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The Relationship Between Hamlet and Ophelia Essay

There are lots of reasons for the failure of any relationship – poor communication, personality clashes, personal crisis and so on. Couples often have the problem of ‘being too alike’ and find that they simply cannot get on. Although Hamlet and Ophelia share many similarities, they also have differences and there are a number of other factors that should be taken into account when one is looking at the failure of their relationship. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes and her father, Polonius, warn Ophelia of Hamlet. They try to tell her that Hamlet’s intentions are not good and Polonius likens Hamlet to someone who is merely trying to snare a stupid animal: “springes to catch woodcocks” (1.4.115). Laertes tries to persuade his sister that Hamlet’s love is short-lived and will not last: “The perfume and suppliance of a minute, No more” (1.3.9-10).

In doing this, and also asking Ophelia not to speak to Hamlet, it would seem that Ophelia may be swayed into believing that Hamlet’s love is not true. But it is here that we see that she believes in his love and that she must have some faith in him: ” he hath importuned me with love in honourable fashion” (1.3.110-111). This suggests that Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship could be strong even through hard times and even though some characters try to split them up. But, with Ophelia’s compliance with her father’s wishes that she should not speak with Hamlet: “I shall obey, my Lord” (1.3.135), It seems that she is willing to deceive Hamlet, just to please her father. Hamlet’s visit to Ophelia in Act Two can be seen to imply two things about his character – that he is completely in love with Ophelia and that her refusal to his advances, under her father’s wishes, have driven him to appear mad.

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This seems to show that their relationship has been put under considerable stress since its very beginning. This is portrayed by Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Hamlet in the film, where he acts the part in such a way to suggest that he really is in love with Ophelia and that they have known each other a very long time. Shakespeare’s suggestion of madness in the character of Hamlet is seemingly brought about by his indulgence in his grief for his father, and the sudden marriage of his mother, as well as Ophelia’s behaviour towards him. It is difficult to know if Hamlet is actually mad or if it is an act to intelligently deceive those around him. Many of the viewpoints concerning this come from film interpretations – Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet was clearly not mad, whereas Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation was slightly different.

Roger Day of the Open University comments on Hamlet feigning his lunatic manner when Hamlet talks to Ophelia: “There is then a disjunction between the way he behaves and what he actually says”. He is saying that although Hamlet behaves in a strange manner, what he actually says makes sense. Ophelia’s grief for the loss of her father may also have caused her madness, leading to her death. Both of the characters are deeply feeling, and both are seemingly genuine in a false world. Hamlet’s apparent cruelty to Ophelia and Gertrude in action and words shows that although he can at times be rational and forgiving, he can also be over-sensitive. An example of this is his visit to Ophelia: “He raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk” (2.1.95-96). When he is speaking to Ophelia in Act Three, Hamlet uses an abruptness and almost harshness in his speech: “I loved thee not”(3.1.118-119), “Get thee to a nunnery”(3.1.120).

But it seems this harshness is honest and this is something at times they can share. Ophelia’s honestly is shown when she describes her feelings for Hamlet and the upset that he has caused her. She compares his vows to her to music and she is hopeful: “the honey of his music vows”(3.1.159). She expresses her upset at his state of mind and acknowledges this: “Blasted with ecstasy”(3.1.163). Her sadness is expressed when she says: “O woe is me”(3.1.163). This shows that once Hamlet was perhaps a different person before his father’s death had the effect it had on him. Although honesty can be seen as a very positive quality, too much honesty can turn into cruelty and become extremely hurtful. Both characters seem to have a weakness in them that means they can be at times lacking in courage or the ability to take action. Rather than take immediate action for the vengeance of his father’s murder, Hamlet talks a lot about his thoughts and feelings to Ophelia.

He also talks to her with disrespect, which she seems to try and dismiss as drunken behaviour and vainly hopes it is not what he really means: “You are merry my Lord” (3.2.122). This weakness of character is also seen in the deceit each uses; Ophelia’s obedience to her father in which she immediately wanted to please him and disregard Hamlet, and the question of whether Hamlet’s madness is merely an act. In parts, this seems so, for example when Hamlet is talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act two. Hamlet may know that word of his apparent ‘madness’ will get back to his mother and the King, and much of what he says can have a double meaning, so it is not known if there was intent or real confusion: “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw”(2.2.383-4).

These extremes of character; sometimes so honest it becomes brutal and at other times extremely deceitful, are sure to shape a relationship, as although they are honest of their feelings, there is doubt as to whether a deeper motive is behind the words, such as to appear mad, or attempt to please your family. With any clash of personality, there are bound to be times when these similarities become too much of a strain. The indulgence into grief that Hamlet is seen to succumb to and perhaps a madness caused by this, may also have been something that affected Ophelia, as it is suggested that the grief over her father’s death may have caused her own madness.

Bearing these traits of character in mind, we can also see many vast differences between Hamlet and Ophelia. Ophelia’s sometimes na�ve appearance, such as when she is listening to Hamlet’s sexual banter, is an obvious contrast to his intelligent and quick-witted innuendoes: “That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs”(3.2.119), “What is, my lord? (3.2.120)” . This raises the question of whether or not she is being deliberately coy, in a way she would like to see as flirtatious. Ophelia also appears to be easily lead and not very strong-willed, especially when it comes to her father. However, Hamlet appears to be a stronger person in some aspects. He has a strong conscience, gains respect from Fortinbras and Horatio and seems well-loved, as the King says: “He’s loved of the distracted multitude” (4.3.4).

Ophelia does not seem to have a particular impact on anyone, except of course Hamlet. This flit of characteristics in Hamlet, sometimes weak and disillusioned and sometimes very domineering shows that he is somewhat confused. Ophelia is a victim, she is malleable, and this stays consistent throughout, with no real attempt of resistance to the harsh words and the orders placed upon her: “I shall obey”, except to try and defend Hamlet’s love for her. These factors also would affect a relationship because to have one weaker and one stronger in the relationship would see a break down in respect as there is in the way Hamlet treats Ophelia on several occasions. The misogynistic attitude that Hamlet adopts when he talks to Ophelia is another torment to her: “God has given you one face, and you make another; you jig, you amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance” (3.1.145-8).

Hamlet’s hostile nature in this way seems to contrast with Ophelia; she seems to bear no hatred, only hope: “O help him, you sweet heavens! (3.1.135)”. Hamlet is also a murderer and acts on impulse when Polonius speaks from behind the curtain in Act Three, which again contradicts his personality. At some points in the play, he seems almost to dither and yet at that point we see him attack straight away, thinking that someone who spies is not a worthy person: “How now! A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead” (3.4.24-5). When Ophelia is feeling the strain of her father’s death on her, she does not talk intelligently, but sings a song about funerals and gives out herbs: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance – pray you, love, remember – and there are pansies, that’s for thoughts” (4.5.174-6).

Hamlets ‘mad’ talk, although at times bizarre: “For if the sun breed maggots a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion – have you a daughter?” (2.2.181-2), seems to be intelligent nonsense; in one way it may mean nothing, but in others, it is full of profound thought. Ophelia’s nonsense however is merely the aftereffect of her shock, and although does show some relevance, it does not possess the same understanding that Hamlet’s speeches contain. This shows that Ophelia is perhaps not as deep and thoughtful as Hamlet and shows her as passive and not of great intelligence. Differences in intelligence can certainly make someone weak or easily used, and this is a major factor of the relationship; Hamlet says what he wants, and mocks Ophelia, and she does not even know he is doing it.

Although Hamlet and Ophelia’s personalities play a large part in the way their relationship is destined to end, there are some other reasons why their relationship is doomed. Ophelia’s family is constantly meddling in her business and trying to dissuade her from seeing Hamlet or having any contact with him. Because she is weak and perhaps one might even say pathetic at times, however hard she may try, she will still listen to what her family have to say and take it to heart: “For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour” (1.3.5). Ophelia’s family also put her down and tell her that because Hamlet is a prince she is not really good enough for him and that he may not be allowed to marry her: ” for on his choice depends The safety and health of this whole state, And therefore must his choice be circumcised” (1.3.20-2).

This will surely affect her outlook on the relationship and may not give Hamlet a fair chance. Grief is something that obviously shapes the character’s personality, and if Hamlet had not killed Ophelia’s father, would she have remained alive and sane? One cannot know, but certainly, the many signs of madness and a bad state of mind would affect the couple’s ability to have a rational conversation. The deceit that goes on shows a lack of trust, and in a relationship where trust has broken down, failure is likely to follow. To say the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is doomed to failure because they are too similar can be true because both are honest at times and attempt to say what they think but will then turn and share a deceitful nature. I think another way of looking at it is to say that it is the extremities in the personalities of the characters that make them have a weak relationship because although they do have some similar traits which obviously clash, it is also the differences that cause friction between them.

Ophelia’s naivety and lack of intelligence, contrast with Hamlet’s wit and powerful mind. The factors that do not come from the characters themselves also shaped the course of their relationship because they tested their ability to cope when the odds were against them. If the deliberate attempts to make Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship fail had not happened then perhaps things would have been different between them. But even if you take these factors away you are left with two very extreme characters who seem to go from sanity to insanity and security to insecurity. Although they may have a different way of showing it, each has secret motives and irrational behaviour at times, and I think the unstable atmosphere this creates can only push the characters further towards their doom.

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