I’m just going to say it: Polonius kind of sucks. It wasn’t enough for him to be weird about Ophelia’s virginity; now he’s upgraded to helicopter parenting. He’s sending someone to spy on Laertes while he’s away at university and has come up with an overly complicated plan to find out if Laertes is actually studying or if he’s drinking and gambling, otherwise known as ‘being a student’, with added prostitutes.
To support my intention to start the Polonius Sucks club (we have badges) here’s how William Hazlitt, writer and literary critic aka. someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, describes Polonius:
“a busy-body, [who] is accordingly officious, garrulous, and impertinent”
About the nicest thing that Hazlitt says about Polonius is that he’s “sincere”, which I suppose can be a good thing but when combined with the unrestrained desire to interfere with literally everything doesn’t really help. In different productions he’s been portrayed as varyingly doddering, scheming or Bill Murray. At the very least he’s definitely been taken in by Claudius, and certain versions have gone so far as to have him actively collude with Claudius in the killing of Hamlet Sr. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you think; it doesn’t make too much of a difference to the overall story, but different interpretations can provide some nice nuance to later scenes.
Back to the scene: Polonius has just sent the servant off when Ophelia comes running in, terrified, giving Polonius another chance to display his A+ parenting. She had been sewing upstairs when Hamlet came in in a complete state, looking “As if he had been loosèd out of hell”, and even worse – he’s not wearing a hat!!! Polonius decides that turning up at your sort-of-girlfriend’s house with dirty socks means that he’s “Mad for thy love”, and it’s now the standard to which I’m going to hold all future suitors.
Hamlet’s making good on his promise to act mad: he walks into Ophelia’s room, grabs her by the arm and then just stares at her for a while before leaving while maintaining intense eye contact the entire time. Just imagining that scene made me giggle, although I do feel for poor Ophelia, who seems to bear the brunt of his mad act(?).
Ever wise Polonius thinks that it was Ophelia rejecting Hamlet’s letters – on Polonius’ orders because Hamlet is obviously a sex fiend, remember? – that sent him crazy. It’s important to remember that Shakespeare was writing during an age where courtly chivalry was idolised, because the concept of “love me or I’ll go crazy” doesn’t really appeal to me, but maybe I’m just fussy (seriously though, run far far away from anyone who says that). Polonius decides to tell Claudius and drags Ophelia along too, which would be the only sensible he’d made in this entire scene if Hamlet were actually mad and if Claudius weren’t a murderer. You tried, Polonius, you tried.