Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene V

Ophelia Before the King and Queen (1792)
Benjamin West
source Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene V

Wow, does the painting above truly highlight Ophelia’s madness, or what?  But I’m getting ahead of myself ……..  However, not too much ahead because the second person in this scene, in the third line, a gentleman speaking to Gertrude, announces Ophelia’s madness.  However, in this unsettled state of Denmark, people are listening to Ophelia’s babbling and drawing conclusions from it.  Horatio suggests that it might be wise to speak with her to learn of the danger of her condition.  While waiting, Gertrude perhaps gives the first sight of guilt in her actions, referring to her sin.  However, she shows compassion for the poor girl’s plight as Ophelia spews drivel about tombs and Valentine’s Day and lost virginity.

The First Madness of Ophelia (1864)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikiart

Claudius is affected by Ophelia’s madness, but also makes reference to unrest and strife in his kingdom due to his hastily burying Polonius without a state funeral. He also reveals that Laertes has secretly returned from France and his good sense is being poisoned by gossip.  He’s concerned that Laertes will place the blame on him.  Poor, poor, Claudius ……… (gag!)

A messenger arrives, announcing that the people are shouting for Laertes as king.  The doors break open and Laertes arrives, angry in his grief and looking for revenge. He demands to know what happened to his father, but Claudius does not tell him, choosing instead to try to bring him to sense and emphasize his friendship with him and his father. Ophelia interrupts their discourse, and Laertes’ grief increases as he witnesses the result of her broken mind.  Claudius attempts to join him in his sorrow, but suggests he bring his wisest friends to judge on Claudius’ guilt or innocence.

“And where the offense is, let the great ax fall.”


I was somewhat disappointed that the reader is rather whacked over the head with Ophelia’s madness.  There is no prelude, no leading up to it, no real example of excess paternal devotion that may make the outcome truly believable.  I believe it because I’ve been whacked with it, but for no other reason.

Ophelia (1888)
Marcus Stone
source Wikimedia Commons

Has anyone ever speculated about Ophelia’s story of the girl who loses her virginity to a man, and then the man refuses to marry her?  I was wondering if it had anything to do with her relationship with Hamlet, but really it’s not clear — you’d probably have to employ rampant speculation here.  I also wondered if the lost of virginity might simply echo of the loss of Ophelia’s innocence, in her belief that the world is good.  She has not only lost her love (Hamlet), she has now lost her father forever.  Her character has always come across as sweet, simple and uncomplicated.  These tragedies in her life, coming so close together are just too much for her to bear.

Laertes is a mirror of Hamlet when he says:

“That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries “Cuckold!” to my father, brands the “harlot”
Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brow
Of my true mother.”

He is not his father’s son until he avenges his death.  Hmmm ….. Hamlet all over again ……

Ophelia is speaking nonsense but we do get sense from her when she gives Gertrude fennel and columbines to signify adultery and to Claudius rue for repentance.  Again, we have a foil in Ophelia’s madness to Hamlet’s.  She is truly mad and sometimes speaks sense, and his madness is a pretense (so far) impregnated with sense.  As Laertes notes about his sister: “A document in madness.  Thoughts and remembrance fitted.”

Is anyone else truly flabbergasted by the complete political ineptitude of Claudius?  He kills the first King, acts too hastily in marrying Gertrude, does not deal with Hamlet and perhaps acts too hastily in sending him away, which unsettles the populous, and NOW he has buried Polonius hastily without the proper ceremonies and trappings.  What was he thinking?  Not only does he make mistakes, he makes them again and again and again, apparently not learning anything from the previous ones.  Sigh!  I can’t imagine what blunder he’s going to make next!

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