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William Shakespeare



The next person we see, however, is Laertes, who is saying good-bye to his sister Ophelia as he prepares to sail back to France. What he is most concerned about is her relationship with Hamlet. He warns her not to trust the prince, not to expect that he will marry her (since reasons of state will probably match him with some foreign princess), and above all not to sacrifice her virginity to him. Ophelia straightforwardly promises to do what he says, and then saucily reminds him not to be a hypocrite, but to follow his own teaching. "O, fear me not!" Laertes begins, but breaks off the conversation sharply as Polonius comes in, amazed to find his son, to whom he has already said good-bye, still there. Having urged his son to hurry, Polonius now makes him listen to a lecture on how to behave like a man of honor and moderation. Some see this speech as the balanced advice of a moral and worldly gentleman; others see it as a series of cliches from a vain and pompous old man. After Laertes finally leaves, Polonius berates Ophelia for not resisting Hamlet's advances. When she protests that Hamlet "hath importuned me with love / In honorable fashion," he repeats Laertes' warnings, calling Hamlet's sacred vows "springes [snares] to catch woodcocks" and ordering Ophelia to stop seeing the prince. "I shall obey, my lord," she answers as they go off.


This is your first view of Ophelia, and you can see that her character has something in common with Hamlet's. She obeys her father, as he does his mother, and yet like Hamlet she evidently has some reservations about the principles on which that obedience is based.

Notice that when Laertes and Polonius describe Hamlet they could be talking about themselves: Laertes says Hamlet is hot-headed and easily swayed; Polonius, that Hamlet's vows are hypocritical. In terms of the play's overall imagery, note in Laertes' speech that on Hamlet's making a good marriage depends "the safety and health of the whole state," a reflection of the sickness theme.

Polonius' order to Ophelia not to see Hamlet, a decision made in suspicion and haste, will have serious consequences. The story of Polonius and his children is strictly speaking a subplot, but this is one of many actions that weld it to the main plot more strongly than any similar subplot in Shakespeare.


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

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