Act I Scene III, or as I like to call it ‘Let’s Have A Family Discussion About Ophelia’s Virginity Because That’s Not Weird At All’.
Poor Ophelia. I’m sure pretty much everyone’s familiar with what happens to her in the end (hint: it’s a little soggy), and just from this scene it’s pretty understandable why. She’s a fictional woman in Elizabethan times, and as such the very idea of her having her own motivations, desires or even *gasp* a sex life is enough to send the male characters into some kind of frenzy, including her own brother, who decides that the most appropriate way to say goodbye before he returns to university is to warn her that she Absolutely Must Not Sleep With Hamlet, because her virginity is her only worth and she would be RUINED without it and also something about worms.
Polonius turns up to say goodbye to his son, but this rapidly descends into him also warning Ophelia that she Absolutely Must Not Sleep With Hamlet. (You have to wonder if this is a common topic in this family. Do they always say goodbye to each other with a cheery ‘Don’t be a slut!’?) Polonius is outraged at how much time Ophelia and Hamlet have been spending together recently and demands to know what they get up to. Ophelia says that Hamlet has been quite affectionate lately and Polonius automatically assumes that means that he’s trying to get into Ophelia’s girdle, despite Ophelia’s objections that he’s been nothing but a gentleman.
Both Polonius and Laertes seem to be under the impression that Hamlet is some kind of sex fiend and that Ophelia is a naïve and stupid child (Polonius literally calls her a “baby”) who needs their protection from the evil machinations of men who have no other motive than sex. I have no idea where they got the impression of Hamlet being a complete cad from. There’s no mention of any previous history, and I’m assuming that he and Ophelia are rarely alone together due to the rules Elizabethan etiquette, so I can only conclude that Polonius and Laertes are projecting onto Hamlet what they personally think all men are like, thereby including themselves in that undesirable group. That’s disturbing for quite a few reasons. It suggests that all men are predatory by nature, meaning that
- literally all men are terrible, no exceptions
- they’re not really accountable for their actions
- it’s the responsibility of women to restrain themselves and limit their freedom so men don’t have the opportunity to do the bad things, rather than expecting the men to just not do the bad things.
This is a point of view that is unfortunately still prevalent today and can be seen in everything from ‘boys will be boys’ to the argument that skirts cause rape, and one that makes me very angry. It also seems like Polonius and Laertes have come to this conclusion by projecting their own behaviour onto all other men, which leads a rabbit hole I’m really not prepared to go down right now.
Of course I realise that I’m looking at this from the perspective of a 21st-century feminist and that this absolutely wouldn’t have been the context it was put in at the time of writing, so I’m probably reading too much into it as far as it’s relevant in the play. It definitely illustrates how (over)protective of Ophelia her family are of her, with Polonius going so far as to forbid her from spending time with Hamlet. That would have been the start of an almighty smackdown had that been my father and me, but Ophelia is clearly used to this and just agrees to try and limit her Hamlet-time. You have far more patience than I do Ophelia. Shame it doesn’t pay off…