The actor who plays the part of Hamlet must make up his mind as to the interpretation of every word and deed of the character. Even if at some point he feels no certainty as to which of two interpretations is right, he must still choose one or the other. The mere critic is not obliged to do this. Where he remains in doubt he may say so, and, if the matter is of importance, he ought to say so.
This is the position in which I find myself in regard to Hamlet's love for Ophelia. I am unable to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of some of his words and deeds, and I question whether from the mere text of the play a sure interpretation of them can be drawn. For this reason I have reserved the subject for separate treatment, and have, so far as possible, kept it out of the general discussion of Hamlet's character.
On two points no reasonable doubt can, I think, be felt. (1) Hamlet was at one time sincerely and ardently in love with Ophelia. For she herself says that he had importuned her with love in honourable fashion, and had given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven (I. iii. 110f.).
(2) When, at Ophelia's grave, he declared,
I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum,
he must have spoken sincerely; and, further, we may take it for granted that he used the past tense, 'loved,' merely because Ophelia was dead, and not to imply that he had once loved her but no longer did so.
So much being assumed, we come to what is doubtful, and I will begin by stating what is probably the most popular view. According to this view, Hamlet's love for Ophelia never changed. On the revelation made by the Ghost, however, he felt that he must put aside all thoughts of it; and it also seemed to him necessary to convince Ophelia, as well as others, that he was insane, and so to destroy her hopes of any happy issue to their love.
This was the purpose of his appearance in her chamber, though he was probably influenced also by a longing to see her and bid her a silent farewell, and possibly by a faint hope that he might safely entrust his secret to her. If he entertained any such hope his study of her face dispelled it; and thereafter, as in the Nunnery-scene (III. i.) and again at the play-scene, he not only feigned madness, but, to convince her that he had quite lost his love for her, he also addressed her in bitter and insulting language. In all this he was acting a part intensely painful to himself; the very violence of his language in the Nunnery-scene arose from this pain; and so the actor should make him show, in that scene, occasional signs of a tenderness which with all his efforts he cannot wholly conceal. Finally, over her grave the truth bursts from him in the declaration quoted just now, though it is still impossible for him to explain to others why he who loved her so profoundly was forced to wring her heart.
Now this theory, if the view of Hamlet's character which I have taken is anywhere near the truth, is certainly wrong at one point, viz., in so far as it supposes that Hamlet's bitterness to Ophelia was a mere pretence forced on him by his design of feigning to be insane; and I proceed to call attention to certain facts and considerations, of which the theory seems to take no account.
1. How is it that in his first soliloquy Hamlet makes no reference whatever to Ophelia?
2. How is it that in his second soliloquy, on the departure of the Ghost, he again says nothing about her? When the lover is feeling that he must make a complete break with his past, why does it not occur to him at once that he must give up his hopes of happiness in love?
3. Hamlet does not, as the popular theory supposes, break with Ophelia directly after the Ghost appears to him; on the contrary, he tries to see her and sends letters to her (ii. i. 109). What really happens is that Ophelia suddenly repels his visits and letters. Now, we know that she is simply obeying her father's order; but how would her action appear to Hamlet, already sick at heart because of his mother's frailty,1 and now finding that, the moment fortune has turned against him, the woman who had welcomed his love turns against him too? Even if he divined (as his insults to Polonius suggest) that her father was concerned in this change, would he not still, in that morbid condition of mind, certainly suspect her of being less simple than she had appeared to him? 2 Even if he remained free from this suspicion, and merely thought her deplorably weak, would he not probably feel anger against her, an anger like that of the hero of Locksley Hall against his Amy?
4. When Hamlet made his way into Ophelia's room, why did he go in the garb, the conventionally recognised garb, of the distracted lover? If it was necessary to convince Ophelia of his insanity, how was it necessary to convince her that disappointment in love was the cause of his insanity? His main object in the visit appears to have been to convince others, through her, that his insanity was not due to any mysterious unknown cause, but to this disappointment, and so to allay the suspicions of the King. But if his feeling for her had been simply that of love, however unhappy, and had not been in any degree that of suspicion or resentment, would he have adopted a plan which must involve her in so much suffering? 3
5. In what way are Hamlet's insults to Ophelia at the play-scene necessary either to his purpose of convincing her of his insanity or to his purpose of revenge? And, even if he did regard them as somehow means to these ends, is it conceivable that he would have uttered them, if his feeling for her were one of hopeless but unmingled love?
6. How is it that neither when he kills Polonius, nor afterwards, does he appear to reflect that he has killed Ophelia's father, or what the effect on Ophelia is likely to be?
7. We have seen that there is no reference to Ophelia in the soliloquies of the First Act. Neither is there the faintest allusion to her in any one of the soliloquies of the subsequent Acts, unless possibly in the words (iii. i. 72) 'the pangs of despised love.' 4 If the popular theory is true, is not this an astounding fact?
8. Considering this fact, is there no significance in the further fact (which, by itself, would present no difficulty) that in speaking to Horatio Hamlet never alludes to Ophelia, and that at his death he says nothing of her?
9. If the popular theory is true, how is it that neither in the Nunnery-scene nor at the play-scene does Shakespeare insert anything to make the truth plain? Four words like Othello's 'O hardness to dissemble' would have sufficed.
These considerations, coupled with others as to Hamlet's state of mind, seem to point to two conclusions. They suggest, first, that Hamlet's love, though never lost, was, after Ophelia's apparent rejection of him, mingled with suspicion and resentment, and that his treatment of her was due in part to this cause. And I find it impossible to resist this conclusion. But the question how much of his harshness is meant to be real, and how much assumed, seems to me impossible in some places to answer. For example, his behaviour at the play-scene seems to me to show an intention to hurt and insult; but in the Nunnery-scene (which cannot be discussed briefly) he is evidently acting a part and suffering acutely, while at the same time his invective, however exaggerated, seems to spring from real feelings; and what is pretence, and what sincerity, appears to me an insoluble problem. Something depends here on the further question whether or no Hamlet suspects or detects the presence of listeners; but, in the absence of an authentic stage tradition, this question too seems to be unanswerable.
But something further seems to follow from the considerations adduced. Hamlet's love, they seem to show, was not only mingled with bitterness, it was also, like all his healthy feelings, weakened and deadened by his melancholy. 5 It was far from being extinguished; probably it was one of the causes which drove him to force his way to Ophelia; whenever he saw Ophelia, it awoke and, the circumstances being what they were, tormented him.
But it was not an absorbing passion; it did not habitually occupy his thoughts; and when he declared that it was such a love as forty thousand brothers could not equal, he spoke sincerely indeed but not truly. What he said was true, if I may put it thus, of the inner healthy self which doubtless in time would have fully reasserted itself; but it was only partly true of the Hamlet whom we see in the play. And the morbid influence of his melancholy on his love is the cause of those strange facts, that he never alludes to her in his soliloquies, and that he appears not to realise how the death of her father must affect her.
The facts seem almost to force this idea on us. That it is less 'romantic' than the popular view is no argument against it. And psychologically it is quite sound, for a frequent symptom of such melancholy as Hamlet's is a more or less complete paralysis, or even perversion, of the emotion of love. And yet, while feeling no doubt that up to a certain point it is true, I confess I am not satisfied that the explanation of Hamlet's silence regarding Ophelia lies in it. And the reason of this uncertainty is that scarcely any spectators or readers of Hamlet notice this silence at all; that I never noticed it myself till I began to try to solve the problem of Hamlet's relation to Ophelia; and that even now, when I read the play through without pausing to consider particular questions, it scarcely strikes me.
Shakespeare wrote primarily for the theatre and not for students, and therefore great weight should be attached to the immediate impressions made by his works. And so it seems at least possible that the explanation of Hamlet's silence may be that Shakespeare, having already a very difficult task to perform in the soliloquies -- that of showing the state of mind which caused Hamlet to delay his vengeance -- did not choose to make his task more difficult by introducing matter which would not only add to the complexity of the subject but might, from its 'sentimental' interest, distract attention from the main point; while, from his theatrical experience, he knew that the audience would not observe how unnatural it was that a man deeply in love, and forced not only to renounce but to wound the woman he loved, should not think of her when he was alone. But, as this explanation is no more completely convincing to me than the other, I am driven to suspend judgment, and also to suspect that the text admits of no sure interpretation. [This paragraph states my view imperfectly.]
This result may seem to imply a serious accusation against Shakespeare. But it must be remembered that if we could see a contemporary representation of Hamlet, our doubts would probably disappear. The actor, instructed by the author, would make it clear to us by looks, tones, gestures, and by-play how far Hamlet's feigned harshness to Ophelia was mingled with real bitterness, and again how far his melancholy had deadened his love.
1. 'Frailty, thy name is woman!' he had exclaimed in the first soliloquy. Cf. what he says of his mother's act (III. iv. 40):
Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there.
2. There are signs that Hamlet was haunted by the horrible idea that he had been deceived in Ophelia as he had been in his mother; that she was shallow and artificial, and even that what had seemed simple and affectionate love might really have been something very different. The grossness of his language at the play-scene, and some lines in the Nunnery-scene, suggest this; and, considering the state of his mind, there is nothing unnatural in his suffering from such a suspicion. I do not suggest that he believed in it, and in the Nunnery-scene it is clear that his healthy perception of her innocence is in conflict with it.
He seems to have divined that Polonius suspected him of dishonourable intentions towards Ophelia; and there are also traces of the idea that Polonius had been quite ready to let his daughter run the risk as long as Hamlet was prosperous. But it is dangerous, of course, to lay stress on inferences drawn from his conversations with Polonius.
3. Many readers and critics imagine that Hamlet went straight to Ophelia's room after his interview with the Ghost. But we have just seen that on the contrary he tried to visit her and was repelled, and it is absolutely certain that a long interval separates the events of I. v. and II. i. They think also, of course, that Hamlet's visit to Ophelia was the first announcement of his madness. But the text flatly contradicts that idea also. Hamlet has for some time appeared totally changed (II. ii. 1-10); the King is very uneasy at his 'transformation,' and has sent for his school-fellows in order to discover its cause. Polonius now, after Ophelia has told him of the interview, comes to announce his discovery, not of Hamlet's madness, but of its cause (II. ii. 49). That, it would seem, was the effect Hamlet aimed at in his interview. I may add that Ophelia's description of his intent examination of her face suggests doubt rather as to her 'honesty' or sincerity than as to her strength of mind. I cannot believe that he ever dreamed of confiding his secret to her.
4. If this is an allusion to his own love, the adjective 'despised' is significant. But I doubt the allusion. The other calamities mentioned by Hamlet, 'the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the law's delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,' are not at all specially his own.
5. It should be noticed that it was not apparently of long standing. See the words 'of late' in I. iii. 91, 99.
How to cite this article:
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean tragedy; lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London, Macmillan and Co., 1905. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletsloveophelia.html >.
Did You Know? ... The Theatre was the first London playhouse, built in 1576 by the English actor and entrepreneur James Burbage, father of the great actor and friend of Shakespeare, Richard Burbage. It was located in a northern suburb of London (north of London Wall which bounded the city proper); on the edge of Finsbury Fields, just past Bishopsgate Street, where Shakespeare called home up to 1597. Read on...