Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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On his return from Poland, Fortinbras hears of the extinction of the Danish royal family, and is informed that Hamlet, just before his death, has willed that Fortinbras should become the new Danish king.

GERTRUDE. Considering her importance to the plot, the Queen is not greatly developed as a character by Shakespeare. She betrays her husband by her affair with Claudius, but is apparently unaware of the latter’s murder of Old Hamlet. Her son breaks the news of this to her in the ‘Closet Scene,’ somewhat incoherently, it must be said, and without providing any evidence. How much Gertrude knew or suspected is left to the audience’s imagination. The Ghost is oddly chivalrous about his widow, commanding Hamlet not to harm or even overly chastise her.

OPHELIA. A fascinating character, but, as with Gertrude, not as fully developed as later female characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Before the play begins, Hamlet falls in love with her in characteristic extremity, writing letters to her that begin, ‘To the celestial and my soul’s idol...’ (II.ii.109). Rather overwhelmed, perhaps, by all this, Ophelia (who admits in the ‘Nunnery Scene’ that she ‘suck’d the honey of his music vows’) consults her father and brother, who are suspicious of Hamlet’s motives, regarding him as a philanderer. They instruct Ophelia to have nothing more to do with him. Polonius is particularly concerned that a possible marriage alliance between his daughter and a likely heir to the throne is going to queer his pitch with Claudius. The rejection of Hamlet by Ophelia comes just at that point in the play when Hamlet adopts his ‘antic disposition,’ and Polonius interprets this as Hamlet turned mad with love . He partially persuades Claudius to this view and ‘looses’ his daughter to Hamlet in the ‘Nunnery Scene’ to prove his point. At this juncture, the audience encounter one of the strangest areas of the play: Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia – and women in general – after he has learned of his mother’s adultery. Gertrude’s sinfulness disgusts Hamlet and this disgust spreads to all women, especially Ophelia it seems, who before had been his ‘soul’s idol.’ He regards women as likely to betray him and just possibly he half suspects that Polonius is manipulating Ophelia behind the scenes in order to entrap him into a marriage, since several of his ‘mad’ comments to Polonius suggest that Hamlet sees him as acting like a pimp. When instructed to meet privately with the King and Polonius in the ‘Nunnery Scene’, he finds instead Ophelia hanging around on her own, and is not unreasonably suspicious that she is a party to some spying upon him (as indeed she is).

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William Shakespeare