A Study Of The Hindrances And Sacrifices Made In William Shakespeare Play, Hamlet
And They Lived Unhappily Ever After
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there are many sacrifices and obstacles that Hamlet must endure in order to fulfill his deceased father’s desire for revenge. One of the sacrifices involves ending his relationship with Ophelia. Many would argue that Hamlet never loved Ophelia anyway and claim that he is just using her for intimacy. However, it is clear that Hamlet and Ophelia do love each other and giving up their relationship is not an easy task. Because of the difficulty of ending their relationship, Hamlet is not honest about the challenges he is facing in order to bring justice to his father. Therefore, Ophelia can only believe that Hamlet never really did love her and this leads her to high levels of distress. Furthermore, Ophelia cannot escape the controlling behavior of her brother and father who both disapprove of her relationship with Hamlet. In the end, the obstacles become too much and tragedy overtakes their happy ending. Despite their love, Hamlet and Ophelia face many obstacles that they cannot overcome.
Some argue that Hamlet never really loved Ophelia so it is not difficult for him to let her go; however, there is much evidence to prove that Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia are true and loving. Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that Hamlet loves Ophelia is the letter he writes her that she is forced to share with the king and queen. In the letter Hamlet reminds Ophelia, that he loves her, “best, oh, most best/, believe it” (Shakespeare 2.2.120-121). This letter was meant to be private so Hamlet has no reason to lie in it. Therefore, his words are true as is his love for Ophelia.
Hamlet admits his love again during the nunnery scene. As Hamlet tries to convince Ophelia that he does not love her, he breaks down for a brief moment and admits, “I did love you once” (Shakespeare 3.1.115-116). Some may see this as Hamlet trying to tell Ophelia that maybe he did love her, but he doesn’t anymore. However, it is more likely Hamlet is trying to spare her feelings when he sees how hurt she is as he dismisses her. If Hamlet does not love Ophelia, he would have no obligation to spare her feelings; he would not need to feel guilty for betraying her.
Finally, Hamlet’s last expression of love comes after Ophelia’s death during the grave digger scene when he says, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/could not with all their quantity of love/make up my sum” (Shakespeare 5.1.249-251). This is the most definite declaration of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. Hamlet’s admittance of his overwhelming love for Ophelia shows that the reason Hamlet was not able to always express his love for her is because his attention had to be on his father’s revenge and when Ophelia dies, Hamlet realizes how big of sacrifice that is to make. Hamlet now realizes that even if he achieves his father’s revenge, he can never be with Ophelia.
Love is a powerful motivator, but it is not always romantic. Hamlet does love Ophelia, but his love and devotion to his father is a little bit stronger. Hamlet realizes that he cannot commit to a relationship with Ophelia and commit to revenge for father’s death. As Thomas Holcroft’s suggests in Carol J. Carlisle’s essay, “Hamlet’s “Cruelty” in the Nunnery Scene: The Actors’ Views, “Hamlet, whose mind is absorbed with a master passion (grief for his father and desire to avenge his death), feels that he must give up Ophelia in order to fulfill his vow to his father’s spirt” (132). Because Hamlet’s dedication to his father’s wishes is so strong, he cannot commit himself to both a relationship with Ophelia and achieving justice for his father. Hamlet’s mind is so absorbed with revenge and he knows he cannot explain it to Ophelia. Therefore, the only solution is to dismiss Ophelia thus ending the relationship all together.
As is stated in Arthur Hudson’s essay “Romantic Apologiae for Hamlet’s Treatment of Ophelia” originally expressed by William Hazlitt, “it would have taken [Hamlet] years to come to a direct explanation on the point. In the harassed state of his mind, he could not have done otherwise than he did.” Hamlet wants to spare Ophelia the drama and pain of his plans for revenge so despite how cruel he seems, he is coming from a loving place. After all, Hamlet knew he could not change his mind about the revenge plot because he made a clear promise to his father that justice would prevail. When the Ghost exits, Hamlet vows that his father’s, “commandment all alone shall live/within the book and volume of my brain,/unmixed with baser matter” (Shakespeare 1.5.102-104). Hamlet knows there is no turning back so his promise to his father became the biggest obstacle for Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. However, it is not the only one.
During the late 16th century, women were not seen as independent individuals with their own opinions; instead, they were controlled by the men in their life and expected to comply with their demands. Ophelia’s situation was no different than any other woman and she was molded to be obedient to her father and brother’s requests. “Motherless and completely circumscribed by the men around her, Ophelia has been shaped to conform to external demands, to reflect others’ desires” (Dane 1). First, Ophelia’s brother Laertes tries to make her see how insignificant her relationship with Hamlet is. He tells her the relationship is “forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting/, the perfume and suppliance of a minute-/no more” (Shakespeare 1.3.6-8). Laertes may recognize Ophelia’s feelings and even admits they are real, but he wants to convince her that the relationship will not last. He tells her it is all flirtation and temporary affection. Ophelia may want him to see the relationship her way, but Laertes is a man and has both influence and some power over her actions.
Similarly, Ophelia’s father wants her to have no contact with Hamlet and stop her feelings all together. Polonius commands her, “This is for all:/I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth/have you so slander any moment leisure/as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet” (Shakespeare 1.4.130-133). Polonius does not even ask this of Ophelia, he simply demands it. Polonius has authority over Ophelia not only because she is a woman, but also because she is his child. Therefore, Ophelia has no choice but to obey him as he will continue to keep watch over her. Some may think that Polonius only does this to protect Ophelia but as David Leverenz notes “Polonius cares more for his position at court than for his daughter’s well-being, and he uses his paternal authority to better his status as king’s advisor” (Qtd in Green 301). Polonius believes that if Hamlet and Ophelia have a relationship, it may threaten his standing with the king, especially if she gets pregnant. Therefore, he ignores her happiness and uses his influence over her to protect his reputation.
With the amount of influence her brother and father have over her, Ophelia’s obedience to the men in her life is yet another obstacle for Hamlet and Ophelia. No matter how much Hamlet and Ophelia want to be together, they just cannot overcome the obstacles that keep them separated.
Between Hamlet’s betrayal and the murder of her father, Ophelia’s life ends up in disarray and she turns to suicide as an escape. Every man in her life betrays her and she goes mad. After her father’s death, Ophelia tries to moves forward “but carefully programmed into her psyche by Polonius is the fear of autonomy and sexuality so that Ophelia is unable to navigate her own way once the “protective” custody of her father is unavailable to her” (Smith 97). Even though her father was not concerned about her happiness, Ophelia is reliant on his demands and custody and without him there to guide her, Ophelia is lost and scared. She has no way of thinking for herself and the pain becomes so overwhelming that she chooses death over the hurtfulness of life.
Along with the pain of her father’s death Ophelia has a completely broken view of love and trust. “Under the pressure of irresponsible paternal demands and because of the larger political issues unbeknownst to her, Ophelia’s faith in love and sincerity is crushed” (Smith 97). Ophelia has been shielded from reality behind the cruelty of the men in her life. Some may think they would be good thing as she was only being protected from pain and suffering. But when she loses guidance from her father and faith in Hamlet, it leaves her totally lost and betrayed until she finds herself too far gone to live anymore. No matter how much the men in her life care for her, they make a fatal mistake in hiding reality from her because she is so sheltered that when all the hurt and betrayal become known to her, it is too much for her to handle.
Ophelia’s ignorance to reality is the final obstacle challenging Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. No matter how much the men in her life want to protect her, they could not prepare her for what happens when everything falls apart. “Ophelia’s suicide is a sad but credible response by her own impaired psyche. It invites us to re-examine the worsening psychological hell brought on by the abuse and neglect she suffered at the hands of those she loved most” (Smith 110). While it seems as though the treatment by her male influences is out of protection, Barbara Smith explains that it is really abusive and neglectful because she is not respected enough to be trusted with reality and when she did discover it, she was not equipped to cope with it.
Ophelia’s madness is simply explained by the sudden lack of male influence in her life. Despite the modern view that women are strong individuals that do not need male influence, Ophelia lives in a time where she doesn’t know any different than relying on the men in her life for guidance, hearing their voices at all times for how to behave. “Then suddenly-with her brother in France, and her lover banished to England for the murder of her father—the voices stop. Confronted with such thunderous silence, Ophelia becomes mad” (Dane 3).
Some may believe that this madness is the worst thing that could happen to her. Ophelia is no longer the beautiful, obedient woman everyone knows. However, Dane suggests that “madness releases Ophelia from the enforced repressions of obedience, chastity, patience, liberates her from the prescribed roles of daughter, sister, lover, subject” (4).Without influences pouring in from every direction, Ophelia is left to be her authentic, raw self. However, because she does not know how to handle her real self, she feels overwhelmed and ultimately commits suicide to escape all of the change in her life.
Hamlet and Ophelia did truly love each other but could not overcome the obstacles that threaten their happiness. Hamlet’s devotion to his father outweighs his love for Ophelia and influences his decision to choose revenge over happiness with Ophelia. This was unbeknownst to Ophelia and she believes Hamlet was simply betraying her and dismissing the love they once shared. Also, Ophelia was forced to be obedient to her brother and father which meant not making further contact with Hamlet. This, along with the betrayal from Hamlet, caused Ophelia distress and pain. She was trapped and confused and ultimately chose death over living with the hurt and sadness.
Despite their love for one another, Hamlet and Ophelia could not overcome the obstacles that challenged their relationship. Therefore, their love could never prevail and instead ends in tragedy and regret. Though many would argue that Hamlet and Ophelia never shared true love, it is clear that they shared a deep love that was just not strong enough to overcome the obstacles that stood in their way. No matter how much they wanted it, Hamlet and Ophelia’s love could not prevail through the darkness of lies and betrayal.
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