While King Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, what does he tell Ophelia?


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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.



From the text:


90 Good my lord,

91 How does your honor for this many a day?


92 I humbly thank you; well, well, well.


93 My lord, I have remembrances of yours,

94 That I have longed long to re-deliver;

95 I pray you, now receive them.


95 No, not I;

96 I never gave you aught.


97 My honor'd lord, you know right well you did;

98 And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed

99 As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,

100 Take these again; for to the noble mind

101 Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

102 There, my lord.


103 Ha, ha! are you honest?


104 My lord?


105 Are you fair?


106 What means your lordship?


107 That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should

108 admit no discourse to your beauty.


109 Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than

110 with honesty?


111 Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner

112 transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the

113 force of honesty can translate beauty into his

114 likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the

115 time gives it proof. I did love you once.


116 Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.


117 You should not have believ'd me, for virtue cannot

118 so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of

119 it. I lov'd you not.


120 I was the more deceived.


121 Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder

122 of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I

123 could accuse me of such things that it were better my

124 mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful,

125 ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have

126 thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape,

127 or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do

128 crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,

129 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.


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