What is the function of the Polonius-Ophelia-Laertes family in this play? What parallels exist between their situation and that of the ruling family?
- In Hamlet, the Royal family is the focus of the plot. The Polonius family is the focus of the sub-plot.
- Hamlet is the protagonist of the main plot, but the antagonist of the sub-plot. Hamlet will have a hand in killing all of Polonius' family.
- Both sets of families spy on each other: Claudius uses Polonius to spy on Hamlet. Polonius uses Reynaldo to spy on Laertes and Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. Polonius spies on Hamlet and Gertrude. Hamlet spies on Claudius at prayer.
- Both sets of families form the Oedipal triangle: two males and one female caught in the middle. Gertrude is killed at the hands of the father (Claudius) - son (Hamlet) rivalry. Ophelia, too, drowns herself because he father and brother jealously confine her.
- Both sets of families die by the end. Hamlet kills Polonius, Laertes, and Claudius. Claudius kills Gertrude and Hamlet. Ophelia kills herself.
- Overall, the Polonius family serves as foils and options for Hamlet. He could talk his way to a resolution (like Polonius). He could take passionate revenge as a means of resolution (like Laertes). Or, he could kill himself as a means of resolution (like Ophelia).
In some ways, Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes serve as foils to Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet, but it isn't quite as clear cut as that. Both Claudius and Polonius are trying to scheme their way into power and to maintain their influence, but Claudius is generally far more effective and less bumbling. Polonius in some ways serves to show the ineffective side of their planning, etc.
Epecially if you get into the incestuousness of Hamlet's relationship with Gertrude, Ophelia serves as his other love interest, the acceptable one, but also one driven mad by the incredible circumstances around her. In some ways too she acts as a foil even to Hamlet because she is willing to take action and kill herself while Hamlet debates constantly whether to do or not to.
Laertes is impetuous and rash and very much a man of action, again acting in some ways as a foil to Hamlet who cannot do more than think and talk about it instead of acting.
Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia could been seen as dramatising aspects of Hamlet himself. Laertes is a crude revenge hero who explicitly rejects the moral limitations which govern Hamlet's behaviour: e.g. he's prepared "to cut his throat in the church": something Hamlet could not do when he came across Claudius at prayer. Ophelia's descent into madness and her suicide are hugely simplified versions of Hamlet's various forms of madness and his ethical objections to taking his own life. Polonius continually gets tangled up in over-fussy uses of words, a comic version of Hamlet's tendency to "think too percisely upon th'event." Hamlet is like an adult, thinking version of the three simple minded members of the Polonius family.