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Calumnious Strokes: The Meeting Between Ophelia and Laertes

From The Riddles of Hamlet by Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston, Stratford & Co.

The third scene interrupts the action of the drama by a skillful episode, in which the Poet introduces us to several important characters. Through them we are made acquainted with Hamlet's relation to Ophelia, and, moreover, given another glimpse of life at court as reflected in the family of Polonius. The characters, all drawn on a vastly lower scale than Hamlet's, are superficial and commonplace. There is the minister of state, whose mental equipment makes him a politician rather than a statesman, and his son, a courtier and type of the gilded youth who frequented the royal court in the days of Shakespeare. Both appear incredulous, not only of Hamlet's purity and honor, but even mistrust Ophelia herself. Hence, they readily attaint his name and blast her love, and thus entangle themselves unto final ruin in the web of Hamlet's fate.

If the brotherly affection of Laertes, though natural and common, shows him at his best in the present scene, the Poet, under other and later circumstances, portrays the baseness of his character. The Laertes of the modern stage is not always the Laertes of the drama. In the tragedy, he seems a light-minded, frivolous youth, without noble principles and serious purposes. Such a man could not understand the nobility of Hamlet's character, so rich in highly intellectual and moral attainments; and, therefore, by an error not infrequent to humankind, he measures others by his own individual low standard. In his lecture to Ophelia, he insists that the Prince is trifling with her heart; that his love, but the first glow of the springtide of life, is not serious and will surely die with his young years. But Ophelia, who has had ample means of knowing Hamlet better than her brother, judges differently, and, by an unwillingness to discuss the delicate subject, laconically implies her doubts of the correctness of his judgment.

The doubt expressed by Ophelia causes her brother to maintain his position in a lengthy speech, in which he dishonorably insinuates that if the Prince really do love her, it is with an ignoble, an illicit love, since he is not free to marry her. His will is not his own, but subject to the powers that rule; and, therefore, not until his words of love are sanctioned by the "voice of Denmark," must she listen to "his songs." Accordingly, he urges her on the plea of honor, to be wary: her "safety lies in fear."

In the passions of youth are blind traitorous impulses which often revolt against reason and the power of self-restraint. While the words of Laertes seem commendable, both because they are prompted by affection for his sister, and because the prudence and fear which they urge, are needed safeguards for virtue; they are, nevertheless, reprehensible in as far as they express a rash judgment of Hamlet's character. It is true that, according to an unwritten law, the crown prince could not marry whom he would, nor espouse one beneath his princely station, without the consent of the governing power. But this custom was clearly ignored in Hamlet's case. His courtship of Ophelia, a lady-in-waiting on the Queen, was no secret at court. Gertrude, who had made her a special favorite, knew well the mutual relation of the young lovers, and not only encouraged it, but even, as she affirms, looked forward to its consummation in lawful marriage.

That Hamlet's love for Ophelia was sincere and honest, is known from the Poet's portrayal of his highly sensitive moral nature. Throughout the drama he appears habitually enamored of honesty and virtue, and repelled by deceit, vice, and everything dishonorable. Ophelia was herself convinced that his love was sincere and honorable, as is shown by her words to her father; and Hamlet himself gives undoubted proofs on numerous occasions, and above all, when, in a later public view, he outbraves Laertes in his love for her.

In the consciousness of her own innocence and in ignorance of the evils of the world, Ophelia listened patiently to her brother's words of caution and of prudence. They seemed founded on his own experience, and while partly admiring their worldly wisdom, she felt some suspicion of their application to Laertes himself. Accordingly, after the general remark that she will make his counsel the guardian of her heart, she forthwith proceeds to lecture him in turn. She knew well her brother's weaknesses and instability of character. More than once she had listened with deep interest to the glowing tales of his gay life in the brilliant southern capital.

She had drawn her own secret conclusions, and now under strong suspicion that his counsels and his cautions were more applicable to himself, she naively urges that, while pointing out to her "the steep and thorny way to heaven," he should himself be true to his own preachment, and not, "like a puffed and reckless libertine," all heedless of his own spiritual weal, "tread the broad primrose path of dalliance," "the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire." After listening with impatience to his sister's lecture, Laertes disregards her words, and uttering a curt reply, which displays a confidence that is born of self-sufficiency, he hastens to depart. At the same moment Polonius enters unexpectedly. The son deftly meets with a flattering lie his father's manifest surprise at his belated presence: he had tarried to take a second fond leave of his aged sire, and to beg a second blessing.

How to cite this article:
Blackmore, Simon Augustine. The Riddles of Hamlet. Boston: Stratford & company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.


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On Polonius and Ophelia

"Unfortunately for Ophelia, Laertes on departing, reminded her of his counsel in the presence of her father. His words sufficed to rouse the old courtier's prying instinct. Over-mastered by curiosity, he insists on knowing the import of his son's advice. He approves the judgment of Laertes, and goes even further, by condemning her for being too free and bounteous of her time with the Prince, and for not understanding what behooves his daughter and her honor. His severe arraignment, while chargeable to solicitude, most commendable in a father, was due more to the low estimate which he entertained of Hamlet's honor and his motives." Simon Augustine Blackmore. Read on...

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