Sc. 1, Lines 89–111: Describe Hamlet’s tone as he initially speaks to Ophelia. What gesture accompanies Ophelia’s words in lines 98–103? How does her action affect the tone of Hamlet’s response? Explain.
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In Act III, Scene I, Hamlet enters and delivers the most famous speech in literature, beginning, “To be or not to be.” After this long meditation on the nature of being and death, Hamlet catches sight of Ophelia. After a short conversation she attempts to return some of the remembrances that Hamlet gave when courting her. Hamlet replies caustically, questioning Ophelia’s honesty. He then berates Ophelia, telling her off sarcastically and venomously, with the refrain, “Get thee to a nunnery,” or in other words, “Go become a nun to control your lust.” After this tirade, Hamlet exits, leaving Ophelia in shambles.
In his scenes with Ophelia, Hamlet is relentlessly cruel, charging her with a lustful nature, a dishonest heart, a dissembling appearance, and so on. He builds up, in scene three, to an utterly misogynistic rant, beginning, “I have heard of your paintings well enough.” Men in the English Renaissance were obsessed with women’s make-up, which they took to be a symbol of feminine wiles, excuses, manipulations, artifices, and hypocrisies. Shakespeare, especially, has a long rhetorical history with this line of vitriol; it shows up in many of his plays and features strongly in his Sonnets. Readers have long sympathized deeply with Ophelia’s position in the play; as far back as 1765, Samuel Johnson wrote, “[Hamlet] plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.”
Up to this point, Ophelia has been given few lines and hardly a will or mind of her own; she has done her father’s will, her brother’s will, and Hamlet’s will. All three of the men in her life have defined her almost exclusively in terms of her sexuality and her beauty. Remember Laertes’ parting instruction to Ophelia, that she should not open her “chaste treasure” to Hamlet? Here, throughout Act Three, is Hamlet’s own iteration of the same patriarchal order, only now in a mocking, sarcastic, ghastly tone. The young and presumably innocent Ophelia is besieged and defined by fantasies of female lewdness and she has little power to do anything about it.