof where it came from.
Or perhaps a small hand-carved wooden heart shows up on her pillow, source unknown. “Love laughs at locksmiths,” they say or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” Ophelia would have got the message. But none of that happened. Hamlet doesn’t even seem to have considered a secret note. Remember, the laws of the time provided no punishment for princes, other than shipping them out of the country for a while.
Hamlet had no quarrel with Ophelia, ever. It wasn’t she who broke it off; it was her father. Yet the prince treats her badly. Rather than give Ophelia the slightest hope, he taunts her. That’s not love. That’s not an “antic disposition.” In Hamlet’s position in their relationship, it’s cruelty, plain and simple. Any girl in love can figure that out (go ahead, ask one).
But perhaps Hamlet didn’t trust Ophelia not to pass his thoughts on to Polonius or Claudius. Hamlet could have planted a made-up story (140 characters or less), sure to reach her, and listened for word of it being leaked to the rumor-press that’s always in a small, enclosed society. But I suppose that if he couldn’t trust her that far, quitting the relationship was a good idea anyway.
Put yourself in Hamlet’s pointy shoes. If you were 30, a prince, and in love, what would you have done? If you were Ophelia, maybe long past her normal marrying years, what would you have done? At the very minimum, you’d have communicated and waited for Polonius to die.
(After killing Polonius, Hamlet is free to do what he wants with Ophelia, although an apology, “sorry I killed your dad, but now we can do what we want,” is in order. But, I suspect, it’s a hard subject to bring up. Maybe that’s why Hamlet never does.)
Or, as I’ve said, they could have gone hand in hand to the parents and set a June date for a royal wedding.
Here’s a scene from my Hamlet: The Comedy, in which I imagine Ophelia commenting on the fact that, after his “escape” from the pirates, Hamlet writes a letter to Horatio and one to King Claudius, but not to you-know-who.
“Let’s see now." She held her flowers close to her breast, pursed her lips, looked at the treetops, and said, “My lover killed my father. I believe my brother’s out to kill my lover.” She looked me in the eyes and smiled again. “Oh he doesn’t want to. He knows it was an accident. But revenge is revenge. Speaking of which, my lover is probably going to try to kill his stepfather, because of what he suspects. And he’ll have to kill my brother to do that, I imagine. What a lucky little girl I am!”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
She held up an index finger, pointing up. “Let’s see if I got this straight. My father, whom I loved dearly, forbade me to associate with Hamlet. Queen Gertrude always wanted me to marry her son – did you know that? – but my father kept us apart. Luckily, my lover killed my father, whom I loved dearly. What a lucky, lucky little girl I am! So far, so good?”
I nodded, watching the clouds.
“So now Hamlet and I can be together. Yes we can, Amundi. It was a secret plan, Amundi. So secret that Hamlet never told me about it. Not a word. Not a wink in his eye when he denied his love. Not a note slipped to a chambermaid. No. And now, coming back from exile, do you know what letter he wrote to me, apologizing for killing my father, whom I dearly loved but saying now we can finally be together. Do you know that letter, Amundi? Have you seen it? Oh, there it is, in your hand. No? You’re watching the sky. Maybe it’s in a cloud. Maybe he wrote his love on a cloud. It’s only Horatio who gets paper from Hamlet; Horatio and the dearly loved stepfather.”
Even if I dismiss the notes Hamlet first gave Ophelia (and what relationship doesn’t start with silly, unspecific notes like that), what about the graveyard scene where Hamlet claims he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers?
Methinks he doth protest too much.
It’s a very public showing of grief, and maybe someone should have mentioned that at least one of those forty thousand brothers would have tried to clue her in if there were any love left. Not to do so was plain cruelty.
Yes, cruelty. Ophelia was in a heartbroken state through most of the play, went around the bend, and may have killed herself. For love. For lack of one sign of affection from her prince, in the (at least) three months between the time Polonius forbade their relationship and Hamlet was sent to England. One. Was that to much to ask?
No, the graveyard scene was for public consumption. Or is was because, Hamlet, finally, is getting pissed off at – himself. He spends a lot of time wishing he had deep feelings like other people. He tries to, but can’t work himself up to actually getting revenge for his father’s murder – or for admitting he never did love Ophelia a heck of a lot. But he makes a good show in public!
Listen to what Hamlet says when he finds out the funeral is for Ophelia. “What, the fair Ophelia?” Not, “Oh, no; not the love of my life?” His remark at first take is merely a comment on her looks, not on the love he had for her or she for him. That’s it, until he gets worked up enough to rant a bit in front of an audience.
Now go to a scene later the same day (likely), and Hamlet talking to Horatio. Does he mention Ophelia? Nope. He tells the story of his sea voyage and how much he’s been practicing sword fighting.
Then he encounters Osric, a courtier he doesn’t like. Some people think this is humorous. I don’t; I think it’s another episode where Hamlet enjoys being cruel to someone who isn’t in a social position to contradict him. Who can argue with a prince?
How many of those supposed forty thousand brothers would be in a joking mood so soon after burying someone they loved. Ha, ha. The funeral of a girlfriend always puts me in a jolly mood, too. See “Hamlet: What a Jerk” for a more on this.
Even during the final swordfight, when he asks Laertes to forgive him, he never mentions Ophelia, not for love nor blame. Even when they’re dying, it’s Laertes who mentions his sister and the wrongs Hamlet did. Hamlet just wants Laertes to forgive him for any wrongs he did to Laertes. What he did to Ophelia?It seems to have skipped the prince’s mind.
But that’s still not the main reason to doubt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. This is; maybe he’s hiding his emotions and thoughts well. After all, maybe it’s deep in his marrow and he hates to bring it up.
Bullcrap. We do learn the Hangups of Hamlet. We do it in his soliloquies and other monologues. The Truth Is In There. But Ophelia isn’t. Not in any of the monologues. She may have committed suicide. The ‘to be or not to be” soliloquy is a lot about suicide; you’d think Hamlet would have made a speech after her death. Yeah, right. These monologues are final proof of Hamlet’s real feelings towards Ophelia.
Polonius, like his son, seems to have judged Hamlet’s motives early. See “In Praise of Polonius” for more on this. Hamlet is 30. Old for a prince; immature for a man. He may pretend he craves normal feelings like love or revenge, but he puts both off until it’s too late.
As one of the characters in my novel says, “One of the great love stories of our time. Yeah, right. Hamlet’s love was about one verse long, as I remember it.”