Laertes meets Ophelia to say his farewells before returning to France. He warns her to beware of Hamlet’s trifling with her, and urges her to remain chaste. Ophelia agrees to heed his advice, while urging him to obey it as well. Polonius enters and counsels Laertes, who departs. Polonius also warns Ophelia of Hamlet’s amorous intentions, and finally instructs her to avoid him altogether. She assents. For he himself is subject to his birth He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends The safety and health of this whole state And therefore must his choice be circumscribed Unto the voice and yielding of that body Whereof he is the head (1. 3. 17-24) Act 1 Scene 3 Analysis This scene presents tender, if somewhat humorous, dialogue between sister and brother, father and son, and father and daughter. Buried in the conversation, however, is the undercurrent of honesty vs. deceit, love vs. betrayal, reality vs. appearances, all themes which recur throughout the play.
Both Laertes and Polonius show great solicitude for Phelia’s welfare, and she exhibits demure obedience to their advice, born of wider experience of the world than her own. We have already seen Laertes ask to leave Denmark and go to France, and this scene reveals the family relationships of the Polonius family which will serve as a contrast to the Royal family. We first meet Laertes’ sister, Ophelia. As any big brother would, Laertes gives Ophelia advice. He asks her to write to him, and warns her about her boyfriend.
Hamlet from what Laertes says, we can deduce that Ophelia and Hamlet have been spending a lot of time together, and Hamlet has given the impressions to the family that he loves Ophelia. Laertes, however, tells Ophelia that even though Hamlet may love her now, any feelings he may have for her cannot possibly be acted on. If we look carefully at Laertes words, we can see that in addition to advising Ophelia, he is also giving us his perception of Hamlet, a perception that differs significantly from what we have seen of him. Laertes speaks of Hamlet’s ‘greatness’ and the estrictions placed on him as ‘head’ of Denmark. We have just seen that Hamlet is not king of Denmark, nor does it seem that he will be any time soon. Yet Laertes says that his choice of a wife affects the ‘safety and health of his whole state’, implying that not only is Hamlet choosing a wife, but also a Queen for Denmark and mother of kings when Hamlet does take the throne. Denmark however, did not have a system of primogeniture (the succession of son to father), but rather a semi-democratic process. A council consisting of members of the all-powerful nobility chose a king.
This choice had to be approved by representatives of the common people from the provinces throughout Denmark. The real power was the Council and kinds were only entrusted with the management of the state and the Royal Household. In fact, the King was actually crowned by the Councilors who all touched the crown as they said, “Your majesty, accept from us the Crown of this State…” [FN2] Laertes’ comments not only speak of a new political system, but also indicate that Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius [FN3] must have had the qualification that the Council want in order to win the election.
Claudius first action of sending Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway clearly indicates some proficiency at foreign affairs, while his preparations for war show organizational skills and leadership. Furthermore, Hamlet was in school in Wittenberg and did not come back to Denmark for the election. It would seem then that Laertes places himself outside the political world of Denmark , and thus, with Hamlet and Fortinbras completes one of the triangles of the play.
Laertes further reminds us that Ophelia is also no part of that political world. Ophelia, after her brother’s long speech, simply advises him not to given her any advice that he himself will not follow. In doing so, she presents herself as a bright, intelligent girl fully aware of the court’s double standard. Their father Polonius, enters and we see yet another triangle – the 3 families of the play.
This one consists of two men and a women like the Royals, but Gertrude is the only mother, and Ophelia the only daughter who appear in the play. The other fathers mentioned, Old Hamlet and Old Fortinbras, are dead. Like the Fortinbras family, the Polonius family has no mother figure. The Royal family, by contrast, consists of an uncle/step father, mother/aunt, a son/step son/nephew. In this way Shakespeare question what is meant by the term ‘family’. Significantly, by the play’s end, all these familial units will be obliterated.