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Getting to the Bottom of Hamlet’s Lovelife With Quotes From Shakespeare’s Play
One of the most attention-grabbing debates still going on about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the issue of whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia slept together. The most famous quote on the matter – Hamlet’s angry, repeated “Bring thee to a nunnery” – would seem to accuse Ophelia of rejecting his advances… if it weren’t for the fact that “convent” is also Elizabethan slang for “brothel.” The did they / didn’t they debate is unusual in that it involves much more backstory than most Shakespearean mysteries, and only a few key moments in the play address the subject directly.
In Act II, Scene III, Laertes warns Ophelia that although Hamlet’s confessions of love may be sincere, the fact that he has royal responsibilities jeopardizes their chances of having a serious relationship. He then specifically instructs her not to “open” her “chastity treasure” to the guy, and since warnings are usually, you know, preemptive, we get the impression that she hasn’t done the deed just yet; after all, if Laertes has no qualms about confronting his kid sister about her sex life — in the 1600s — there’s a good chance he wouldn’t exactly hold back if he thought something was actually going on.
Then again, the fact that he’s bringing up the subject in the first place suggests that her relationship is catching people’s attention. Even her dim-witted father, Polonius, describes her “audience” with the prince as “free and lavish,” which is never how you want your father to describe you regarding your boyfriend.
To complicate matters, Ophelia returns to Laertes with a warning not to preach what he does not practice “as some ungracious priests do.” Maybe she’s taking this little jab simply so he can share in her extreme discomfort, but if the name of the game really is polite innuendo, her response strongly suggests that Laertes is just as guilty as she is (and his immediate change of subject would seem support the theory). If this is the case, their going around the sex issue makes sense, because neither has the moral leverage needed to directly accuse the other.
Interestingly, the audience doesn’t see Hamlet and Ophelia interact directly until Act III, Scene I – and by then, Hamlet puts so much energy into being offensive, contradictory, and self-contradictory that it’s impossible to take anything he’s upset about. at face value. That said, he does speak honestly in his monologues as an aside. For example, at the end of his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet notices Ophelia entering the room and remarks to himself, “Nymph, in your horizons / Be all my sins remembered.”
1) Why does he call her a nymph? Because nymphs are beautiful, or because they run around naked and form the root of the word “nymphomania”? 2) What are these “sins” he mentions – and why is Ophelia aware of them? Since orison is a prayer and prayer can indicate both piety and guilt, he either calls her holy (and hopes she prays for him) or suggests she has serious forgiveness to ask for. Unfortunately, this double meaning is typical of Hamlet quotes and brings us right back to our original “monastery” dilemma.
Then comes the first (onstage) conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet. Ofelia returns her love notes as per her family’s instructions, but rather than simply tell him she’s no longer interested or that it’s not a good idea, she says, “Rich gifts turn poor when givers prove unkind.” So far, Hamlet hasn’t done anything wrong to her that we know of (just give it a scene or two), and since breaking up with Hamlet is Polonius’ idea, it doesn’t make sense for Ophelia to embellish with accusations like “you’re. a fool” only because she is caught in the theater of everything.
Therefore, because she adds the statement of what is apparently her own accord – and because Hamlet’s response is not even close to “Pardon me??” – the implication is that Hamlet betrayed her in some secret way that 1) both of them acknowledge, 2) no one talks about, and 3) William Shakespeare doesn’t explicitly write into the play. Not only is this an important moment for the seduction theorists, but it also alludes sublimely to a story world that exists outside of Hamlet as a play.
After her dad forces her to break up with her boyfriend – who then accidentally murders him, Ophelia finally discovers an outlet for her considerable agitation: going nuts and singing whatever pops into her head. This includes things like, “They say the owl was the baker’s daughter” and “the.” However, it also includes stuff about mainly a) her dad’s death, and b) unfaithful villains.
She announces that “Young men won’t if they come to,/By cock, they’re guilty” and then launches into a conversation between a fallen woman and her lover. The woman begins: “before you dumped me, / You promised me marriage” (translation: before we had sex, you said we’d tie the knot!), to which her lover replies, “so would I, by this sun, / Didn’t you go to bed” (translation: I would have too, if you weren’t such a cheater). The songs continue much in the same vein until Ophelia’s death. Although it’s impossible to know how much combined feeling there is in her ramblings, everything she says about her father’s death seems pretty clear, making us more inclined to believe that her discarded love songs are based in fact.
After Ophelia drowns, the queen has the final word on her virtue by comparing Ophelia to a “mermaid,” the ultimate symbol of female unattainability. (Think about that for a second…) Whether this is Queen Gertrude’s final defense of Ophelia’s chastity or a flowery attempt to sugar coat her death (much like, say, claiming that Ophelia fell into the stream by accident) remains open to debate.
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