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Young men will do’t, if they come to’t,
By Cock, they are to blame.
‘Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.’
Some readers have interpreted passages such as these, combined with Hamlet’s sexually explicit taunting of Ophelia in Act III, scene ii, as evidence that Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet was sexual in nature. Of course, this is impossible to conclude with any certainty, but from these lines it is apparent that Ophelia is grappling with sexuality and that her sexual feelings, discouraged by her father, her brother, and her society, are close to the forefront of her mind as she slips into insanity. But, most important, Ophelia’s insanity is designed to contrast strongly with Hamlet’s, differing primarily in its legitimacy: Ophelia does not feign madness to achieve an end, but is truly driven mad by external pressures. Many of the worst elements in Denmark, including madness, fear, and rebellion, so far have been kept hidden under various disguises, such as Hamlet’s pretense and Claudius’s court revelry, and are now beginning to emerge into the open.
After exiling Hamlet to England in Act IV, scene iv, Shakespeare now returns him to Denmark only two scenes later through the bizarre deus ex machina—an improbable or unexpected device or character introduced to resolve a situation in a work of fiction or drama—of the pirate attack. The short Act IV, scene vi is primarily devoted to plot development, as Horatio reads Hamlet’s letter narrating his adventure. The story of the pirate attack has little to do with the main themes of the play, but it does provide an interesting variation on the idea of retributive justice, since instead of punishing someone for doing something wrong, Hamlet states his intention to reward the pirates for the right they have done in returning him to Denmark. “They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy,” he says, “but they knew what they did: I am to do a good turn for them” (IV.vi.17–19). Additionally, Hamlet’s letter features a return of the motif of ears and hearing, as the prince tells Horatio that “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb,” an open reference to the poison poured into King Hamlet’s ear by the murderous Claudius (IV.vi.21).