Hamlet & Ophelia at the play

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Can you help explain Hamlet's behaviour toward Ophelia during the play.

-- Patrick Von Trapp (www.criesandwhispers666@yahoo.com), December 29, 2002


If this gets up, halleluia, and finally: the thing has kept saying 'Ouch' at me.

I've already posted what I think about this under some other questions. But here's the gist again, rearranged and added to.

I don't think Hamlet is intending to be cruel or anything towards Ophelia at the play, and I don't think his behaviour towards her is seen by her as cruel, nor meant to be seen by the audience as cruel. I think his remarks are pretty absent-minded (see my response under "Hamlet at the play" for why). Ophelia is not the lily she is usually played as. She understands his crude jokes, though she doesn't approve. She answers back, corrects him with 'Nay, 'tis twice two months, my lord', and takes him to task for his crudity as though he's a naughty schoolboy, Indeed, some of their conversation verges on flighting, such as that of Beatrice and Benedick in MUCH ADO. She even stands up to Hamlet when he has started attacking his mother and the King (III.ii.224-246), which shows guts. Ophelia isn't too stupid, weak or vulnerable to deal with Hamlet, even when he's at his most waspish; and it's only her socially conditioned sense of propriety which is offended. But, not knowing the full story of what has been and is going on, nor of Claudius' evil, there is little she could do to help or advise Hamlet.

Cheers Patrick, Maria.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), January 04, 2003.

Thank you for that, although it still doesn't help really to explain Hamlet's "flirting" or whatever one wishes to call it. His behaviour seems to be inconsistent with their previous encounter (the "nunnery" scene). Why is Hamlet behaving toward her like he is?

-- Patrick Walker (www.criesandwhispers666@yahoo.com), January 05, 2003.

Did you have a look at "Hamlet at the play"? That's why I think he's behaving the way he is. And (which I don't think I said there), I believe he loves her, and, actually, that he wants her.

III.ii is probably several hours after III.i. Hamlet and Ophelia don't enter III.ii in the states that they left III.i. What is clear is that that night, in III.ii, Ophelia seems largely recovered from III.i, but Hamlet is a mess for other reasons, and heated up and on the boil - upset, anxious, angry, hurting, hating, loving, etc, as well as pretending to be mad. He's not concentrating on Ophelia but on his mother and uncle. When Ophelia speaks to him he doesn't carefully construct and edit his responses: he just feverishly lets stuff burble out as it pops into his head. I wouldn't even say it is flirting; but, given that he loves her and that he's concentrating on his mother with his uncle, it's not surprising that sexual references are part of the stream.

All I can add is that this stuff needs a large dollop of empathy, as well as any analysis one can do. It can't all be rationalized mathematically; yet I do feel that each scene makes sense individually, and in sequence, humanly. Human nature and human relations are like this: they are usually complicated, and on occasions they are seemingly contradictory, and even messy. And depicting this so empathetically is, I think, WS's greatest strength.

Hope this helps. If it doesn't, then I guess I'm just not sure exactly what it is you're asking.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), January 05, 2003.

Okay. I have tried a thousand times to submit this all in one go but it keeps saying "OUCH!" so I will try and submit the letter in two halves as it may be too long a post. Catherine - you are totally i'the right! W.S.'s understanding of the human psychology and our behaviours were so acurately and truthfully observed. This, it seems to me, also provides many people with some of their greatest difficulties with Shakespeare. The Nunnery scene for example. They look for reasons in the play as to the cause of Hamlet's outburst and supposed "fury" at Ophelia, thinking that it is all that one dimensional and it isn't! Someone such as John Dover Wilson in his book What Happens In Hamlet, gives the theory that Hamlet should enter during Act II scene II before his "official" entrance, and therefore overhears Polonius and the King conspiring to use Ophelia as bait so that they can spy on Hamlet. (Olivier went along with this in his film version). Some people need to twist and squeeze the play, like this, any which way they can in order to make sense of something which at the end of the day is a beautiful and tragic truthful observation of the complexities and paradoxes of human behaviour, which in this case we see in Act III Scene I.

-- Patrick Walker (www.criesandwhispers666@yahoo.com), January 05, 2003.

Anyway, with all this in mind and somewhat side tracking from the point, I go back again to Hamlet and Ophelia at the play. I still cannot find any way to understand Hamlet's mind as to some of the things he says to Ophelia at the play. "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?", he asks. The first thing he says to her after their previous encounter. A witty and rather filthy bit of banter. Surely this isn't the way they would usually behave together?! So, here at the first, it is Hamlet who instigates the conversation. I liked the way Branagh used Hamlet's "Aye, or anything that you'll show him...etc" as a "Shut the fuck up will you, I'm trying to watch the play. My life revolves around this..." Still, there are some things here in this scene that I still cannot understand from Hamlet's point of view no matter how I come at it. While we're at it. Can you explain Hamlet's quibble "a fair thought to lie between maids legs"..."nothing"?

-- Patrick Walker (www.criesandwhispers666@yahoo.com), January 05, 2003.

Because stage plays involve gesture and movement as well as dialogue, I've always thought Hamlet says 'Lady shall I lie in your lap?' as a response to Ophelia (very understandably) staring at him. Why does he sit beside her in the first place? He needs to watch his mother's and uncle's reactions to the play. He can't do that properly if he's sitting next to his mother, as Gertrude asks him to. To sit next to Ophelia will give him a much better view; yet won't be suspicious. It's in line with the 'madness', as Polonius' 'O ho! Do you mark that?' indicates: Polonius still thinks Hamlet is mad for love, and sees Hamlet's sitting next to Ophelia as further proof of it.

Now what's a guy to do. He sits next to Ophelia. She's naturally going to stare at him inquisitively. But in III.i she has just betrayed him, knowing her father was listening to their encounter, and trying to lie to him about it. He does love her, but just now he'd naturally rather not be close to her. Vulgarity pushes her away to a degree, and keeps her off the scent of what he's really doing. Ordinarily he could probably think of a more sophisticated, intelligent way to do it; but this time he's in no shape to. He probably hopes it will indeed push her far enough away not to talk to him. But propriety requires her to give some sort of reply to the Prince, and she's made of strong enough stuff to sustain the electric conversation.

In Elizabethan-speak, 'thing' was a colloquialism with the same meaning that 'dick' or 'willy' has now. So it's fair (just, and also attractive) that a 'thing' should not lie between a maid's (unmarried woman's) legs. There is a further pun in that, women not having a 'thing', their sexual parts can be referred to as 'no- thing'; and where the man's 'thing' could go with a woman is shaped like a 0.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), January 05, 2003.

I believe that hamlet is not particularly mad at Ophelia, but is angry at the female gender. Hamlet having truely loved her was devastated at the fact that she would not continue to court him and on top of that he was angry with his mother due to the fact that she married so quickly after his beloved fathers death into an "incestuios bed" he became discouraged in all women.

-- Joe King (joe_kid2003@yahoo.com), March 18, 2003.

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