Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is very complicated, and many critics have questioned whether Hamlet genuinely loved Ophelia. Hamlet genuinely loved her before his father’s death, and this is shown by the love letters they have from before.
However, after Hamlet’s father’s death, he develops trust issues and resentment especially towards women after his mother’s haste remarriage to Claudius and Ophelia’s rejection to Hamlet, thus leading to his misogyny and further leading to his lack of love towards Ophelia shown later in scenes like the ‘nunnery’ scene and how he starts to use her in his plot of revenge.
Yet, after his newly developed misogyny, he later confirms his love to Ophelia after her death, but although he claims he still loves her it is only words that he hadn’t acted upon, just like his inaction towards revenge for his father. Therefore, Hamlet’s fatal flaw of inaction affects even his relationship with Ophelia.
Shakespeare shows the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia before Hamlet’s father’s death. He uses Ophelia’s challenge to Laertes and her father, Polonius to show the string love relationship she had shared with Hamlet before Old Hamlet’s death.
She challenges Laertes by saying “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven… and recks not his own rede.” Ophelia here is challenging her brother and telling him to not be a hypocrite thus suggesting that Laertes does not follow his own advice.
This for the Elizabethan audience would seem normal as male behaviors in love and relationships were often ignored, however, women’s actions such as Ophelia’s were focused on, and they were supposed to be given advice regarding matters like these.
Ophelia’s reply to Laertes here implies that she is defending her relationship with Hamlet thus showing her strong bond with him and her love for him. Furthermore, she also protests the claims her father says about Hamlet’s love for her.
She replies to Polonius with “My Lord, he hath importuned me with love in an honorable fashion.” This suggests that Hamlet and Ophelia had a healthy relationship before as the word ‘honorable’ suggests. Moreover, Shakespeare making Ophelia try to defend her relationship with Hamlet further shows the strength of their bond and love before Old Hamlet’s death.
Furthermore, when Polonius reads a love letter written by Hamlet to Ophelia in front of Gertrude and Claudius, the letter shows Hamlet’s genuine love for Ophelia previously. The letter tells Ophelia to “never doubt I love”. Here Hamlet asks Ophelia to never doubt his love which shows the amount of love he has for her which also calls into question Ophelia’s doubt of his love later on when Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition” of madness.
She does not continue to trust in his love and her rejection of him furthers his resentment and misogyny leading to his lack of love for her later on and his use of her purely for his plot against Claudius. This proves his genuine love for Ophelia before Old Hamlet’s death and how it was affected later on by his increased resentment and mistrust of women.
Moreover, Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s relationship and love before Old Hamlet’s death in the ‘nunnery’ scene. Ophelia brings Hamlet all the previous love letters they have shared; “My Lord, I have remembrances of yours”. She calls them “words of so sweet breath composed” hinting at the romantic nature of the letters thus implying then genuine love in their relationship.
Her opinion of those letters’ language is of ‘sweet’ language contrasting her father’s view of the letters as ‘vile’. This further shows the loving relationship both Hamlet and Ophelia were in. But then Ophelia says, “their perfume lost”, the metaphor here reflects the loss of love and trust in their relationship now after Old Hamlet’s death.
This is shown later on in the scene when Hamlet attacks Ophelia telling her to “get thee to a nunnery” and repeats it five times saying, “to a nunnery go”. Here Hamlet is telling her to leave him and go to a ‘nunnery’ which has a double meaning of the religious place where she would be chaste and have no children thus implying that he does not want her to spread her sins onto her children by him not wanting her to have kids.
And it also means a brothel, thus calling Ophelia a whore and disrespecting her. The use of the pun here suggests his source of anger accusing the whole world of being filled with sinful and debased creatures. Here Hamlet has completely lost his trust in women and just like the critic Rebecca Smith suggests “He attacks what he perceives to be the brevity of women’s love, women’s wantonness and ability to make ‘monsters’ of men”.
This is true as he had completely lost his trust in women after his mother’s fast remarriage to Claudius and his continuous accusation of his mother’s incestuous actions and he comes to the conclusion that ‘frailty thy name is women’. The word ‘frailty’ suggests that Hamlet believes that women are weak thus belittling them and showing his hatred towards them.
He also in the same scene attacks Ophelia saying, “for wise men know well enough of what monsters you make of them”. This is an allusion to the idea that men whom their wives cheated on grew horns thus suggesting that all women are unfaithful and turn their husbands into monsters. This is why he orders Ophelia to go to a “nunnery” as he mistrusts women after his mother’s actions and also because he possibly knows that Ophelia is being used as bait so that Claudius and Polonius can eavesdrop on him.
Thus reminding him of his mother’s betrayal consequently increasing his resentment of her and weakening their once strong love relationship.
After Hamlet’s newly discovered conclusion of women and how they are untrustworthy, Hamlet starts to use Ophelia in his plot against Claudius and his love for her is forgotten. Hamlet accuses Ophelia of deception saying “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough.
God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” Shakespeare uses the inauthenticity of painting the face with makeup as an analogy for women’s deception, thus Hamlet here is comparing her love for him as something fake. Hamlet shifts his specific criticism of Ophelia here to attacking women in general as a criticism of makeup was a standard element of misogyny in Elizabethan England.
This analogy further shows Hamlet’s mistrust of women now after Ophelia’s rejection of him and his mother’s betrayal leading to his lack of love towards Ophelia and using her for his own good. He puts on his act of madness in front of Ophelia on several occasions knowing that she will report his actions to her father. Whilst disrespecting her and telling her that he “love[d her] once” and he doesn’t anymore, he asks her “where’s your father?” to which she replies that he is at home.
Hamlet clearly does not believe her, and he knows that Polonius is eavesdropping on their conversation and says, “Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in his own house”.
This confirms that Hamlet is aware that he is being spied upon and much of this anger in this scene towards Ophelia comes from his understanding that Polonius is spying on them therefore him feeling betrayed once again by a woman, and this time Ophelia causing him to lose his feelings of affection for her.
After Ophelia’s death in the gravedigger scene, Hamlet reconfirms his love for Ophelia stating that he had always loved her and says after finding out that she’s dead that “Forty thousand brothers, could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum.”
This hyperbole confirms Hamlet’s genuine love for Ophelia however, it also makes it less believable because of how much he exaggerates it, especially after the audience has seen how he had treated her and shunned her.
However, this could prove the idea that Hamlet genuinely loved Ophelia before all of his resentment towards women grew thus leading to him losing his vision of love and seeing Ophelia dead now brings back his past feeling of love thus triggering his hyperbolic reaction.
The way he reacts towards his death makes it look like an act he has put up as he has never shown signs of his love to Ophelia during the play other than in the past before the play’s time. As Spaeth says, “Ophelia does not occupy Hamlet’s thoughts in his soliloquies” hence showing his lack of love towards her.
He does not think of her romantically neither does he act upon his love but instead he spurns her and abuses her emotionally. He disrespects her in the Mousetrap scene by his use of derogatory and vulgar terms towards her and this happens in the “nunnery” scene as well.
Therefore, although he claims he loves her after her death and even if this was true and he remembered his love for her previously, what he says is only words which he had failed to act upon just like his inaction towards revenge.
Here, Hamlet’s fatal flaw has affected even his love relationship with Ophelia as he fails to act upon his love for her. Therefore, this shows that Hamlet did love her before Old Hamlet’s death, but he has lost his love after his mistrust of women and he also fails to act upon his love towards her.
Overall, Shakespeare presents Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s relationship in a very complicated way allowing readers to question whether each of them really did love the other.
As we have seen, both seem to have genuinely loved each other prior to Old Hamlet’s death but after that stage, Hamlet loses his affection for her because of his mistrust towards women which was caused by his mother’s haste remarriage as well as by Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet and her betrayal to him by allowing her father to spy on them.
Moreover, Hamlet’s fatal flaw of inaction also affects their relationship causing him to fail to act upon his love for her.