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Hamlet’s Treatment of Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark

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            Regardless of it’s popularity the play, Hamlet, still remains a puzzle which scholars for centuries have been analyzing and debating.  Authors, of any genres, simply can not guarantee how their writings will be interpreted by future generations.  Much of the criticism surrounding the play Hamlet, deals with the duality of Hamlet’s personality.  Hamlet is, in some ways, a sweet and noble prince.  He is a poet and it dedicated to truth and justice.  The other of Hamlet’s personality is strikingly different.  The other Hamlet is cruel and nasty.  He treats women very poorly.  This can be seen in his intense relationships with Ophelia and his mother.

            Hamlet is drawn to Ophelia because she, in some ways, resembles his mother.  It is for this same reasons that Hamlet takes out anger for his mother on Ophelia. Shakespeare slowly reveals Hamlet’s complex through a series of subtle yet functional hints.  Claudius comments on the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude “The queen his mother lives almost by his looks” (Act IV, sc vii). implying an unnaturally close interaction between the two of them.  This shows that Hamlet must have a place within his mother’s life.  His deep desire for his mother attributes to his inability to love Ophelia.

            It is for this same reasons that Hamlet takes out anger for his mother on Ophelia.   This accounts for Hamlet’s mistreatment of Ophelia throughout the play.  Polonius believes that Hamlet’s is love sick over Ophelia and that is why he is going mad.  Polonuis’ diagnosis of Hamlet’s madness as being due to unrequited love for Ophelia was not so far from the mark, and he certainly recognized that his distressful condition was of sexual origin. Thus Polonius had the right idea though the wrong woman..          Even the ghost urges Hamlet to “Let thy soul contrive against they mother” (Act I, sc v) and give up his desires for her, so that Hamlet can avenge his father’s murder.  In it within Act III, that Hamlet’s Oedipal complex is directly seen.  Hamlet was openly abusive to Ophelia and Gertrude in the play scene, delivering the sexual innuendos loudly enough for the whole court to hear.  In this scene Hamlet is hiding in her closet, watching her carefully.  He confronts his mother about the murder of his father and speaks explicitly about her sexuality.  He screams:

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
(Act III, sc iv)

He explains that she could not love Claudius and that his father would not approve of her choice.  He continues on, with the play’s most explosive dialog:

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,–

            (Act III, sc iv)

            It is important to note that this scene takes place in the Queen’s bedroom.  The conversation symbolized Hamlet and Gertrude essentially “in bed” together and hints to a sexual relationship.  Hamlet confronts his mother with his sword drawn which Freud considered a phallic symbol.  The conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude, is not a son talking to his mother.  Hamlet speaks like a jealous lover chastising his girlfriend for sleeping with a different man and making their bed “enseamed”.  The Queen is extremely upset and actually asks Hamlet to help her figure out what to do.  At this point when Hamlet should have told her to confess, he urges her to stop her relationship with Claudius,  “Not this, by no  means, that I bid you do: Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed”  (Act III, sc iv).  Hamlet’s jealous orders restrictive his mother from being sexual with his “father,” making all Queen’s attention to be given to Hamlet.

            Ophelia is simply a replacement, or stand in for Hamlet’s mother.  The way Hamlet treats Ophelia is really the way he wishes to punish his mother.  Being unable to talk to his mother directly and having the same physical feeling for both his mother and Ophelia, he hurts the only woman available to him, Ophelia.  Polonius warns Ophelia to be careful of Hamlet, and he is right.  Hamlet is not right in his mind, and struggles to maintain the fine line between appearance and reality.

Works  Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997

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