How does Hamlet's interaction with Ophelia in act 2 characterize him?

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Ophelia first appears in Shakespeare's Hamlet in act 1, scene 3. In this scene she interacts with her brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius. Ophelia's conversations, first with Laertes, then with Polonius, reveal that Ophelia has some kind of romantic relationship with Hamlet. Both Laertes and Polonius disapprove of this union.

Laertes advises Ophelia to avoid getting involved with Hamlet, or of being drawn into a sexual relationship with him. Polonius tells Ophelia simply to avoid Hamlet altogether.

POLONIUS.This is for all:
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.

OPHELIA. I shall obey, my lord. (1.3.138-143)

Ophelia next appears in act 2, scene 1. She hurries to Polonius to tell him how Hamlet frightened her with his strange appearance and disturbing behavior.

OPHELIA. My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me. (2.1.87-94)

Polonius immediately jumps to the wrong conclusion. Ophelia doesn't really know what to think, but she concurs with Polonius's mistaken assessment of the situation.

POLONIUS. Mad for thy love?

OPHELIA. My lord, I do not know,
But truly I do fear it. (2.1.95-97)

This is the second time in the play that Ophelia says that she's confused by Hamlet's behavior towards her.

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

POLONIUS. Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

OPHELIA. I do not know, my lord, what I should think. (1.3.105-110)

This time, Hamlet's behavior is even more unsettling.

POLONIUS. What said he?

OPHELIA. He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turn'd
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their help,
And to the last bended their light on me. (2.1.98-112)

This is quite a performance. Hamlet would do well to practice what he preaches to the actors later in act 3, scene 2.

HAMLET. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand,
thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest,
and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must
acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.... (3.2.4-7)

There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Hamlet's behavior. In act 1, scene 5, the scene preceding Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia, Hamlet speaks with his father's ghost, and then he confides in Horatio and Marcellus how he intends to behave.

HAMLET. ...As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on— (1.5.191-192)

Ophelia is the first known victim of Hamlet's "antic disposition."

Hamlet's behavior is troubling in that he chooses to exhibit his "antic disposition" so aggressively to Ophelia. He intrudes on her privacy, grabs her hard by the wrist, and seriously frightens her.

Hamlet might have intended that his behavior would cause Ophelia to go running to Polonius to tell him about the incident. He may have known that Polonius would then go running to Claudius to report Hamlet's "mad" behavior. That is exactly what happened.

Even so, Hamlet shows that he can be calculating, manipulative, and unfeeling. He acts this way even towards Ophelia, a person he professes to love.

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