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William Shakespeare



At the court Horatio pleads with the queen to speak with Ophelia, whose distracted and irrational speech is arousing the townspeople's suspicions. The queen reluctantly agrees, confiding to the audience in an aside that her feelings of guilt make each bad turn of events worse than it is. When Ophelia comes in it's clear that she has gone out of her mind. Her hair is down and she communicates only in snatches of folk songs. The entrance of the king makes her change from a mournful tune to a bawdy song about a seduced virgin. When she leaves, the king orders Horatio to follow and keep a close watch on her.


Shakespeare makes the story of Ophelia imitate Hamlet's in the manner of traditional subplots. But where Hamlet's madness is a matter of increased consciousness combined with intentional deceit, Ophelia's is actual madness, for her sayings and songs have only the slightest bearing on the reality of the moment, however logical their cause. Like Hamlet, she has been shocked by her father's murder and what seems to be a lover's betrayal. It is hard to tell whether she realizes how closely the murder and betrayal are connected since, as you are about to learn, Claudius has kept the circumstances of Polonius' death a secret.

As Ophelia goes out Claudius remarks that her madness springs from her father's death. He discounts love as the cause, just as he earlier discounted it as a cause for Hamlet's madness. Claudius goes on to list for Gertrude the sorrows that are coming upon them now, "not single spies, / But in battalions": Polonius' murder; Hamlet's forced exile; rumor and distrust among the public due to the secrecy surrounding Polonius' death and burial; Ophelia's madness; and, worst of all, the secret return of her brother Laertes, who is accusing Claudius of Polonius' murder.

Confirming Claudius' worst fears, a violent noise is heard outside, and a messenger runs in to tell Claudius that Laertes has invaded the palace with a mob, and overpowered the royal guard; the people are shouting to have Laertes crowned their king. Another noise, and the doors are broken down, revealing Laertes and his followers. Seeing the king, he orders the others to stay outside and guard the door while he confronts Claudius alone.

Laertes attacks the king violently, shouting "O thou vile King, Give me my father!" The queen tries to hold Laertes back, but Claudius, with a great show of kingly calm, tells her to let him go since the aura of divinity that surrounds a king will keep him out of danger. Laertes demands to know what has happened to his father, and vows revenge. Claudius quickly asks if he waits to avenge himself on his friends or his enemies. "None but his enemies," says Laertes, and the king seizes the moment to add that he is guiltless of Polonius' death, and is in fact deeply grieved at it. He is prevented from going into more detail by the sound of Ophelia singing outside.

"Let her come in," the king orders, and the sight of his sister in her insane state makes Laertes cry out, "O heat, dry up my brains!" As Laertes begins describing how her madness fuels his passion for revenge, she begins another funereal song and tries to teach it to the others. She completely fails to recognize her brother. She distributes flowers to them (it was traditional at funerals for mourners to scatter flowers on the grave), and, after one more song of death and burial, dashes out, leaving Laertes stricken.

The king takes advantage of Laertes' distraught state to say that he shares the young man's grief, and offers to explain the whole matter of Polonius' death to a panel of his wisest friends. Let them decide whether I'm guilty, says Claudius, and then I promise to help you satisfy your thirst for justice. Completely cowed, the revengeful boy follows him out.


A comparison between Hamlet and Laertes is implied in this scene, in which Laertes comes close to achieving Hamlet's own goals- the death of Claudius and the crown of Denmark. But Laertes' violent, sincere but superficial character can no more accomplish this against the subtle Claudius than Hamlet could have. Laertes says he is prepared to "dare damnation" for the sake of his revenge- something Hamlet may not be prepared to do- but a few kind words from the king, and the sight of Ophelia, completely deflect him and make him putty in the royal hands. Notice how well prepared Claudius is for him, and how delicate his tactics are. Since Gertrude is in the room, Hamlet and his responsibility for Polonius' death are never mentioned. Using techniques you have seen him use before, Claudius flatters Laertes and refers to every question to a party of "wise friends."  


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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