Before we do anything else, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the fact that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet (not a typo). Why didn’t I already know this? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I don’t know what to do with this information now that I have it, but I just thought it was something I should mention, and now we can all move on.
Okay! So! Last time, Hamlet had just decided that the solution to this whole “DID Claudius murder my dad, y/n?” debacle would be to put on a thinly veiled morality play and to study Claudius’s reaction. This is an airtight plan if I’ve ever heard one, except that it’s not. I was visibly startled by the movie Psycho, but I would just like to make sure everyone here knows that I myself am not a serial killer.
In Act 3, Scene 1, while Hamlet is off putting that plan into motion, everyone else is gathered around trying to figure out why the guy is acting one fry short of a Happy Meal. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have done a terrible job so far as spies. They claim Hamlet is some kind of mastermind and too clever for them, even though all that happened was they asked him questions and he just refused to answer. Claudius and Gertrude dismiss these two extremely important and distinct personalities and turn instead to Polonius and Ophelia.
Polonius insists that Ophelia’s the reason Hamlet has turned into such a nutjob. Obviously he’s in love with her, which is why he’s running around shouting nonsense at people and claiming he wants to die. That’s what people do when they’re in love.
To gauge the trueness of this claim, Claudius and Polonius are going to watch, hidden, as Ophelia chats with Hamlet. They hear Hamlet coming, so Polonius says, “OPHELIA, ACT NATURAL.”
He shoves a Bible at her and tells her to pretend she’s reading it. After all, people often act “pious” to hide their devious actions. This throwaway comment of no real import is apparently the only prompt Claudius needs to LITERALLY CONFESS EVERYTHING RIGHT THEN AND THERE.
Oh, ’tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
O heavy burden!
EXCEPT NOBODY IS LISTENING. I can’t even walk by a security guard at the mall without looking guilty and wondering if I somehow shoplifted something without meaning to, yet half the characters in Hamlet have blurted out their sins under their breath and no one’s the wiser.
Polonius and Claudius hide. Hamlet enters just in time to give us his most famous speech of all time (think “to be or not to be”). Basically, here’s a rundown:
If you think about it, dying’s a lot like taking a nap, but forever.
That sounds nice, actually.
Why doesn’t EVERYONE just die?
Probably the death part. I bet that puts people off.
Because who knows what happens next? The afterlife could be nice. It could also be terrible.
The unknowable void of death—that undiscovered country from which no traveler returns—makes cowards of us all.
Oh hey Ophelia what’s up.
Ophelia decides to act like Hamlet WASN’T just waxing poetic about the sweet siren call of death, and she says hello. She politely attempts to return the gifts he gave her, but he claims he never sent her any. Out of nowhere, he asks her if she’s “honest” (ergo, if she’s a virgin), because apparently Hamlet is every guy named Trent that I’ve ever met at a frat party.
Ophelia aptly says “um what,” at which point Hamlet decides to unleash his raging Madonna-whore complex. He says she may be beautiful, but that beauty and virginity have nothing to do with each other. Furthermore, he tells her he no longer loves her.
HAMLET: I did love you once.
OPHELIA: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
That sounds sincere, doesn’t it? You know, normal? Well, two seconds later Hamlet is telling her to get her gross lady body to the nearest nunnery, stat, lest she meet a man, get pregnant, and give birth to more sinners. He says all women are terrible and two-faced, that they are liars who will inevitably cheat on their husbands, and then he caps off the whole fiasco by just straight-up canceling the institution of marriage: “I say, we will have no more marriages.” You heard it here first, folks. Marriage is canceled.
With that, Hamlet leaves, and Polonius and Claudius emerge from their hiding places. Claudius has deduced that Hamlet is not in love with Ophelia after all, presumably because of the way Hamlet said he wasn’t in love with Ophelia and then placed a curse upon her womb. Polonius is like “What, you’re saying my daughter isn’t GOOD ENOUGH to drive a man to the brink of insanity?” Ophelia, for her part, is just kind of horrified.
Claudius decides Hamlet is the kind of crazy that can only be fixed by being shipping off to England. Polonius isn’t done playing super spies, however; he says, “Wait, hang on. Before you do that, let’s get Hamlet and Gertrude alone together. I’ll hide somewhere and listen. Surely we’ll figure out his secret, and then you can send him off to wherever it tickles you.” Claudius agrees, and I am left to wonder if there is a single person in this play who knows even the first thing about parenting.
Okay, so it wasn’t the best first date for the H.M.S. Hamlet/Ophelia.
Hamlet seems very focused on Gertrude and the philandering ways of ALL THE WOMEN, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. Related: when Claudius confesses, he says he’s no better than an ugly harlot with make-up painted on. Hamlet may not want to admit it, but he’s got more in common with Claudius than he realizes. Or maybe everyone in ye olde Denmark just hates ladies.
Of note: Hamlet is still talking about death a lot, but now he’s listing off reasons why more people don’t kill themselves. The reasons are, like, “Who knows if there’s a heaven,” so it’s not #lovinglife so much as it is #nihilism, but still.