What reasons do Laertes and Polonius give for commanding Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet?

Expert Answers

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

Laertes and Polonius both give similar reasons for Ophelia to mistrust Hamlet's affection. Both offer the advice to "fear" Hamlet's affections.

Laertes suggests that young men tend to flirt with and seduce women with only marginal sincerity. He offers his sister arguments based on what young men feel regarding romantic entanglements:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Alternatively, even if Hamlet is sincere, his will in marriage is not his own, given that he is a prince of Denmark and must think of diplomatic marriages:
His greatness weighed, his will is not his own,
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Similarly, Polonius turns Ophelia's word "tenders," meaning the treasured expressions and gifts of Hamlet's love, into a synonym for sexuality:
Marry, I’ll teach you. Think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,
Or—not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus—you’ll tender me a fool.
On the verge of adulthood, Ophelia is instructed mistrust her own affections, mistrust Hamlet's affections, and mistrust the world of men. She is treated like a child unable to discern truth for herself.
From Laertes' and Polonius' point of view, these may be reasonable given their orientation toward the world, yet they seem unlikely to be true of Hamlet, who at the outset declares that "he knows not seems." By rejecting him, Ophelia causes Hamlet to feel betrayed and to turn on her, wrongly seeming to fulfill the expectations her family presented. Moreover, these men's attempt to live a life of evasion and indirection, rather than simply seek truth from another, is bad advice within the play. Everyone projects meaning onto other characters, usually to disastrous ends. In doing that here with Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius damage both Ophelia and Hamlet.
Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Laertes tells Ophelia that she should think of Hamlet's feelings as something more akin to lust or infatuation rather than love.  He says that she should consider them as "The perfume and suppliance of a minute / No more" (1.3.10-11).  However, even if Hamlet does truly love her, Laertes believes that he will not be able to choose his spouse for himself due to his royal status.  He says,

"He may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself, for on his choice depends / The safety and the health of this whole state" (1.3.22-24). 

Further, he calls Hamlet's potential sexual desire a "danger" to her and constructs a rather graphic metaphor about a cankerworm that destroys the young flower buds in the spring to show how a sexual relationship with Hamlet will ruin her.  He does seem to give Hamlet the benefit of the doubt, believing that Hamlet honestly does have or thinks he has genuine feelings for Ophelia.

When Ophelia speaks with her father, Polonius, he advises her to make herself a little more scarce when it comes to Hamlet.  He tells her,

"Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers, / Not of that dye which their investments show, / But mere implorators of unholy suits, / Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds / The better to beguile" (1.3.136-140). 

In other words, she should not believe Hamlet's pretty words of love because they are really meant to deceive her and lead her into a sexual relationship.  He is ultimately suspicious of Hamlet's motives and the danger they pose to his daughter's reputation.

Given the time period, these do seem to be reasonable concerns.  If Ophelia engages in a sexual relationship with Hamlet, her reputation could be ruined absolutely, and it seems understandable that her brother and father would be concerned for her, especially because they would be tainted by her disgrace.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Laertes suggests Hamlet's attentions were essentially youthful passions driven by a young man's hormones, and that they'll pass.

He also suggests that the difference in their status (royal vs. non-royal) leaves Ophelia at much greater risk: she could lose her virginity and her heart, and Hamlet nothing, due to the differences in power and rights.

Polonius makes similar suggestions, saying that he knows from his own experience what men will say when the passion drives them (suggesting that they lie, and/or promise more than they can deliver).

Are they reasonable? Well, knowing guys, yes, the concerns about hormones are reasonable. The concerns about power are too. However, both treat categories, not Hamlet as an individual, and so are somewhat inaccurate.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Laertes advises Ophelia that Hamlet, as a Prince, has to think of the state and not in his own heart when it comes to choosing a mate. They are worried that Hamlet and Ophelia will have a relationship outside of marriage, and then Hamlet will be forced to marry someone else for the good of state. At that point, Ophelia's 'honor' will be taken and she will be unlikely to find a husband.

Within the context of the times, the advice is reasonable. Royalty often married for political reasons and not for love, and Ophelia may indeed have been left without a husband, something which would have been very hard in those times.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Act I, scene 3 begins with Laertes bidding Ophelia farewell as he is leaving for France. Laertes offers advice to Ophelia regarding Hamlet. Although Hamlet has professed his love for Ophelia, Laertes reminds his sister that Hamlet is a prince and is forced to marry due to his obligations to the kingdom:

"Perhaps he loves you now,/And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch/The virtue of his will; but you must fear,/His greatness weighed, his will is not his own,/For he himself is subject to his birth." (Lines 14-18)

Ophelia's father, Polonius, offers similar advice. The two men are concerned for Ophelia, and they don't want to see her get hurt or marry someone who does not truly love her. He warns her to protect herself because she is young and inexperienced in the matters of the heart: "...think yourself a baby/That you have ta'en his tenders for true pay,/Which are not sterling [genuine]. Tender [protect] yourself more dearly,/Or--not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,/Running it thus--you'll tender me a fool." (Lines 105-109)

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial