In Act 4 of Hamlet, what do Ophelia's songs imply?

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In act 4 of Hamlet, Ophelia's songs imply that she is pregnant and has been abandoned by Hamlet. Whether she is pregnant or not, the songs strongly suggest that Hamlet has slept with her.

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From early in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia's brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius, express concern to Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet. The first time Ophelia appears in the play, Laertes advises Ophelia that Hamlet's apparent interest in her is simply a passing infatuation, "forward, not lasting, / The perfume and suppliance of a minute; / No more" (1.3.9–11). Laertes warns Ophelia against losing her heart and her chastity, "her chaste treasure" (1.3.34), to Hamlet.

The audience learns, however, as does Laertes, that Ophelia isn't nearly as innocent and naive as Laertes believes she is when Ophelia turns Laertes's advice back on him.

OPHELIA. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede (1.3.49–54).

A little later in the same scene, Polonius appears to be well aware that Ophelia's relationship with Hamlet is more serious, and more intimate, than Laertes thinks it is.

POLONIUS. 'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous (1.3.97–99).

Polonius cautions Ophelia against getting too deeply involved with Hamlet, "From this time / Be something scanter of your maiden presence" (1.3.127–128), and he advises her not to believe everything he says to her. Ophelia plays the dutiful sister and daughter and agrees to heed Laertes and Polonius's advice.

In act 1, scene 5, after Hamlet sees his father's ghost, Hamlet decides "to put an antic disposition on" (1.5.192)—in other words, to act crazy. The first person on whom Hamlet tries out his "antic disposition" act is Ophelia. Ophelia goes running straight to Polonius to report Hamlet's seemingly horrifying behavior towards her (2.185–112).

The question arises as to whether Ophelia was truly taken aback by Hamlet's behavior or if Hamlet let Ophelia in on his "antic disposition" secret and sends her to Polonius with her horrifying story, which Hamlet knew Polonius would take directly to Claudius as Hamlet intended—and which Polonius does.

Hamlet and Ophelia's first scene together, in act 3, scene 1, takes place in front of the eavesdropping Polonius and Claudius. Is this just another act that Hamlet is putting on for Polonius and Claudius, with Ophelia as his willing accomplice? Hamlet knows that Polonius and Claudius are listening in on his conversation with Ophelia. Why else would he ask Ophelia, out of the blue, where Polonius is?

Or is Ophelia truly upset by the ferocity of Hamlet's denials of his love for her and his harsh treatment of her that it starts her down the path to madness? Ophelia's light, witty, teasing banter with Hamlet during the "play-within-a-play" in act 3, scene 2 would seem to indicate otherwise, but Ophelia might be hiding some underlying distress.

All in all, Ophelia and Hamlet have a much deeper relationship than anyone realizes, and their relationship will have a much greater effect on both of them and the people around them than anyone, including Hamlet and Ophelia, anticipates.

Two significant things happen between act 3, scene 2 and the next time Ophelia appears in the play in act 4, scene 5. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, and Claudius sends Hamlet to England, where, unbeknownst to Hamlet, Claudius intends to have Hamlet executed.

There's no scene in which Ophelia is told about her father's death where the audience can see her reaction, there are no more scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia, and there's no scene in which Ophelia is told about Hamlet being sent to England. Ophelia is suddenly deprived of her father and her lover. Polonius is truly dead to her, Hamlet is symbolically dead to her, and she's left entirely on her own to reconcile her feelings towards each of them.

The next time the audience sees Ophelia, in act 4, scene 5, Ophelia makes reference in dialogue and in songs to both of these events, as well as to Hamlet and Polonius.

Ophelia first refers to Hamlet, "How should I my true love know" (4.5.26), and then she appears to refer to Polonius, "He is dead and gone, lady" (4.5.32). She might be referring to Hamlet, possibly believing or imagining that he's dead, because she again seems to refer to her relationship with Hamlet with a somewhat bawdy song, "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day" (4.5.54), that implies intimate relations between them.

It might be that Ophelia is upset by her father's death at the hand of the man she loves, and she's torn between her feelings for Hamlet and Polonius. She's likely also upset by Hamlet's sudden departure to England without even a word of goodbye between them, and all of these conflicting feelings are slowly leading Ophelia towards madness.

When Ophelia returns to the scene, she sings what appears to be a song that relates to Polonius, "They bore him barefac'd on the bier" (4.5.180), but the song ends with the words, "Fare you well, my dove" (4.5.183), which seem more appropriately sung about Hamlet than about Polonius.

Ophelia distributes flowers to Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and herself, each of which kind of flower has a symbolic meaning, and she remarks, "I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died" (4.5.197-198), which is a direct reference to Polonius. Ophelia then sings a song that includes words which appear to be directly related to Polonius—"His beard was white as snow" (4.5.209)—after which she exits the scene, and she doesn't appear alive again in the rest of the play.

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In act 4, scene 7, Ophelia goes mad. Hamlet, the man she loved, has killed her father, spoken to her brutally, and left for England. Ophelia's world has utterly fallen apart. Even her brother, Laertes, who might have offered some support, is away in France.

In this act, the mad Ophelia sings songs with lyrics that suggest she is pregnant. For example, she sings,

... Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed."
He answers:
"So would I ha'done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

Further, as she talks about the various herbs she has gathered, she says that the rue is for her. The word rue, of course, means regret, so she simply could mean that she regrets all that has happened. However, rue was also used as a way to induce abortion: as Shakespeare never met a pun he didn't like, there is reason to suspect she may be planning to use the rue to try to end a pregnancy.

Throughout the early part of the play, Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia to steer clear of Hamlet. It appears they might have warned her too late.

Other hints support the words in the songs. Polonius says in act 2 that Hamlet's words are "pregnant" with meaning, and when Hamlet tells Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery, which means either a convent or a whorehouse, we might keep in mind both were places where illegitimate children were born.

There is no actual confirmation that Ophelia is pregnant, as the songs only talk about sleeping with a lover, but the hints are suggestive. Suicide might have seemed to her the only way out of a situation that would have disgraced her and her remaining family.

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Ophelia's songs are first and foremost a way of illustrating the extent of her descent into madness—and not just because she is breaking into song at socially inappropriate moments. A well-bred noblewoman like Ophelia would never in her right mind discuss the topics that Ophelia sings about, particularly in the terms that she does: it was simply not acceptable for young, unmarried women to talk so openly and even graphically (e.g., "by cock") about sex (4.5.66).

The content of Ophelia's songs is important in another respect too, though. Certain lines suggest a connection to her father Polonius's recent death; she says, for instance, that an unspecified "he" is "dead and gone" (4.5.34). On the other hand, the sexual references call to mind her relationship with Hamlet—particularly because they revolve around the betrayal of a woman by her lover. In the song, the man promises to marry his lover only to discard her once she has slept with him. While we can't say with certainty that Ophelia and Hamlet ever slept with one another, it's not hard to see why she might feel betrayed by him. He toys with her emotions throughout the play (e.g., saying he loves her and then immediately denying it in act 3, scene 1) and ultimately kills her father. Polonius, of course, also treats Ophelia badly, using her as a tool to test his theories about Hamlet's madness. In fact, there are moments when Ophelia seems to conflate the two men in her songs; the lines "Which bewept to the ground did not go / With true-love showers" could refer just as easily to her ill-fated romance with Hamlet as they do to her father (4.5.44-45). All in all, then, Ophelia's songs point to the role that male manipulation and abuse has played in her decline.

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