Summary and Analysis
A court gentleman reports that Ophelia has become pitiably insane. Gertrude refuses to see the girl, but Horatio points out that Ophelia's mental state may attract undue attention to herself and the crown. Gertrude then agrees to speak with Ophelia.
Ophelia enters singing fragments of songs about chaos, death, and unrequited love. The King and Queen both try to speak with her, but she replies only unintelligibly. Claudius comments that her father's death has undoubtedly driven her mad. He asks Horatio to follow and watch her. Then he turns to Gertrude and sums up the troubles that plague Elisinore of late. He recounts his torment over the slaying of Polonius, the secret burial to avoid uprising, the madness of Ophelia, and the arrival of her brother, Laertes, who means to incite rioting over his father's death.
The courtiers hear Laertes and a mob outside attempting to break into the castle. Laertes tells his followers to keep watch at the door, and he angrily asks Claudius to give him his father. Gertrude tries to calm Laertes, but Claudius tells her to let him rail, that they have nothing to fear from the young man. Claudius manages to placate Laertes until Ophelia returns, singing incoherent snippets of a song about a dead old man. Laertes comments that a "young maid's wits" are as fragile and "as mortal as an old man's life." Ophelia distributes flowers to the assembled people, and exits. Laertes, distraught over his sister's condition, finally pays complete attention to what Claudius has to say. The King promises Laertes satisfaction in avenging Polonius' death.
Earlier in the play (Act III, Scene 1), Gertrude told Ophelia "And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause of ">Hamlet's wildness." Yet now, when Horatio and the gentleman announce Ophelia's request for an audience with Gertrude, Gertrude flatly refuses to see the girl. Gertrude reluctantly agrees to see her only after Horatio and the gentleman explain the piteousness of Ophelia's condition and the danger of Ophelia's behavior to the State.
The question of Gertrude's character again arises. Gertrude's demeanor in relation to Ophelia possibly signifies her complicity with Claudius. She seems here to share his preoccupation with the appearance of power. However, Gertrude has presumably served as Queen all of her adult life, and affairs of state would matter to her. Perhaps the fact that her son's treatment of Ophelia played a part in the girl's downfall merely embarrasses the Queen. Another entirely justifiable explanation may be that, as a woman of unusual strength, Gertrude despises the weak. Gertrude reveals a clue to her avoiding Ophelia when she says, "So full of artless jealousy is guilt, / It spills itself in fearing to be spilt." The guilt remains ambiguous. Is it Gertrude's? For what? Is it Hamlet's? Is it Ophelia's? But clearly the Queen is not moved by any maternal thoughts toward the girl who could have become her daughter-in-law. Ophelia's distracted behavior confounds the Queen. The older woman cannot respond in any meaningful way to Ophelia's desperation.
Ophelia's songs all concern unrequited love. The third song, in fact, blatantly indicts a lover who has left his love's bed. "Before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed." This song provides another proof that Ophelia's madness may stem from her having been intimate with Hamlet and then rejected by him. In fact, considering her father's instructions that she not let Hamlet have his way with her, Polonius' death could only exacerbate her guilt. Premarital sex was a sin — a sin compounded by her father's command. If, as some believe, she now carries Hamlet's child, her desperation would be all consuming.
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