Were Hamlet and Ophelia in love with each other?

One of the favourite literary discussions in English literature might involve the famous doomed couple: Hamlet and Ophelia. It is hard to say they are qualified to be labelled as ‘star-crossed lovers’ as Romeo and Juliet because the ingenious playwright never made a scene where the two persons explode their desires by kissing or hugging or jumping onto bed. Strangely, they are hardly seen together, and even if they do, they seemed to not understand or even trust each other enough to become lovers, making the readers are still debating whether or not they are truly in love with each other with a variety of textual interpretations.

I do not think this issue is as complicated as it is being discussed: nobody would disagree that the prince and the girl would end up as husband and wife if the circumstances had been different. The biggest problem with their relationship was that their feelings could not remain free and private from the privy eyes of their seniors who were obviously more concerned with something other than the happiness of their children. All they needed to do was to defy them–which Ophelia meekly attempts in the Act I Scene 3:

Pol. Marry, I’ll teach you : think yourself a baby, That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly ; Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.

Oph. My lord, he hath importuned me with love In honorable fashion.

Pol. Ay, fashion you may call it ; go to, go to.

Oph. And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, With almost all the holy vows of heaven.

Ophelia, a pure virgin who clearly had not been exposed to the evils of the world, gently objects Polonius’ dismissal of Hamlet’s affection by elevating Hamlet’s actions as “honourable” and “holy”. However, despite her defence of the prince, Ophelia succumbs to his father’s command not to see or talk to Hamlet again at the end of the scene. From her choice of words describing Hamlet’s actions and her decision to follow his father’s order, we can infer that she would not continue her involvement with the prince so long as it is not supported and approved by the elders whose opinions would matter tremendously to make their relationship “honourable” and “holy” as the matrimony. In her manner in which she converses with her father reveals a specific perspective on her relationship with the prince:  her potential husband who would offer her “holy vows of heaven.”

In the famous “nunnery” scene, it is evident that Hamlet feels about Ophelia in the same way:

Ham. Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners ? I am myself indifferent honest ; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious ; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven.

Here Hamlet refers Ophelia to a “breeder of sinners” and then he lists all the faults of himself as the ‘sinner.’ This passage clearly reveals Hamlet’s perception of Ophelia as the future mother of his children. Even though he seriously considers Ophelia as his future wife he knows the circumstances are unfavourable for their happy union. ‘Nunnery’ is an antithesis to ‘marriage’ which have been corrupt by the incestuous union of the King and the Queen. Because of his demoralized state of mind he rejects the whole idea of his own marriage altogether:

Ham. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already–all but one—shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Later in the the play it becomes clear that Hamlet is more explicit about his feelings for Ophelia. In the funeral scene (5.1), none other than the following passage makes it clearer:

Ham. I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her? …show me what thou’lt do. Woo’t weep? Woo’t fight? Woo’t fast? Woo’t tear thyself? Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? I’ll do ‘t. Dost come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I.

The affair between Ophelia and Hamlet was something distant from the erotic and romantic one we might expect from  a handsome prince and a beautiful girl, probably due to the overall ominous tone that persists throughout the tragic play. Evidently Shakespeare suppresses their mutually beneficial feelings in every way possible in order to set the road for their doomed ends. Had Hamlet been more affectionate, Ophelia would not go mad. Had Ophelia been more commanding on her own actions and decisions, Hamlet might have the ability to solve the problems of Denmark with a strong vision of his future consort. But Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not a romance or an epic but a tragedy, and the two young man and woman were mere subjects to their own genre.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Were Hamlet and Ophelia in love with each other?

  1. maria joão

    Hello. Who is the painter for Hamle-Ophelia?
    Thank you

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