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HAMLET: ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY / ANALYSIS
ACT I, SCENE 3
In this scene, Laertes is saying goodbye to Ophelia, his sister, before he departs for France. Acting as a concerned and bossy older brother, he warns Ophelia not to reciprocate Hamlet's advances and professions of love, reminding her that princes are not free to choose their own wives. Ophelia accepts Laertes' advice with reluctance.
Polonius enters and gives his son some last minute advice about his conduct abroad. As Laertes leaves, he reminds Ophelia to follow his advice. Polonius immediately asks Ophelia what her brother has been talking to her about and is pleased to hear that Laertes has discussed Hamlet with her. This provides Polonius with an opportunity to talk to his daughter himself. Ophelia admits that Hamlet has expressed his love for her on many occasions. Unlike Laertes, who never doubts the genuine nature of Hamlet's feelings for Ophelia, Polonius scoffs at the idea that Hamlet's love is true and tells Ophelia that she is too young and inexperienced to see the Prince's insincerity. Ophelia tries in vain to assert the honorable nature of Hamlet's love, but Polonius cannot be convinced. He tells her to be more reserved in her associations with men and forbids her from meeting Hamlet again. Ophelia, a dutiful daughter, obediently agrees to do so.
In this scene, Ophelia (the daughter of Polonius, the sister of Laertes, and the sweetheart of Hamlet) is introduced in person for the first time. It becomes apparent through Laertes' conversation with her that she is the object of Hamlet's true affection. Laertes, however, is anxious to protect Ophelia from Hamlet, believing a union between them will never happen. Laertes explains the reason why Ophelia should discourage the advances of the Prince. He says that Hamlet, as a royal figure, is not at liberty to choose his own wife, who will become the future queen. As a public figure, he is simply not entitled to a personal life, for the safety of Denmark will depend upon him.
Additionally, Laertes, as a concerned big brother, warns Ophelia to guard her virginity. Ophelia accepts Laertes' advice with a hint of irony, telling him that he wants her to travel a steep and thorny way to heaven while he goes off to have fun.
This ironic reply shows Ophelia's sense of humor and loving acceptance of her brother's ways; it also points out that Laertes is known for being a bit wild. Polonius himself gives Laertes advice about curbing his conduct during his travels and later he will dispatch Reynaldo to spy on Laertes' conduct, certain that it is less than proper.
Being a man of the world, Polonius thinks that Hamlet intends to deceive Ophelia. When Ophelia talks about Hamlet's love, he has a rebuttal. When Ophelia says that Hamlet has made "many tenders / Of affection," Polonius develops it into a derogatory meaning of "offer for contract." When she asserts that Hamlet has protested his love in honorable fashion, her father dismisses his vows as fraudulent, like a snare set as "springs to catch woodcocks." He claims that Hamlet's vows are "mere implorators of unholy suits" that presumably have the sole goal of obtaining Ophelia's "chaste treasure." Obviously, Polonius is exceedingly suspicious by nature. The fact that he doubts Hamlet makes him appear foolish to the audience, for everyone, including Laertes, recognizes Hamlet's depth of feeling for Ophelia. She, however, is an obedient daughter and agrees to her father's wishes for her not to see Hamlet again.
ACT I, SCENE 4
The setting shifts to the outside battlements of the castle at Elsinore. As earlier planned, Hamlet arrives with Horatio and Marcellus, just before midnight in order to watch for the Ghost. While they are speaking to one another, a flourish of trumpets and canon fire is heard in the distance. Hamlet explains in disgust that this is a sign that the new King, his uncle and stepfather, is engaged in his customary drunken revelry.
Suddenly the ghost appears. Hamlet addresses the apparition as "King, father; royal Dane" and implores it to reveal the reason for its nocturnal wanderings. The ghost simply beckons Hamlet to follow it to another place. Horatio and Marcellus beg Hamlet not to obey the ghost, fearing it would be dangerous and could even lead to his death; but Hamlet ignores his friends' warnings, breaks away from them when they try to physically restrain him, and follows the Ghost. Horatio and Marcellus are convinced that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" and decide to follow Hamlet.
The setting again returns to the eerie battlements of the castle at midnight, serving as a flashback to the first scene of the play. The only interruption to the dark quietness is the distant sound of revelry at the castle; it is supposedly a celebration in honor of Hamlet, who has decided to stay at Elsinore rather than return to Wittenberg. Hamlet, obviously not in attendance at the celebration, expresses his disgust for the drinking orgies of Claudius. In his ensuing speech, Hamlet states that alcoholism is rampant not only in Claudius' court but also throughout Denmark. He sees it as the mark of the profound sickness that engulfs the entire society. Hamlet particularly feels that Claudius' indulgence for drink indicates his bestial qualities as well as his abandonment of reason and virtue.
The ghost appears as soon as Hamlet is finished philosophizing about the downfall of man. He wonders aloud whether the apparition is a "spirit of health or goblin damned." Eager to find out more about the king's death, Hamlet addresses the ghost as "father," showing his eagerness to speak with it. Hamlet is then willing to take a risk and follow the ghost. When his friends try to reason with him and physically restrain him, Hamlet says he will kill them if he has to in order to follow the apparition and find out some answers to his questions. Throughout the scene, Hamlet displays himself as the noble and sympathetic symbol of the grief-stricken son, willing to do anything to learn more about his dead father and how he died.