In Hamlet act 3, why is Hamlet so brutal to Ophelia?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There's much debate as to why Hamlet is so brutal towards Ophelia. First, she enters as he is contemplating suicide, so he is not in a good state of mind. Second, we know this is not the first time he has been brutal, for as she gives back the gifts, she says 

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
Hamlet at this point also doesn't know who to trust. He realizes that the Danish court is rife with corruption. He is right not to trust Ophelia, because she has been told by her father and Claudius to speak to Hamlet while the twosome hide and spy on the conversation. Polonius even sets up the scene by giving Ophelia the "prop" of a prayerbook as if it was little play, saying:
'Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself.
Although some of his behavior is an act, Hamlet's mental state has become more and more frenzied as he realizes that Claudius almost certainly murdered his father, and as he, for the first time, truly understands the depths of depravity all people, including himself, are capable of. Evil is no longer abstract for him, but something that has entered the bosom of his own family and that he recognizes in himself. 
Further, Hamlet is increasingly disgusted with his mother for so quickly marrying Claudius. He projects the idea of his mother's infidelity onto women in general, including Ophelia. A Freudian reading argues that he is desperately repressing his own Oedipal desire, which was enacted by Claudius, to kill his father and marry his mother. Hamlet represses his sexual desire by rejecting all women. He also thinks, as he indicates in the following line, that he will soon murder Claudius, for he says "all but one" married person will live. In rejecting Ophelia, he may be protecting her from the ugliness of what it to come. He says: 

 I say, we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live.

Hamlet thus has many reasons for speaking...

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