But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to Heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
In the scene where Ophelia is first introduced, her brother Laertes warns her not to trust Hamlet’s declarations of love. After assuring Laertes that she will keep his warning in mind, she utters these lines, turning her brother’s admonishment against him. Laertes is about to depart for Paris, a city that, as Ophelia suggests, poses dangers for a young man who might be susceptible to the life of an arrogant and heedless libertine. She advises him to heed his own advice (i.e., “reck . . . his own rede”) and keep to the “steep and thorny way to Heaven,” rather than succumb to the “primrose path of dalliance.” Ophelia’s playful riposte exhibits a quick, intelligent mind, which makes her eventual descent into madness that much more tragic.
In few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows.
Polonius directs these words toward Ophelia, echoing Laertes’s warning not to trust Hamlet’s declarations of love. In this scene, neither Polonius nor Laertes claims to know something specific about Hamlet that makes him untrustworthy—their reasons are instead based on more general perceptions, such as that Hamlet is a prince and can’t make his own choices in love. Laertes’ and Polonius’s speeches tend to create the impression that Hamlet has probably professed his love to Ophelia, and that this scene is going to lead to conflict and misunderstanding between the lovers. And indeed, such a conflict does arise. Ophelia listens to her kinsmen’s advice and withdraws from him. Her withdrawal provokes an intense, misogynistic reaction from Hamlet, and ultimately Ophelia goes mad and dies tragically without the misunderstanding coming to light.
I was the more deceived.
In response to Ophelia’s withdrawal from his affections, Hamlet grows furious and unleashes his anger by telling her that he never loved her. Ophelia responds with these few words, implying that Hamlet’s actions both in the past and the present indicate that he did love her and likely still does. If Hamlet had no feelings for Ophelia, there would be no reason for him to attack her with as much ferocity as he does in this scene. Despite her suspicion that Hamlet is lying about his affections, this line clearly indicates her growing suspicion of his mental imbalance and adds to her emotional distance.
Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectation and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mold of form,
Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
At this point, shortly after Hamlet tells her to lock herself away in a nunnery, Ophelia feels fully convinced that Hamlet has lost his mind. Here she mourns the downfall of one of Denmark’s most promising young gentlemen—the “rose of the fair state.” Hamlet used to be a triple threat: he had the eye of the scholar, the tongue of the courtier, and the sword of the soldier. Taken as a whole, he was “The glass of fashion and the mold of form,” which is to say he offered a model of comportment for others in the Danish court to emulate. Ophelia’s mournful words indicate her sadness at the prince’s downfall, and they also foreshadow her own descent into madness.
Young men will do’t if they come to’t,
By Cock they are to blame.
When Ophelia goes mad, the songs she sings contain hints about what is troubling her. Some of her songs seem to be about her father’s death, but others, like this one, concern premarital sex. The lines quoted above suggest that Ophelia and Hamlet may have had a sexual relationship, or at least that some form of sexual desire existed between them. However, given the state of her mind at this stage of the play, the ambiguity of these lines makes it impossible to be certain what Ophelia’s songs mean.
Her death was doubtful,
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified been lodged
Till the last trumpet.
The Priest speaks these lines at Ophelia’s burial. When he says “Her death was doubtful,” he refers to the ambiguous circumstances of her death. Gertrude explained earlier that Ophelia fell into a water bucket by accident, but made no attempt to save herself. If that’s what happened, then Ophelia’s death could be interpreted as a suicide, which in turn means that, according to the Christian church, she cannot be buried in sacred ground. The Priest confirms that the suspicions about Ophelia’s death mean she will remain in “ground unsanctified” until the end of time, a sentiment that drives the tragedy of her story home.