In Hamlet, why does Ophelia return the letter and presents Hamlet gave her?

In Hamlet, Ophelia returns Hamlet's letters and presents because she is acting according to the wishes of her father and Claudius. The two men hope to use this staged interaction to determine the true nature of Hamlet's sanity.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ophelia is being used as a pawn by Polonius and Claudius, who hope to discover the true state of Hamlet's mind. They stage a scene for Hamlet to encounter Ophelia as if "’twere by accident" so that the two men can spy on the former couple. Ophelia brings "remembrances" Hamlet had given her as further proof of her resolution in ending their relationship. She would be justified by anyone's standards. Hamlet hasn't been treating her with respect lately, and even Gertrude hopes aloud that Ophelia's beauty is the reason for her son's strange behavior.

When Ophelia tries to present the mementos, Hamlet denies ever giving them to her. Ophelia asserts that Hamlet knows that he did gift her these items and sweet letters, but they are now meaningless to her:

Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord. (III.i.110-112)

Hamlet undoubtedly realizes the truth here: Ophelia, the woman whom he seemingly loved once, has sided with Polonius and Claudius and therefore stands in opposition to him. He asks her, "Ha, ha, are you honest?" Though some interpret this as Hamlet questioning her chastity, Hamlet is likely questioning her allegiance. Hamlet's world of trusted allies has again decreased by one.

To Ophelia's credit, she doesn't have many other options. Hamlet hasn't filled her in on his plans to find out the true nature of the King, and he has given her every reason to think that his love isn't to be trusted. In this era, Ophelia is forced to lean back into the males of her own family as she determines her course of action. Her father has asked her to have this conversation with Hamlet and return his gifts so that he and Claudius can observe his behavior, and she does as requested.

Hamlet's comments toward Ophelia get pretty cruel after she tries to return his gifts; her father overhears the entire conversation. Afterward, no one offers Ophelia a word of consolation or even acknowledges her strength in listening to Hamlet's insults so that the plans of Claudius can move forward. The men use Ophelia to obtain the information they need and then quickly dismiss her afterward without any words of comfort or praise.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on May 26, 2020
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ophelia does this at the instruction of her father, Polonius. He believes Hamlet is not serious with her and is playing around. Polonius also tells Ophelia she is too young and inexperienced to be involved in (what he believes to be) a risky venture, as he tells her during their conversation in Act II, Scene 3:

OPHELIA
He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.

LORD POLONIUS
Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

Furthermore, he contends that Hamlet, being a prince, is far beyond Ophelia's status, as she is not royalty. Being the daughter of the king's adviser does not naturally mean she can have a relationship with the prince. He commands her to have no further relations with him:

I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to't, I charge you: come your ways.

Polonius also believes Hamlet is going mad and seems to be concerned about his seeming obsession with Ophelia. When Ophelia informs him of Hamlet's verbal declarations of love, the gifts he gave her, and the affectionate letters he wrote her, Polonius insists Ophelia return them.

In Act II, Scene 2, Polonius reports Hamlet's strange behavior towards Ophelia to Claudius and Gertrude, telling them he disciplined his daughter by telling her, 

'Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:' and then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort.

When Polonius later speaks to Hamlet, he takes particular note of his constant references to Ophelia and assumes Hamlet is obsessed with her and mentally unstable. 

In Act III, Scene 1, Ophelia confronts Hamlet and tells him that she wishes to return all the "remembrances" he had given her. Hamlet denies that he had given her anything. During their conversation, the prince gets quite upset and insults Ophelia, telling her: "get thee to a nunnery," for she should not breed sinners. He accuses her of lying. Ophelia is obviously unnerved about his ranting and calls upon the powers of heaven to restore him. Hamlet storms off.

Polonius and Claudius have been eavesdropping on the conversation and then discuss Hamlet's behavior. They agree that all is not well with the young prince. Claudius undertakes to send him to England, while Polonius advises that the king should ask Gertrude to consult with her son. If Gertrude cannot make any headway, Polonius says Hamlet should be sent to England. Claudius ends the scene by stating,

It shall be so:
Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial