Here’s another one in the “timeline immediately before the play” series. When the story opens it’s been two months since the king’s death, right? And we’ve got Laertes telling Ophelia to watch out for Hamlet, and Polonius coming right out and saying “I forbid you to see him anymore” (paraphrased drastically).
Why? Why then? Does that mean that for the previous couple of months Hamlet and Ophelia have been cool, a couple even, and that the melancholy prince has actually had a girlfriend to rely on for some emotional support? And then, for no reason at all, the rug gets swept out from under him and she’s all “Nope, can’t see you anymore, sorry, take your presents back.” It seems odd to think that right in the middle of all this is when Hamlet decided for the first time “Hey I think I’ll ask Ophelia out.” Gertrude even later says “we’d hoped you would be Hamlet’s wife” or something to that effect, so surely they have a previous relationship.
Like the “Hamlet’s friends” question, I’m trying to recreate, in terms a modern reader could empathize with, the lead up to the play itself. Guy’s dad died. We know his mom is messed up at first, but seems to get over it awfully quickly, too quickly for most people’s taste, and then goes and does something that’s just so awkward it borders on gross. A couple of Hamlet’s friends come to pay their respects. So the next logical character is his girlfriend.
What I want to do is blame Laertes. He’s dragged back to the kingdom for the funeral, and can’t wait to take off again. While he’s home, he seized on the opportunity to say face to face what he’s no doubt told his little sister many times in the past – Hamlet’s no good for you. Only this time, their father Polonius hears the conversation. Who knows? Maybe Polonius is so out of it with respect to his daughter’s actual life that he had no idea they were already a couple, and all he’s really doing is picking up on what Laertes said and expanding it.
Looking at the text I see this line from Polonius: ‘Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:’, so clearly he’s got some idea. But I don’t know how to interpret “very oft of late”. I mean, I know what it means, but what does Polonius think it means? Did Hamlet’s father die and then all of a sudden, with no other emotional support, Hamlet threw himself at Ophelia? Is Polonius arguing that Hamlet and Ophelia used to spend time together, and he realizes that, but now they’re spending way *too* much time together, and that’s what he doesn’t like?
I guess I’ve come around full circle. The clues are all there that Hamlet and Ophelia had some sort of relationship prior to the play. But the Polonius says “Nope, give him back his gifts and don’t see him anymore.” We can explain away Laertes, the big brother away at college, who has probably never liked the idea of his sister and Hamlet. But why does Polonius suddenly take an interest, and make her shut him down?