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J.W.Waterhouse: Ophelia

A short study based on Act 3, scene 1, "the nunnery scene" and
Act 5, end of scene 1, the dispute with Laertes


"The nunnery scene"

At the beginning of the play, as Hamlet has decided to pretend madness, he pretends he does not love Ophelia anymore, he even rejects her and insults her (Act 3, scene 1). This, of course, means that he has been in love with her before, has let her think that she was loved. Her pain is then all the more intense. Why has he chosen to feign indifference towards her, to reject her, to deny that he loves her? Why does he repeat "To a nunnery, go". There were many other possible ways of feigning madness.

What is important at that stage in the play is that Hamlet doesn't know what he's going to do yet. His meeting with Ophelia immediately follows his "to be or not to be" monologue. So he knows that if he does something, if he acts, if he kills the King, he will take serious risks and may die in the attempt. If he chooses not to act, he will lose his self-esteem. Whatever happens, he will not be fit for marriage. He will not be able to cope with the responsabilities of marriage, nor even with those of a sentimental involvement. Indeed when one is in love, especially if this love is shared, which was the case here, one is supposed to make the beloved one happy. Hamlet was supposed to get married to Ophelia sooner or later, to care for her, to protect her. At a time when women were totally submitted to their husbands, he would have had to be responsible for her. And after all, feigning not to love her anymore, he frees himself from this responsibility. This is in keeping with Hamlet's difficulty to make up his mind. Coping with responsabilities is enormously difficult for him. It takes him a whole play to do what his father's ghost asks him to do in the first act.

Another reason why he rejects her is that marriage itself has become abhorrent to him. Because he has recently realised that his mother's second marriage is only a betrayal of love and of everything that is noble in life. "I say, we will have no more marriages". Another character might have been terribly shocked but not directly affected in his sentimental life. Another than Hamlet could have
thought. "This is a terrible shame, but I'm different, my love for Ophelia is different and pure and I will always be true to her". But Hamlet  loves his mother dearly, and  he totally lacks self-confidence
As he has lost his faith in his beloved mother, he loses his faith in Ophelia because she is the other woman he loves. This is what he expresses when he questions her honesty in a rather obscure way : " That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty" Meaning : you cannot be both beautiful and honest. If you are beautiful, which I can see, which is obvious, therefore you can't be honest. My mother is beautiful and she is not honest.

So, if at one point he believed in his love for Ophelia, he doesn't believe in marriage anymore nor in Ophelia anymore, and most of all he doesn't believe in himself sufficiently to fight his doubts and gloomy forebodings.
 Does it mean that his love was not sincere? On the contrary, most probably, he loved her as much as he could. But he couldn't love much. He was much so preoccupied by his own problems, his difficulty to face life, that he could not give much of himself to another person, be it the woman he loved. It is indeed the dominating trait of weak people. They love themselves (but also hate themselves) too much to be able to love others.

The dispute with Laertes

It is only after Ophelia's death that Hamlet declares his love for her.

 Hamlet declares his love for Ophelia as she is lying in her grave and as unexpectedly, he has witnessed the scene of her burial. In fact his declaration of love is a reaction to that of Laertes, the young woman's brother who has in a very short span of time lost his father  (assassinated by mistake by Hamlet) and his beloved sister  whose death he can also blame on the young prince. It is indeed her madness which has killed Ophelia, it is this sweet madness (sweet because she was the sweetest, purest girl) which has deprived her of any reaction after her fall into the brook. She has, in a way, let her life go along with the waters of the stream and Hamlet, Hamlet alone, is responsible for that. First because he has, feigning madness, rejected her, and second because he (the man she loved) has killed her father. Therefore, Laertes has all the reasons in the world to hate Hamlet. But Hamlet has no reason to hate Laertes. However it is to defy him that he tries to show that he loved the young man's sister better than him. It is this need to aggress Laertes which triggers his passion and leads him to declare that "forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up [his] sum."
 Why does he aggress Laertes thus? Most probably to take the lead, the advantage, not to let Laertes have the time to aggress him first. By attacking him (here, verbally) he protects himself from an attack he instinctively fears, an attack which could have been justly provoked by a suffering whose responsibility Hamlet is not ready to assume.
 And to give himself strength, he loses all sense of measure to "outface" Ophelia's brother: He dares him to do crazy things like "eating a crocodile", and like Laertes, wishes to be buried in the young woman's grave, trying here again to outface him. "let them throw / Millions of acres on us, till our ground / Singeing his pate against the burning zone, / Make Ossa like a wart."
 Finally realizing he has been talking nonsense, he confesses "I'll rant as well as thou." And this remark, shows at the same time, the exaggeration of Laertes's demonstrations of pain, but it can also make us doubt of Hamlet's own love. Has he just been "ranting"? Has he been sincere?

 In fact, as we have seen it above, the nature of Hamlet's strange love for Ophelia is determined by his weak personality. And so is the nature of everybody's love: we love in function of what we are, not as we usually think in function of whom we love.

J.E. Millais : Ophelia

Hamlet, anti-hero and modern man

Many things have been said about Hamlet's personality, especially that he is the first anti-hero in literature, he is the first modern man too.
I think this is quite true : For Hamlet, the difficult thing is to make a decision, to act. And if it is the case it is because he doesn't feel life is really worth the effort. He is the kind of guy who sees the glass as half empty, never as half full. Life is only "a sea of troubles" (cf the "to be or not to be" monologue in which he paints everything black : living a long life, love, the law, courtiers, etc).
The classic hero is a man with a mission,  a destiny to accomplish, a series of duties which he doesn't question and which he will perform whatever the consequences, even if they are contrary to his deepest wishes. It is "Le Cid"  who doesn't hesistate so long before he chooses his duty rather than his love. Hamlet is more or less confronted to the same choice. To be true to his father and to his own sense of honor he has to act against his own inclination. But for him, the choice is not so simple. He has to feign madness to be able to come out and do it.This is a way to escape responsibilities. If the King is killed in the end it will not be by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but by a poor tormented soul. And it is so difficult for him to find the strength to act that the first time he acts, it is on an impulse and it is a total fiasco as he kills the poor Polonius instead of his uncle. It is only after having gone away and come back, after Ophelia's death, after having meditated again and again that he will finally accomplished his mission.

Why is such an attitude that of a modern man?
Because the modern man doesn't live in a world of certainties. He is confronted to his own freedom of thought. It is easier to obey the rules of strict religious morals, to comply to those of society without questionning them. The men of the Middle Ages had little choice but to comply. Hamlet is not even a rebel, he doesn't even question the rules.They are just irrelevant. He is beyond that. He only refers to himself. He does not appeal to God for help when he meditates. He has to face his dilemmas alone.
He is also a modern man because he is instrospective and preoccupied with his own self. In the century that has just come to an end, most modern societies have focussed on the individual. A concern for the common good still exists of course, but it is first and foremost an addition of private, individual interests. Hamlet never asks himself: "
Must I kill my uncle for the good of my country? Must I serve?" He merely wonders how he, himself, can live on in dishonor.
Which doesn't mean that this "modern" attitude, this form of selfishness is the best possible attitude a human being can have. But it is undoubtedly very common nowadays. I suppose it already was in Shakespeare's time, but was mostly unseen, undetected because it did not correspond to the behavioural patterns of the time. But Shakespeare was Shakespeare and no aspect of human nature was foreign to him.

Hamlet's destiny
As to his destiny, it is to accomplish the work of the great reaper in the end. He, who hesitated to kill one person (the king), which by the standards of the time would only have been justice, ends up being responsible for the death of many who are innocent (including himself).
Shakespeare's lesson is perhaps that indecision is a dangerous game.

a synopsis and a study of the sleep-walking scene
Romeo and Juliet
a short and simple essay about the universal character of the play
For some information about the great Will and about Stratford where he lived before he became an actor in London:
.and for a short but interesting biography of Skakespeare, plus a visit of
the Globe Theatre
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