I taught this section of the play today - when Ophelia goes running to Polonius because Hamlet has just appeared in his "distracted" state as she was sewing. We looked at a number of questions, and I thought I would see what the assembled masses of editors thought!
What is Hamlet up to in this scene?
Why does he choose to appear like this to Ophelia?
Does he love her?
If he doesn't love her, how does he show it?
If he does love her, why does he do this to her to make her so upset?
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My class and I just finished discussing this scene today as well. I like your questions, and there are probably many different answers, but this is what I think. At the end of Act 1, Hamlet declared that he would put an "antic disposition" on. So, he planned to act mad--perhaps so that he would be able to minimize his seeming threat to Claudius, to gather more information, to stall until he came up with a plan, to hide his true emotions, to provide a cover for his eventual act of revenge--insanity. He goes to Ophelia first perhaps to determine if she's with him or against him. He learns from his encounter with Ophelia, that she reports to her father who reports to Claudius. He can gather that she is not to be trusted. Yes, I think he loves her very much, but that this revenge thing has driven a wedge between them that cannot be dislodged. He cannot confide in Ophelia, so he must break off the relationship--something she's already done anyway. He upsets her but does not physically hurt her. He may be expressing his hurt that she has refused to see him (per her father's orders).
The theory outlined in the above post seems just as reasonable as mine. It seems to me Hamlet does, in fact, love Ophelia and needs to find a way to distance himself from her. Or really, for her to distance herself from him. While this turns out to be the beginning of an ultimate cruelty, Hamlet may have been trying to avoid hurting her feelings by simply scaring her away, if you will. I'm not so sure about the trust thing, as he confides only in Horatio and his realization that Ophelia has betrayed him to her father seems rather a surprise to him. I think because he did love her he was trying to give her a way to break off the relationship without his having to hurt her--which he of course did.
I am in agreement with the posters above. Hamlet does love Ophelia, and that becomes very evident at her grave. Had things been different, perhaps they would have married and had a long and happy life together. Politics, however, change everything. Hamlet must keep Ophelia at a distance so that he can concentrate on the issue at hand--is it true what the ghost tells him? Is Claudius really guilty, and if so, how can he prove it? He can not have Ophelia and her bumbling father around during this investigation. Therefore, he appears in disarray and in disturbed mental state to scare her off and to give himself the freedom he needs to move around the castle without creating suspicion.
I agree with those who think Hamlet was perhaps trying to create a distance between himself and Ophelia. He knows that the course he has set upon is going to be destructive. In fact he might explain a little about his actions in the first act when he says
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Very interesting discussion here. From a tactical standpoint, Hamlet knows that whatever transpires between him and Ophelia will be carried straight back to her father and from her father to Claudius. Appearing to Ophelia in such a distraught and irrational state guarantees that word will reach the King immediately that he has descended into a state of madness--his primary objective. Also, Ophelia's genuine, terrible distress and the very specific details of Hamlet's appearance and behavior that she recounts add credence to the perception that he truly has gone mad. In this respect, Hamlet uses Ophelia to further his objective. A subtext in his performance, though, does suggest that he feels genuine pain for his loss of Ophelia. He puts distance between them, but he can't stay away from her. During the performance of the play meant to reveal Claudius' guilt, Hamlet stays beside Ophelia. He first lies down at her feet, and then, with her permission, lays his head in her lap.
Plot wise, this is the impetus that embarks Polonius on the 'Hamlet is mad for love' rabbit hole that goes from Ophelia's closet to Gertrude's closet where he meets his untimely end.
Thematically, this is image/reality and love/lust. This is the 1st we see (actually, hear of) Hamlet's antic disposition. Also, up to this point we have only heard of this hot love on the wing, and yet on the three occasions when Hamlet and Ophelia are together they seem less than friends.
Did Hamlet love Ophelia? Ophelia tells us that Hamlet gave the appearance of love. Though in the nunnery scene he denies it was love; rather it was lust. But to round things out he professes in Ophelia's grave that it was love after all. Do we believe him? If so, do we believe Claudius and Gertrude's attraction was lust as the Ghost has Hamlet (and the audience) believe? Do we think that because Claudius is a beast their attraction was lust; whereas Hamlet who aspires to nobility, his attraction was love? Perhaps thinking makes it so.
I suppose it is all up to your interpretation of the play. I don't think he really loved here at all if he is so willing to let her go. I believe that he wasn't just acting mad as several journal articles have stated that he was truly mad, though on the other hand, there are also others that say he was simply acting. It all depends on how you treat the character to how he delivers his lines, and how he is really feeling.
It might be interesting to revisit this topic after the "get thee to a nunnery" scene. Does he really mean everything he says here? He seems to know he is being watched, so is this scene and the one of this topic all part of his plan to put Ophelia away from him so that she doesn't become collateral damage to his ultimate plans? His seeming "love sick" behavior here and his rather callous comments coming up in Act 3 are a contradiction that keeps Polonius and Claudius on their toes about what is true when it comes to Hamlet.
I think his reported visit to her chamber was probably a genuine 'lost soul looking for a hug' and nothing more. He's gone to her looking for comfort and love from because his world, and his mental state, are collapsing and he's looking for a relationship that is stable and reliable.
While it is profitable to study all the possible layers in Shakespeare's plays, don't ignore the possibility of taking things at their face value.
I think Hamlet is suspicious of where Ophelia's loyalties lie, unfairly I think, as a woman of that time had little choice if she wanted a roof over her head.
I think Hamlet acts this way probably assuming that he is being watched or that Ophelia will be questioned about his behavior.
I believe Hamlet does love Ophelia. I think he is conflicted about the entire "ghost" thing: avenge his father's murder, but what if it's a spirit of darkness trying to trick him into forfeiting his immortal soul? If he did not love her, I don't know why he would be so upset when he learns of her death and makes a scene with Laertes in the graveyard.
As I said, I'm of the opinion that Hamlet really does love Ophelia. His ill-treatment of her could be to test her loyalties (and I think she could have been loyal to her dad and to Hamlet, if he had given her the opportunity), and/or to make sure the information gets back to the King. If Hamlet appears crazy enough to be mean to someone others think he loved, they may not watch him so closely or consider him a threat—specifically, Claudius, Old Hamlet's brother and murderer.
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