The Withered Love
--- An Analysis on Love in Hamlet
The first sentence is the most difficult one, especially when the theme needed to be discussed is about Hamlet. There's no way for the reader or the analyzer to convey his/her idea on Hamlet in one simple sentence, because it is a too complex work. The more time you spend on it, the more complex it tends to be. Anyway, in this time of re-read, my concentration is focused on the love element between Hamlet and Ophelia, and my conclusion is, like always, that Hamlet and Ophelia love each other, but their love ends in tragic and disappointment. In fact, their love cannot even be called a love story, it's more like a story of humanity and psychology. I also have a new discovery (at least it's new to me), which is that Ophelia is not, as I have always imagined, an obedient maid. She has her indocile part of personality. In the following parts, I will discuss the "love" between Hamlet and Ophelia through analyzing the text.
Ophelia made her first appearance in Act one, Scene Three. In this scene, her brother told her that the love of Hamlet is not serious, but merely the flirting of a young man:
LAERTES. For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward not permanent, sweet not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,
OPHELIA. No more but so? (1.3.5-9)
Here the response given by Ophelia is rather interesting. She asked her brother back, as if she didn't believe him, or at least, she couldn't make herself convinced by him. Her attitude proves that she believed Hamlet was in love with her. Considering that the situation of their meeting was only known by themselves, it's very likely that Laertes here didn't really understand how intimate they were. Moreover, the fact that Ophelia didn't want to deny Hamlet's love for her indicates that she was also in love with him.
In the later part, after Laertes gave a lecture on love to Ophelia, she replied:
I shall th'effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede. (45-51)
It's really rare for Ophelia to show her indocility. Although she accepted her brother's rede, she mocked his misdemeanor. It's rather clear that she didn't like Laertes' words about the love of Hamlet, or she could just accept his suggestion obediently, rather than utter some witty words in return. She couldn't defy her male relatives, so she found a more euphemistic way to show her protest. This kind of example can also be seen in the following text. When Polonius, Ophelia's father, said that Hamlet's love was not real and she should take more care of her honor, she tried to employ a tactful tone to refute his argument:
POLONIUS. Marry, I'll teach you. Think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en his 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.
OPHELIA. My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honourable fashion.
POLONIUS. Ay, "fashion" you may call it. Go to, go to.
OPHELIA. And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.(105-14)
This time, the object of Ophelia's disobedience became her father, which made her indocility more obvious. In Ophelia's words, it seems that it was Hamlet who was in love, but actually her affection is more direct. She used words like "honourable" and "holy" to describe Hamlet's love, and these adjectives showed exactly her feelings toward his love. It's an "honourable" and "holy" love for her, that's the reason why she didn't want to accept her father's attitude easily.
It is after Polonius changed his tone from persuasion to command that Ophelia finally agreed to obey her father's will. She simply replied "I shall obey, my lord"(136). Combining with the preceding context, I find that Ophelia's attitude is rather resistant and frustrated here, but she could say no more because of her father's tough stance.
In Act two, scene one, Ophelia told her father that Hamlet had came to her "with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors"(83-85), and "he raised a sigh so piteous and profound / That it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being"(95-97). The word "piteous" appeared twice here, indicating her feelings towards Hamlet's madness---she pitied him out of tender love.
So far, Hamlet's love for Ophelia is perceived by us only through indirect ways like the description in others' words. But this time, his rashness of coming to Ophelia with a hellish look demonstrates his affection. At that time, Hamlet was just aware of the truth of his father's death, and he knew that the task of revenge was unavoidable, so his seemingly imprudent behavior is actually the outbreak of his affection, and his voiceless goodbye to Ophelia, the innocent and fair maid he loved. Some critics think that Hamlet's behavior is only part of his plan to exaggerate his madness and to confuse his enemies, but I believe that it is the most touching fragment concerning the affection of Hamlet, even more moving than his claim at Ophelia's funeral because sometimes action weighs more than words. Hamlet is indeed weak, irresolute, rash and even cruel, but he is also, in my mind, a noble person who would never use the woman he loved and commit such hypocritical action.
Except for what I had talked about above, there are still some interesting things in this scene that worth our notice.
In Act three, scene one, Ophelia was ordered by his father to wait for Hamlet in the castle. This is the first time of Hamlet and Ophelia's direct encounter. Hamlet saw Ophelia at the end of his famous soliloquy of "to be or not to be", which demonstrates his struggle between life and death, between endless sleep and endless pain. It's a very grave subject, but when he saw Ophelia, he stopped his talk and changed his tone to softness, and call her "the fair Ophelia.---Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered." (90-91)Only the power of love can save one from the quagmire of suicide. At that moment, Hamlet seemed to forget his pain.
When Ophelia wanted to return his "remembrances" (94), Hamlet replied that "I never gave you aught". It's strange for Hamlet to deny that he had given gifts to Ophelia. There's two possibilities in his denial: first, he didn't want them back, and he hoped that Ophelia could still keep them. If it's true, then Hamlet was rather childish. Secondly, the "remembrances" brought him some unpleasant memories. Some critics think that the gifts reminded Hamlet that his mother was bought by Claudius' gifts, but I think it's also possible that these gifts reminded him of the old time when he and Ophelia were once happy and in love. For him, they stand for something pure and innocent. These are the tokens of his love and his past, but now, as he had decided to revenge, he had to abandon all these things, so he deny their existence to cut off from the past.
Ophelia also made a strange speech. She said that "rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind"(102). It seems unreasonable to accuse Hamlet of being unkind, because it was she who refused to see him. Maybe this is the reason why Hamlet suddenly asked her "are you honest" (104). He seemed to realize that Ophelia was just seeking an excuse to her presence ,if we explain the word "honest" as "speaking the truth". And the following lines thus can be seen as Hamlet's censure on Ophelia.
Hamlet told Ophelia "I did love you once", and then he also said that "I loved you not". It's contradictory, but both of them are true to some degree. The first claim can be confirmed in my preceding discussion. As for the second one, I have two speculations. First, because Hamlet was infuriated by Ophelia's dishonesty, as I had mentioned above, he refused to admit his love and tried to hurt Ophelia's feeling. Secondly, Hamlet said so because he no longer believed in true love. He was disappointed by his mother's attitude towards love, which broke his belief in love and led him to the idea that true love never existed. So if there's no true love in the world, how could he ever loved Ophelia?
Then Hamlet suddenly asked Ophelia "where's your father", because he already knew that Ophelia's lying, this question is, in fact, only a test for Ophelia's honesty. But she failed him again by answering that her father was "at home". The difference is that this time Ophelia also realized that Hamlet had recognized her lie. But she had no other choice but to lie. What else can she say? Telling Hamlet that her father was spying him? This is the lie that finally broke the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. According to Ophelia's soliloquy after Hamlet's departure, she still loved Hamlet after the event. But Hamlet felt disappointed, because he was not only hurt by his mother's unchastity, but also cheated by Ophelia. That's why he said that "God has given you one face, and you make yourselves / another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname / God's creatures, and your wantonness your ig-/ norance."(144-147) Now he was disappointed at women as a whole.
Moreover, Hamlet's words that "it hath made me mad" implies that it was Ophelia's lie that broke his will, like the last straw that broke a camel. Ophelia also deemed herself as the reason of his madness, which explains her suicide precisely---Hamlet was mad because of her, and it was his madness that drove him kill her father, doesn't it mean that she was exactly the root of all these troubles? Ophelia's madness and her death have always been sudden and unreasonable for me, but now I have the answer.
In Act four, scene five, the mad Ophelia sang several songs on different topics. These songs are mostly some old ballads, one of them goes like this:
By Gis, and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't,
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she 'Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.'
'So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.’ (4.5.57-64)
If Ophelia was mad because of her father's death, why would she sang about the maid who lost her virginity? There's no evidence in the text that Ophelia had lost her virginity, but this song must has something to do with Hamlet. In Act three, scene two, Hamlet insulted Ophelia with irreverent words, implying that she was a flirtatious woman. It was his insulting words that left her humiliation she couldn't forget, even in her madness. Another possibility is that Ophelia's song didn't literally refer to virginity, but rather the situation that she had given her heart to Hamlet but he didn't marry her in the end.
In Act five, scene one, there's a particular detail at Ophelia's funeral. When Hamlet challenged Laertes his love for Ophelia, he said "I loved Ophelia." Why is it "loved" rather than "love"? It may because that Ophelia was already dead at that time, but more possible is that it has something to do with the change of Hamlet's attitude towards love as I mentioned above. Hamlet no longer believed in true love, but when he was innocent, he did love Ophelia once. Another reason is that he was disappointed by Ophelia's lies, so his love declined. The question here is that does Hamlet still love Ophelia? The answer is negative. That's the true tragic of Hamlet's love---he lost the ability to love in the end. The lost of the ability is much more sorrowful than the lost of his lover. Hamlet's death become unavoidable from that scene, because now he's merely live to revenge.
In a word, Ophelia and Hamlet did love each other in the beginning, but with the development of Hamlet's revenge, he became disappointed on Ophelia's excusable lies, and distrusted true love. In the end, Ophelia died for her guilt for Hamlet's madness and her father's death, while Hamlet lost his ability to continue his love.
In fact, there are still many interesting examples in Hamlet that can be analyzed in detail concerning the love theme of it. The text itself is an infinite universe that can never be exhausted. But as Hu Shi once said, "Why afraid of the infinity of truth? There's joy in every inch of progress." Indeed, my joy is that through close-reading, I can acquire some new understandings on Hamlet. Though very few, I'm satisfied enough.