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Mistrusted Love: Polonius Speaks to Ophelia

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

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. Like Laertes he could not imagine that the Prince was truly and genuinely in love with Ophelia; because, not being intimately acquainted with him, he knew neither his nobility of character nor his refined moral nature, and, therefore, measured him according to his own low standard.

Learning of the cause of Hamlet's frequent visits, Polonius in excitement catechises his daughter. His impassioned words "extort from her in short sentences, uttered with a bashful reluctance, the confession of Hamlet's love for her, but not a word of her own love for him. The whole scene is managed with inexpressible delicacy; it is one of those instances common in Shakespeare in which we are allowed to perceive what is passing in the mind of a person without any consciousness on their part. Only Ophelia herself is unaware that while she is admitting the extent of Hamlet's courtship, she is also betraying how deep an impression it has made, and how entire is the love with which it is returned." [Mrs. Jameson] Her father's earnestness had impelled her to speak in self-defense; but her attempt to correct his false notions concerning the nature of Hamlet's love, instead of allaying, only irritated more the old chancellor, who, always infallible in his judgments, could neither brook contradiction, nor tolerate any hesitating acceptance of his oracles.

Poor Ophelia, bewildered by his onslaught, knows neither what to say nor think. He will teach her: she must consider herself an inexperienced girl, and not accept Hamlet's words of love as legal tenders of sterling silver, when they are naught but counterfeit; she must look upon his "holy vows" as snares to entrap simpletons who have no more circumspection than a senseless woodcock.

Appealing to his own experience, he assures her that love is prodigal of vows, which scarce survive their making. She must, therefore, not believe the Prince's vows, which are brokers, clothed in pious form the better to deceive. In conclusion, he forbids her, henceforth, to meet and speak more with the Lord Hamlet. Her father's words confirming those of Laertes, and blasting even worse the fair name of her lover, make him nothing less than a deceiver and seducer. They affect Ophelia's heart most painfully; for in her ignorance and inexperience she has the greatest confidence in the wisdom of her father and her brother, and, therefore, feels inclined, against her own good judgment, to distrust her lover.

This disloyalty reveals a weakness of character, which shall later lead her into other fatal errors. Without making further defense, Ophelia bows in silence, and with filial respect utters the laconic reply, "I shall obey, my lord." Amid conflicting doubts and in painful heart, she accepts the command to break off her relations with Hamlet; in fact, "to lock herself from his resort, to admit no messengers, and receive no tokens."

In this scene, in which for the first time we are introduced to the old courtier, the dramatist evidently intends to lay the foundation for Hamlet's fixed judgment that he is "a foolish prating knave." Notwithstanding his boasted keenness of perception and ambition to play the wily diplomat, Polonius discloses invariably on every occasion his fatal weakness of stumbling upon the wrong scent, and of blunderingly pursuing it with an obstinacy that leads to his own final ruin.

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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