Modern folklore suggests women look at a man's relationship with his mother to predict
how they will treat other women in their life. Hamlet is a good example of a son's
treatment of his mother reflecting how he will treat the woman he loves because when
considering Hamlet's attitude and treatment of the Ophelia in William Shakespeare's
play, Hamlet, one must first consider how Hamlet treated his mother. A characteristic of
Hamlet's personality is to make broad, sweeping generalizations and nowhere is this
more evident than in his treatment toward women. Very early in the play, while
discussing his mother's transgressions, he comments, "Frailty, thy name is woman. (Hoy,
11)." Hamlet appears to believe all women act in the same manner as his mother.
The first time the audience meets Hamlet, he is angry and upset at Queen
Gertrude, his mother, for remarrying his uncle so soon after the death of his father. In his
first soliloquy he comments on the speed of her remarriage
Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good. (Hoy, 11)
It is understandable Hamlet is upset with his mother for forgetting about his father and
marrying his uncle, Claudius. In Hamlet's eyes, his father deserves more than one month
of mourning and by remarrying so quickly, the queen has sullied King Hamlet's memory.
This remarriage is a sin and illegal, however special dispensation was made because she
Hamlet's opinion of his mother worsens as the play progresses because his father,
who appears as a ghost, tells him of his mother's adulterous behavior and his uncle's
shrewd and unconscionable murder. Although Hamlet promises to seek revenge on King
Claudius for murdering his father, he is initially more concerned with the ghost's
revelations regarding his mother. King Hamlet tells Hamlet not to be concerned with his
mother but after the apparition leaves, it is the first thing Hamlet speaks of. Before
vowing to avenge his father's death, he comments on the sins his mother committed.
Although Hamlet decides to pretend to be insane in order to plot against the King,
it is clear, he really does go mad. His madness seems to amplify his anger toward his
mother. During the play scene, he openly embarrasses her and acted terribly toward her
in the closet scene. The closet scene explains much about Hamlet's treatment of women
and his feelings toward his mother. Hamlet yells at his mother for destroying his ability
to love. He accuses her of
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.
Hamlet curses his mother for being responsible for his inability to love Ophelia. Queen
Gertrude's actions have caused Hamlet to see all women in a different light because she
has taken away his innocence and love for women.
After Hamlet kills Polonius, he tests Queen Gertrude to see if she knows about
the murder of his father and both he and the audience seem satisfied she was not party to
that knowledge. Hamlet takes it upon himself to tell the queen her new husband killed
the former king, however he is interrupted by the ghost who warns Hamlet not to tell his
mother. The ghosts tells Hamlet he should be more concerned with King Claudius,
suggesting revenge must be taken soon (Dover Wilson, 248).
During this scene Queen Gertrude is unable to see her dead husband which in
Elizabethan times implied she was "unable to see the 'gracious figure' of her husband
because her eyes are held by the adultery she has committed (Dover Wilson, 254)." The
ghosts steals away from the closet when he realizes his widow cannot see him, causing
Hamlet to hate Gertrude even more because he felt the same rejection when Ophelia
rejected him. He can feel his father's grief as a son and as a lover (Dover Wilson, 255).
It was devastating to see his father rejected by the queen in the same manner he was
rejected by Ophelia.
Understanding Hamlet's hatred toward his mother is pivotal in understanding his
relationship with Ophelia because it provides insight into his treatment of Ophelia. In
Hamlet's eyes, Ophelia did not treat him with the love and respect she should have.
Hamlet and Ophelia loved each other but very early in the play, she is told by her father
to break off all contact with him. Hamlet is understandably upset and bewildered when
Ophelia severs their relationship with no explanation.
The audience does not see the next interaction with Hamlet and Ophelia but hear
Ophelia tell her father about Hamlet's distress, causing them to both to believe Hamlet is
mad, thus falling for his plot. According to Ophelia, Hamlet's appearance was one of a
madman. She described for her father the length of time he stayed her in bedroom and
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turned
He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out adoors he went without their helps,
And to the last bended their light on me. (Hoy, 27)
Hamlet comes to Ophelia on the brink of a breakdown, partly caused by his mother's
infidelities and when he turns to his lover for support, his mother's lesson are reinforced
and through her actions, Ophelia confirms in Hamlet's mind, that women can not be
trusted. Although Hamlet was pretending to be mad, he still loved Ophelia and was
devastated by her disloyalty (Dover Wilson, 111-112).
Although Ophelia was only following the wishes of her father, her actions suggest
to Hamlet she can be no more trusted than Queen Gertrude. In a cryptic way Hamlet is
incredibly rude to Polonius calling him a fishmonger, or a "bawd" and his daughter a
prostitute in Act II (Dover Wilson, 105). This is the jilted lover speaking in this scene
more so than the mad man Hamlet is pretending to be.
Hamlet's anger deepens toward Ophelia when he hears of the King, Queen and
Polonius' plot to use Ophelia to find out if he has gone mad for love of her. Poor
Ophelia, just wanting to please her father and the royalty, sadly over plays her role during
the nunnery scene. Ophelia anxiously jumps into her role at the beginning of their
conversation, barely even greeting Hamlet before she tries to return his gifts. Although
he claims not to have given such gifts, she says
My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord. (Hoy, 45)
With this speech, Ophelia wanted to provoke Hamlet into declaring his love, but instead,
he called her a liar. The entire rest of this scene is meant for Polonius and the King who
are listening. Hamlet recognizes Ophelia's dismal attempt at acting and gives her one
last chance to redeem herself
Ham. Where's your father?
Oph. At home my lord. (Hoy, 45)
Ophelia has failed the final test because Hamlet knows her father is listening. At this
point in the play, Hamlet is very unstable and in his mind, he thinks all women are
adulterous like his mother and cannot be trusted. Ophelia has just proved this to him and
he acts terribly toward her, telling her
Get thee to a nunnery, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool,
for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a
nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell. (Hoy, 46)
Hamlet seems to be talking about women in general when he says a wise man knows
what a monster a woman can make of them. He is being very cruel to all women, not just
Ophelia, in this scene, because they are all the same to him. Hamlet goes as far as calling
Ophelia a prostitute as a nunnery refers to a bawd house (Dover Wilson, 134).
For someone who is presumably in love, Hamlet treats Ophelia terribly in this
play. His anger and hatred toward his mother, on top of his insanity, makes it difficult
for him to see that Ophelia was following her father's orders, not purposefully betraying
Hamlet. This treatment of women is unbecoming of a hero in a tragedy and really shows
the extent of his insanity. It was too much for Hamlet to accept the death of his father by
the hand of his uncle and the adulterous behavior of his mother, so consequently he was
very harsh on Ophelia. Hamlet could not bear any more rejection and despair in his life
which Ophelia, whether she meant to or not, brought into it.