Act 1, Scene iii: Poloius’s Family.
Shakespeare devotes scene iii of Act 1 to Polonius’s family, the other family in the kingdom of Elsinore. Often Shakespeare structures his plays around a double plot of two families, like King Lear. Polonius is nobility, not royalty, but he has the very important job as “chancellor,” or a counselor to the king. The play implicitly suggests that Polonius is probably new to this role, appointed by Claudius within the month that he takes the crown.
Plonious: the “king” of his Home.
As one of the many characters who surround the “center-piece” of the play, Hamlet, Polonius is probably the most colorful. He is verbose — chatty and long-winded. He often speaks circolocuitously, which means that he uses a lot of words to reach a point, and often once he reaches his point, it is not the one he set out to make. Shakespeare often features a talkative, long-winded character — like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, or Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their verbosity often –though not always– represents a lack of perception and / or intellect. It also represents a character’s inflated sense of importance. Both are the case with Polonius.
At first Polonius comes across as an affable fussbudget, perhaps a sympathetic and concerned father trying to protect his children, Laertes and Ophelia. But as scene iii develops, and then particularly as the play develops, we realize that his affability both mingles with and covers up a more dangerous and toxic individual.
His greatest idiosyncrasy is meddling / spying. You’ve probably noticed that as the play develops he takes on the role of the King’s spy. In fact, Polonius meets his death in the act of spying, poetic license of retribution, suggesting that you reap what you sow.
Polonius and Superficial Wisdom
The first time we meet him (other than Claudius’s royal address) is when he comes upon Laertes who, in his goodbye, has warned Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. Pricking up his ears, Polonius wants to know more about this. Notice the list of advise couched in Ben Franklin style adages he impart upon Laertes before he leaves for Paris. At first the long list of advice he gives sounds like warm wisdom. But as the play progresses, and if one rereads the text, Polonius’s advice to Laertes sounds more and more like tired, superficial, hypocritical and empty wisdom.
Polonius Forbids Ophelia to See Hamlet.
Polonius takes up the discussion of Hamlet with Ophelia where Laertes left off. Importantly, we learn that Ophelia and Hamlet have been engaged in a romantic relationship. For how long and how serious their relationship had been is a matter of ongoing debate in Shakespeare studies. At the least, we know they have been involved in some manner.
Obviously, Polonius is very concerned about the relationship. Ophelia adamantly defends Hamlet and his conduct toward her. “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders/ Of his affection to me.” And, “he hath importuned me with love / In honourable fashion,” and he “hath given countenance to his speech, my lord / With almost all the holy vows of heaven.” Despite her defense, Polonius responds dismissively with, “go to, go to,” and “Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl.”
Feminist criticism of Shakespeare frequently focuses on this scene between Ophelia and her father. Ophelia has become a sort of symbol of feminist struggle and the figure of the female in Renaissance literature for feminist criticism.
When Polonius dismisses Ophelia’s affection for Hamlet, and questions her, “Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?” Ophelia responds, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think,” which is exactly how a Renaissance man would want and expect a woman to reply. “Marry, I’ll teach you,” Polonius tells her. “think yourself a baby,” he commands, then tells her to accept how ignorant she is and to listen and take his advice.
Polonius unequivocally tells Ophelia (reiterating what Laertes had said) that men, particularly courtly noblemen, use affections and words of love to “trap” women, “springes to catch woodcocks,” and that love makes men say romantic things that they do not mean. All of this, of course, is partly true. But as Polonius goes on, he tells her that Hamlet comes from a larger sphere than she, that he is too important to be serious with her, and that, essentially, Hamlet is using her for his momentary pleasure and that Ophelia is letting him.
He ends by commanding her never ever ever “to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. / Look to’t, I charge you: come your ways.” A Renaissance woman, particularly a daughter to her father, has no other choice but to say, as Ophelia does, “I shall obey, my lord.”
My Interpretation of the Inception of Ophelia’s Downfall
I interpret this scene and the interaction between Ophelia and her father, Polonius, to be crucial to the overall meaning of the play. First of all, I always ask myself and my students these questions:
- Why do Laertes and Polonius so vehemently warn Ophelia about Hamlet, and forbid her to see him?
- What do Ophelia’s initial protestations and defenses of herself and Hamlet say about her feelings and the nature of her relationship to Hamlet? And, perhaps, what do they say about Hamlet?
- How far should we trust Ophelia’s word about Hamlet? Keep in mind, by the end of the play, Ophelia seems like the person who least obfuscates the truth and has the least impetus to be dishonest or un-forthright.
- How might Ophelia feel about what her brother and her father say about the nature of her relationship with Hamlet? How might Ophelia feel about her father’s command and his prohibition?
I would suggest that, in this initial scene, we have the seeds for Ophelia’s self-destruction in Act IV. Everything here between her father and herself concerning Hamlet starts the engine running that destroys her in the end. \
At the same time, the same things that plant the seeds of Ophelia’s destruction in this scene are the ones that destroy Hamlet in this play.
The Central Theme of Commanding and Obeying in Hamlet.
Notice the parallel structure ending this scene and the previous one. In scene 2, Hamlet tells the King and his mother that he will “obey” them and not go back to the University. This scene, scene 3, ends with Ophelia telling her father that she “shall obey” his command that she never see Hamlet again.
A great deal of this play explores what “obeying” means, and the consequences of being commanded and, in turn, obeying or not obeying a command. Importantly, this scene with Ophelia comes right before the next scene in which Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father, who commands Hamlet to seek revenge and kill Claudius. Hamlet says he will “obey” the Ghost, claiming he will erase everything else from his mind except the act of revenge.
So this issue of commanding and obeying raises a lot of questions.
- How does Ophelia (or any adolescent, lovesick girl/boy) feel about such a command as, “I forbid you to ever see him / her again”? Does not, “I shall obey,” have a great deal of unspoken, implicit emotions and motives under the surface?
- How does Hamlet feel about being commanded not to go back to school? How would any scholarly, intellectual individual feel being told by the parents they they forbid him / her to go back to school?
- In the next scene, when the Ghost exhorts Hamlet to kill for him, how might Hamlet feel about his father thrusting this task upon him? Although he claims he will obey, what might be going on inside of him?
- And, generally, what are the toxic consequences of one person (or parent) commanding another (or child)? Is there not a complex fabric of power, authority, control and abuse implicit in any command? At the same time, are not many commands, even ones with good intentions, dangerous and / or unhealthy?
I would suggest to you that a great deal of this play explores Hamlet’s attempts (both inside of himself and in his actions) to circumvent the command / law of his father, to find alternative courses of thought and action, and the tragedy in the end of his failure to do so. By the same token, Ophelia constitutes a double plot, a minor plot that mirrors and clarifies the meaning of Hamlet’s plot, in her tragic battle to overcome forces of command and authority the conspire to snuff out her autonomy and, by consequence, her existence. I would also suggest that these two plots between Hamlet and Ophelia differentiate two different genres of literature: the Tragic (Hamlet) and the Pathetic (Ophelia).
In a post later in the Mod, I will explore feminist approaches toward interpreting Ophelia and her role and context in the play. For a really good essay on the issue of children obeying their parents, look at the essay on Hamlet in Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, volume 1. Goddard’s two volumes are excellent and clearly written essays on each play by Shakespeare, and give a nice critical introduction to Shakespeare.