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Essay: The concept of love in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: November 22, 2021*
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  • The concept of love in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet discusses the concept of love through two main characters, Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet goes through a series of hardships in the play. The play starts with Hamlet’s father dying at the hands of his Uncle, as we later find out. His mother remarries his uncle, the man who killed his father. However, this all leads to Hamlet’s increased depression when his girlfriend, Ophelia, breaks up with him after receiving advice from Polonius, her father, and Laertes, her brother, about how she should break up with Hamlet. Laertes does so because he thinks it is best for her, but she brushes off his advice because of his history of sinning. However, she takes Polonius’s advice, as he is her father, and he seems to more sincerely want the best for her, and she feels she must obey her father. The reader can see the love between Hamlet and Ophelia better after she takes Polonius’s advice because they continue to interact emotionally despite not having a romantic relationship. Although, we as readers want to believe that Hamlet and Ophelia share a deep bond, there are several instances throughout the play where both Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s words don’t line up with their actions. How do either of these people decide if the other truly loves them, if they are saying one thing but then acting the opposite? This begs the question, in terms of relationships, do actions speak louder than words?

Ophelia feels Hamlet loves her greatly at the beginning of the play. When Laertes tells her that Hamlet does not love her, and that his love is temporary, she brushes his advice aside with short comments such as “No more but so?” (1.3.9). However, Polonius later talks to her about Hamlet, and her responses are more thought out and sincere. She tells Polonius “He hath, my lord, of late made many tender/ Of his affection to me.” (1.3.108-109). Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet not actually being in love with her, but rather pretending to be in love with her for alternate reasons. Ophelia, however, disagrees. She tells Polonius that Hamlet “hath given countenance to his speech, with almost all the holy vows of heaven” (1.3.122-123). For Ophelia to talk back to her brother and her father about Hamlet shows how she cares about him, and how she loves him. But her words about Hamlet’s actions display his love for her. Ophelia believes Hamlet does not just say how much he loves her for sexual purposes, but rather because he actu-

ally loves her. For him to back his words up with “all the holy vows of heaven” shows that he loves Ophelia for reasons aside from physical or sexual attractions. For Hamlet to be making vows to the heavens, and bringing God into their love shows that he has sincere feelings of love for her. However, shortly after Ophelia agrees to not see Hamlet anymore, Hamlet makes an unrelated decision “To put an antic disposition on” (1.5.192). Because of this decision, Hamlet’s future actions make it difficult to tell just how much he loved Ophelia because he will proceed to deny that he ever loved her. His past actions can be used to see how much he actually does love her, though.

Hamlet also wrote letters to Ophelia before they broke up detailing his love for her. He writes her a series of poems that Polonius later reads to Claudius. Polonius wants to prove that Hamlet’s craziness is due to love sickness. To prove this point, he brings out love letters Hamlet wrote to Ophelia. These letters are deeply personal, and Hamlet wrote them before acting crazy so they are his sincere emotions. One of the poem goes as such:

Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love. (2.2.115-118)

While it seems he is talking about definite matters, a reader may be inclined to think that Hamlet says that he does not love her because the sun does not move around the earth. In the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, science did not tell, as definitely it does now, that the earth moves around the sun. In Shakespeare’s time, the only way to tell some matters of science was through religion. Christianity told its’ followers, in this time, that the sun moved around the earth. Hamlet tells Ophelia that she can doubt all of these definite events, but she can not doubt that he loves her. She can question whether or not the sun will rise every day, or if the stars burn, but she can not question that he loves her. Hamlet’s beautifully written poem serves as just one of the many tenders of affection Hamlet showed to Ophelia.

After the poem, Hamlet writes a brief letter to Ophelia attempting to reaffirm his feelings for her. The letter says:

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon my groans, but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst
 this machine is to him, Hamlet. (2.2.118-122)

To go along with the point that Hamlet put on an act because he thought Polonius was nearby, Ophelia mentions she has some of Hamlet’s gifts to her. Hamlet immediately denies, but Ophelia assures him he is incorrect. She tells Hamlet “My honored lord, you know right well you did,/ And with them words of so sweet breath composed/ As made the things more rich” (3.1.106-108). She not only tells Hamlet that he sent her gifts, she also speaks to the sincerity of the gifts. While Hamlet is putting on the illusion of him not ever loving her, as previously discussed, Ophelia can see through him, the way he can see through her. She not only reminds him of the gifts he gave her, she reminds him that these gifts were not just for sexual reasons. These gifts came with the backing of words and love he had for her. One of his poems, as already discussed, contained words of such beauty and sincerity that it could not be possible that he wrote it purely for sexual purposes. Ophelia points out that these gifts could seem to be insincere, and not true tenders of his affection, the words he uses in his poems and his letters to her are what confirm that these gifts come from Hamlet’s true feelings. Hamlet sincerely loves her, not just because he can shower her with gifts to show his love, but also that he can articulate his love into words written so beautifully.

Hamlet has a feeling that Polonius was spying in this scene, leading him to question Ophelia of the whereabouts of Polonius. This leads to the other, more prominent reason for Hamlet to mention the “despised love”. Hamlet loves Ophelia, but feels his love is unrequited and despised by her. The unreturned love from Ophelia damages him so much that he gets to the point where he contemplates suicide. Before this instance, he had reasons to be sad, as also mentioned in the passage. Ophelia rejecting his love launches him into the state of sadness where he feels suicidal. What Hamlet does not fully understand at this point is that Ophelia does still love him. If Polonius had not forbid Ophelia’s love for Hamlet if Laertes had not discouraged it, Hamlet would likely not have been launched into this suicidal rant. Hamlet dealt with all the pains he mentioned in this speech, but it is not until Ophelia ends their relationship that he gets launched into this suicidal speech. Once denied her love, he feels he has nothing left to live for, and feels he would prefer to die if not for his lack of knowledge of the afterlife.

Hamlet admits to Ophelia that he loved her. He does so when he believes the two are alone, but later retracts his statement when he finds out Polonius is spying. He openly says to her, “I did love you once” (3.1.125). She tells him that he made her believe it. Hamlet’s aforementioned acts show how he showed her that he loved her. However, he later retracts this statement, telling her he fooled her and that she should not have believed him because he did not love her. He does so because he realizes Polonius is watching the interaction. He asks her “where is your father?” (3.1.141). He wants to make it seem like he did not love Ophelia so Polonius could not get the reaction he wanted from Hamlet. He tells her “Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house” to further show that he knows Polonius is watching (3.1.143-144). He will not tell her how he actually feels in front of Polonius because he knows Polonius wants Claudius to believe Hamlet’s craziness is from lovesickness. However if Hamlet denies he ever loved Ophelia, Claudius would not be inclined to believe he loved Ophelia.

Laertes and Polonius both believe Hamlet does not truly love Ophelia. In the advice scene, Laertes and Polonius both believe Hamlet has ulterior motives because they believe he says what he needs to say to have sex with Ophelia. Ophelia says, “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,/ That sucked the honey of his musicked vows,/ Now see that noble and most sovereign reason” showing that she believed Hamlet loved her, and that she loved him back (3.1.169-171). These lines come after Hamlet tells her, falsely, that he never loved her. While these lines show Hamlet’s feigned indifference towards Ophelia’s love, they are a prime example of Ophelia’s obdurate love for Hamlet. While a reader may see these lines out of context and believe that Hamlet never loved Ophelia, in context the reader would understand that Hamlet pretended to be crazy and act lovesick so Claudius would not see anything as overtly suspicious. Therefore, these lines do not give an adequate representation of Hamlet’s true feelings. They do, on the contrary, give insight into Ophelia’s feelings for Hamlet.

Throughout the end of the play, Hamlet feigns that he never loved Ophelia, but he comes back to his initial feelings at the end when he sees her lying, dead in the grave. Laertes blames Hamlet and the two begin to grapple with one another. When bystanders try to break them apart from one another, Hamlet replies “Why, I will fight with him upon this theme/ Until my eyelids will no longer wag!” (5.1.282-283). Gertrude questions Hamlet what the “theme” he refers to , and Hamlet replies “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/ Make up my sum” (5.1.285-287). Hamlet loved Ophelia, and he never stopped loving her. Ophelia loved Hamlet and she never stopped loving him.

Hamlet’s love for Ophelia stayed true, but went dormant when Polonius forced Ophelia to end the relationship. It is not wrong to believe that Polonius and Laertes had a strong impact on how both Hamlet and Ophelia acted and what they said. It seemed as if at some points, Hamlet’s actions didn’t represent his love for Ophelia. While readers also want to believe that Ophelia never strayed in her love for Hamlet, and only ended their relationship because of the pressures from Polonius, her actions throughout out play sometimes didn’t match up with her words. It is easy, and a possibility to think that Hamlet was just acting and saying certain things because he had ulterior motives. Love and sex in Hamlet’s time were viewed differently than they are today. In Hamlet’s time, sexuality was not supposed to be flaunted, as seen when Hamlet shames Ophelia for wearing makeup when he says “God hath given you one face, and you/ make yourselves another” (3.1.155-156).

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