Sweets To The Sweet

In Hamlet, what does "Sweets to the sweet" mean?

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Brayan Effertz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As accessteacher says, "sweets to the sweet" refers to the flowers that Gertrude scatters over Ophelia's grave. 

This image of the flowers over Ophelia's grave contrasts with what the priest has just been saying, that "shards, flints, and pebbles, should be thrown on her" because she is a suicide. According to tradition, this means that, because she took her own life, she should not be allowed a proper Christian burial. Gertrude, however, praises Ophelia in death. Her brother Laertes, meanwhile, is dismayed at the priest's attitude, calling him "churlish" and declaring that "a ministr'ing angel shall my sister be/when thou liest howling."

Although Laertes also praises his sister, he doesn't really speak eloquently over her grave like Gertrude does. Still less does her lover, Hamlet. In fact, rather than respecting the dead, the two of them start a fight in the grave and have to be restrained. They really seem more interested in scoring points against each other than in grieving over Ophelia. Gertrude's moving address to the dead girl contrasts sharply with the undignified spectacle between Hamlet and Laertes.

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This quote from the play comes in Act V scene 1, and is uttered by Gertrude as she throws flowers on the grave of Ophelia. Let us just remember briefly what it is that she says:

Sweets to the sweet, farewell!
I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife:
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave.

The "sweets" that Gertrude is refering to therefore means the flowers that she is bestrewing the grave of the "sweet," which of course refers to Ophelia and her dead body. Gertrude is very aware that in a different world, Ophelia could have been her daughter-in-law and perhaps the answer to her son's problems and aloof nature. However, fate had a different plan and as a result Ophelia has died from grief and madness. The origin of this phrase, that is nowadays normally associated with romantic moments, is actually one of sadness and grief.

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