Summary and Analysis
In Polonius' chambers, Laertes prepares to return to school in Paris. He counsels his sister Ophelia to spurn the advances of her suitor, Prince Hamlet. He explains that, to Hamlet, she can never be anything more than a plaything. Hamlet, Laertes tells Ophelia, is of a higher rank than she and cannot choose with whom he will spend his life. To protect her heart and to safeguard her honor, Laertes asserts that Ophelia should reject Prince Hamlet before he deflowers her. Ophelia jokingly chides her brother to be careful lest he be one of those "libertines" who "recks not his own rede" (does not take his own advice).
Polonius enters, and offers Laertes lengthy advice on how to live in Paris; he spouts a string of aphoristic clichés enumerating the shoulds and shouldn'ts of a young man's life. Laertes agrees, telling Polonius that he really must be going, and reminding Ophelia of his directive to her. She promises to take his advice and to lock it safely in her heart. Polonius asks Ophelia what she and Laertes were discussing, and she tells him that Laertes advised her about Prince Hamlet. Polonius launches into his own diatribe on the subject, saying that Hamlet is a red-blooded male who wants her for only one purpose and that she must spurn his advances. Ophelia promises to obey her father and break off her relationship with the Prince.
Laertes offers his overprotective advice genuinely, but his tone is that of a prepared speech, and he shows neither real awareness of nor consideration for, Ophelia's feelings. In fact, he never consults her but rather speaks at her in metaphorical posturing that underscores her feminine inferiority. Shakespeare's choice of blank verse over iambic pentameter for Laertes' speech serves as a stage direction for the actor playing the role. This character is not a man of deep thought or fancy language but rather a pragmatist — a careful courtier more concerned with being correct than with emotional depth. Shakespeare aptly underscores the fact that Laertes is the perfect foil for Hamlet. His rehearsed, political-sounding speech patterns oppose Hamlet's emotional, flowery, and heart-heavy ruminations. He has memorized his speech as if it were taken from his schoolboy copybook, and he shows that he is vain and ordinary with limited intellectual capabilities. This scene begins to reveal how Laertes might be similar to Hamlet — and decidedly different.
Polonius lives in a world of show. His instructions in social etiquette may have ethical substance but lack practical soundness for Laertes. When he speaks to Ophelia, he treats her the way one would expect a man of his time and stature to treat a daughter, as property. A woman should bring honor and fortune to her family, and the image Ophelia projects for him very much concerns Polonius. He is sure that Hamlet would never choose Ophelia to wife. Hence, he amuses himself with off-color allusions to Hamlet's intentions and dashes any hopes she might have that her father would help her make a match. Through Polonius and Laertes, Shakespeare introduces another motif of the play: that self-indulgence and vanity often obscure familial devotion.
Ophelia's dilemma is salient in this scene. Both Laertes and Polonius tell her that the man that she loves is using her, that he will discard her, and that she should not trust her own heart. She is a dutiful daughter. Because her father has taught her to be seen and not heard, she listens and promises to honor the men's wishes. No choice remains to her now but to break off all relations with Hamlet. But what if they have already consummated their love? What if he has already sworn to her that he loves her and would never forsake her? Whom should she believe? Though Shakespeare tells us nothing to help us see into her heart, the actress playing Ophelia must know what she feels about Hamlet. Most critics agree that Ophelia and Hamlet have already been intimate, that Ophelia is deeply smitten with true love for the Prince, and that her father and brother's words hurt her deeply. Were this conjecture not true, Ophelia's motivation for her subsequent actions would be questionable.
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