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at his parents every time around - and why his parents will always wave back.” -William D. Tammeus
An Analysis of Parent-Child Relationships in Hamlet* Meghan Casey, Austin Cao, Grace Gonzalez, Kyrie Merline, Katie O’Brien Mrs. Gregory AP Language, 3rd Hour
*Thank you, William Shakespeare.
In 1967, through intensive research and observation, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three “styles” of parent-child interaction: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. Her work has tremendously advanced research in psychological development in children and parenting styles. Yet our society exists not within the rows and columns of a classification chart, but within a universal narrative. Every parent and every child lives in a world of subjectivity and shifting values, a place where these parent-child relationships are infinitely diverse and functionally impossible to be classified. Literature reveals this. As in life and in Hamlet, the formation of strong, loving parent-child relationships is no easy task. William Shakespeare exemplifies the multiplicity of the parent-child relationship in his play Hamlet by presenting a spectrum of powerful, complex kinships, ranging from relatively normal, to controlling, to slightly sexual, to deadly. Grace Gonzalez: Laertes and Polonius have the most functional relationship in Hamlet even though Polonius is a controlling father who spies on Laertes. The play divulges that Polonius’s questionable behavior is only driven by love for his son. As the play commences, Polonius is uneasy about letting Laertes go to France even though Laertes has proven himself worthy to depart. Polonius reluctantly says to King Claudius, “He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave/By laborsome petition, and at last/Upon his will I sealed my hard consent./I do beseech you give him leave to go” (I.ii.58-61). Polonius does not want his son to leave, but he knows that returning to college will make Laertes blissful. Laertes reciprocates the love his father gives him through his respect for his father’s advice. Laertes is very courteous when Polonius says, “Thou canst not then be false to any man./Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!” (I.iii.80-81). Polonius gets a bit too philosophical and controlling when he tells Laertes how to act, what to wear, and who to be in preparation for his trip to France. Continuing his manipulative ways, Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Polonius says to Reynaldo, “You shall marvell’s wisely, good Reynaldo,/Before you visit him, to make inquire/Of his behavior” (II.i.3-5). Polonius advises that Reynaldo first inquire what Danes are in Paris and where he can stay. Then he asks him to vaguely mention Laertes and say that he knows him but not really. Furthermore, he wants Reynaldo to say that Laertes has issues with drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling, or drabbing to see if Laertes’ friends reveal anything about him. He is spying on his son to see if he is doing anything wrong. Reynaldo protests saying, “My lord, that would dishonor him” (II.i.27) but quickly changes his viewpoint when Polonius makes his spying seem like no big deal. Polonius’s mischievous spying is what ends up getting him killed. Though they may not have had the best of relationships before Polonius is murdered, Laertes shows his love for Polonius after he dies. Laertes immediately returns to Denmark and revenges his father’s death by confronting Claudius and saying, “And so have I a noble father lost;/A sister driven into desp’rate terms,/Whose worth, if praises may go back again,/Stood challenger on mount of all the age/For her perfections. But my revenge will come” (IV.vi.25-29). Compared to Hamlet, who takes the entire play to revenge his father’s death, Laertes shows that he truly loves his father when he immediately acts. Motivated by love for his father, Laertes is even willing to accept damnation
to revenge his father’s death. Polonius and Laertes have a relationship very close to the norm compared to any other characters in Hamlet. Katie O’Brien: Polonius acts in an equally controlling matter in the second best relationship; Ophelia looks for guidance and obeys Polonius unconditionally, while Polonius tries to manipulate her actions for his social standing and hopefully her own happiness. Polonius and Ophelia clearly are dependent on each other because they communicate constantly. Ophelia never thinks on her own, she relies on Polonius for making important decisions throughout the entire play. During their first interaction of the play, the actions of each character demonstrates who they are to each other. Polonius asks Ophelia to share with him what Laertes and Ophelia were discussing earlier by rudely commanding, “What is between you? Give me up the truth” (I.iii.98). Ophelia readily sacrifices her privacy and launches into the saga of her interactions with Hamlet. After hearing Ophelia’s version of events, Polonius responds without care, “Pooh! You speak like a green girl, / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance” (I.iii.101-102). Polonius dismisses her thoughts of affection for Hamlet by calling her inexperienced and unknowledgeable. Ophelia accepts this slap and continues by brainlessly stating that she “*does+ not know… what *she+ should think” (I.iii.104). This is just the cue Polonius needs to take over her thoughts; he manipulates her though promising to “teach” her what to do about the situation and cooing “think yourself a baby” (I.iii.105). Polonius is determined to convince Ophelia that Hamlet will move on quickly if she does not play a little hard to get. In Polonius’ opinion, she should be giving Hamlet less of her time because her fling is doomed to fail. Warning that a prince would never marry Ophelia, Polonius’ words make even the reader feel bad for Ophelia. Yet, after Polonius is allowed time to expand on his theory and put down Ophelia some more, Ophelia does not respond as many teenagers would, with anger and frustration, but Ophelia gratefully says “I shall obey, my lord,” demonstrating her abnormally submissive behavior (I.iii.136). This first interaction lays down their unwavering relationship by having Ophelia be naïve and lacking in confidence and by having Polonius step in and suggest that a course of action for Ophelia to take. However, Polonius does not hold onto the theory that Hamlet does not appreciate Ophelia for long; he quickly changes to the idea that Hamlet has been driven insane by his love for Ophelia. Polonius changes his view without a question from Ophelia, although he acknowledges that “it is as proper to our age / To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions / As it is common for the younger sort / To lack discretion” (II.i.114-117). Polonius suggests that that older people’s forcing opinions on others is just as likely as teenagers being wild. Ophelia’s father completely accepts that he was off base on his first judgment that Ophelia followed blindly, but instead of questioning her father’s second idea, Ophelia appreciates the new idea that Hamlet is crazy in love. Polonius then begins getting closer to the royal family, which thrills him because the newfound friendship and alliance boost his image. At several points after diagnosing Hamlet’s insanity as caused by Ophelia’s rejection, he spends time with the King and Queen. Next, Ophelia allows Polonius and Claudius to spy on her planned encounter with Hamlet. Most people in relationships would not even share the topics discussed with their boyfriends or girlfriends, yet Ophelia allows both fathers to observe every word and action between them. Whether or not Polonius is right about Hamlet, Ophelia is too trusting in
Polonius and listens to his thoughts before she considers her own. After her father’s death, her dependence is forced into the spotlight when she sings insane, inappropriate verses throughout the castle. Laertes believes she has gone crazy; he states that “Nature is fine in love, and where ’tis fine, / It sends some precious instance of itself / After the thing it loves” (IV.v.161-163). This means Ophelia’s sanity has been sent away along with Polonius’ death. Casting a part of Ophelia away with her dear father is a more romantic version of events, as Ophelia really may just be so dependent on her father to think for her that she mentally falls apart when he leaves. Queen Gertrude hears of Ophelia’s death: “When down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook” (IV.vii.175-176). Although the death seems like an unfortunate accident that happened as Ophelia is innocently making wreaths out of twigs and leaves, the incident can be interpreted as a suicide. Ophelia falls into the river shortly after she loses her sanity and does not exert the effort to pull herself out. The relationship between Polonius and Ophelia is toxic because Ophelia cannot function without her father, and Polonius’ life revolves mostly around controlling his child’s actions. Kyrie Merline: Although Ophelia and Polonius are classified as having a better parent-child relationship, King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet, despite their difficulties, have a fairly good relationship in Hamlet as well. Prince Hamlet continues to place his father on a pedestal, and feels as though he will never live up to his father who is considered “so excellent a king” (I.ii.139). Hamlet’s diminishing self-confidence throughout the play depicts this father-son relationship as being unhealthy, yet every child feels as though his parent’s expectations are too high and, therefore, this indicates a “normal” relationship. Hamlet feels as though he is “a dull and muddy mettled rascal, peak like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and can say nothing-no, not for a king” (II.ii.543-545), but truthfully his self-pity is a result of him having “daddy” issues throughout the play. Hamlet calls himself a “coward” throughout the play in order to make himself feel better, but in all actuality he just gives himself less motivation to respond accordingly to his father’s death. Hamlet believes his father was a great man, but just the same “he was a man, take him for all in all” (I.ii.186). Hamlet not only thinks his father was a great man, but also compares him to Greek gods. Hamlet announces, “See what grace was seated on this brow; Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself; and eye like Mars, to threaten and command” (III.iv.56-58). Hamlet is revisiting his father’s personality as the most godly man, and continues on to say “a combination and a form indeed…to give the world assurance of a man” (III.iv.61-63). Prince Hamlet announces this to show how much he respects his father even though he has passed and asserts that King Hamlet was a great man. Hamlet continues to defend his father after he has passed in order to make it sound as though he is standing up for him; however, deep down he knows that he must properly revenge his father’s death in a way that would make him proud. Throughout the play, the audience learns that Hamlet wants to do right by making the people of Denmark remember the remarkable king they had. Hamlet must prove that he is worthy of nobility like his father. Towards the end of the play Hamlet feels more consumed with revenging his father’s death than actually performing the act, but still understands that “rightly to be great, is not to stir without argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw, when honor’s at stake” (IV.iv.52-55). Hamlet concludes by stating the importance for his
father’s death to be avenged so he can get back all honors that might have been lost when his uncle, King Claudius, took over. At the end of the play Hamlet completes his father’s wishes and avenges his death, but it is almost as though he has not only avenged his “godly” father’s death, he has also proved himself to be a man. It is a bittersweet ending because Hamlet believes himself to be a coward throughout the play, but grows as a person as the play progresses. Hamlet and King Hamlet have a normally functioning relationship because every child feels as though their parents’ expectations are too high, and throughout the play Prince Hamlet is just trying to make his father proud. Austin Cao: Even more enigmatic than the father-son dynamic is Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, Gertrude; Shakespeare’s absent definition of this relationship opens up interpretations through both the Oedipal complex and attachment theory. To little surprise of literary critics, Freud was the first to approach Hamlet with psychoanalysis- an attempt to explain the interactions between the conscious and the unconscious. In the mother-son relationship, Freud saw the perfect example of perhaps his most well-known (and his strangest) postulation, the Oedipal complex. Hamlet’s hesitation with his task of revenge (which he prolongs with contemplations of suicide) can be explained by his relationship with his mother, Freud argues. Oddly enough, the young prince seems to be obsessed with the “incestuous” (I.ii.157) nature of his mother, and the closet scene offers evidence for this. In a mocking tone, Hamlet criticizes his mother for letting Claudius “pinch wanton on your cheek” and give “reechy kisses” (III.iv.182-185). While this might be shrugged off as understandable anger, his descriptions of “the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed” and his horrifying remarks about “making love/ Over the nasty sty—” (III.iv.92-95) cannot. The audience can safely assume that a normal thirty-year-old son does not obsess over his mother’s sex life, nor demand that she abstain from sex entirely. So Freud saw a deeper conflict within Hamlet that fit within the context of a murdered father and stolen mother. When Gertrude replies “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (III.iv.158), the Oedipal complex comes into play, for neither the characterization of Hamlet as a blubbering lunatic or a deceitful genius would deserve such a profound response from his mother. Freud, instead, sees Hamlet’s unconscious struggle as the juxtaposition of a repressed sexual desire for Gertrude and a guilt of that same feeling. This can be interpreted literally from Hamlet’s lament that “would it were not so!- you are my mother” (III.iv.17). His father’s death has allowed his Oedipal nature to surface, and his disgust with it is evident in the “get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.eh) scene where he expresses a distaste towards sex in general. Yet despite Freud’s revered distinction, the audience of today should not be expected to fully accept his analysis of a fictional, Shakespearean relationship. Instead, many parallels can be drawn between his Oedipal complex and the modern attachment theory, which seeks to describe long-term, emotional relationships between humans. Hamlet states that her mother “would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on” (I.ii.144-145), and that “a beast that wants discourse of reason/ Would have mourned longer!” (I.ii.150-151). In a more open reading of Hamlet, the prince’s obsession with his mother seems to be rooted not in libido but nostalgia. His description of King Hamlet and Gertrude’s “blush of modesty,” “virtue,” and “innocent love”
(III.iv.42-44) hints that it wasn’t a strange fixation on his mother that consumed him, but instead a perfectly normal admiration for his childhood mother and father. The closet scene where he desperately tries to show Gertrude why one of “two brothers” (III.iv.55) is superior proves that Hamlet is obsessed with his conception of the ideal family. His hesitation can be explained by attachment theory as well- the speed at which Claudius replaced his father forced Hamlet to identify with the new king as a pseudo-father, and to kill him would infringe on Hamlet’s attachment to parental figures. Gertrude realizes this when she says that Hamlet’s depression is probably because of “His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.56-57). Furthermore, Gertrude plays the part of a innocent loving mother who only wants the best for her Hamlet whom she describes as a “sad...poor wretch” (II.ii167) and a “gentle son” (III.iv.123 -125). At Ophelia's funeral, she whispers, "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife," (V.i.220) leaving little doubt that she dearly loved her son. In the final scene, Gertrude’s dying warning to Hamlet and his speedy retribution for her death are just radical examples of a mother’s counsel and a son’s reprisal. In final analysis, the relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet, while commonly interpreted with the extreme Oedipal complex, deserves a milder look through attachment theory. Meghan Casey: Hamlet and Claudius share the most heinous relationship in Hamlet, mostly due to the fact that they desire to kill each other. Between Hamlet and Claudius, Hamlet has a more legitimate reason to kill Claudius. Once the ghost tells Hamlet about the “Murder most foul” (I.iv.27), Hamlet is determined to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet will “take the ghost’s word / for a thousand pound! (III.ii.298-299) and begins planning how to murder his “remorseless, treacherous, kindless” (II.ii.596) uncle. The first idea that Hamlet acts upon is to put on a play “Wherein *he’ll+ catch the conscience of the King” (II.ii.622). This play will hopefully remind Claudius of his crime, and his reaction will determine Hamlet’s next action. As Hamlet hopes, during “The Mousetrap” (III.ii.248), the King rises and demands that the play ceases. Due to this reaction, Hamlet is now positive that Claudius murdered King Hamlet. Shortly after the play, Hamlet finds Claudius ‘praying’ and almost kills him; however, Hamlet fears that if he commits the crime at this moment, “*Claudius+ goes to heaven” (III.iii.74). Hamlet comes to the conclusion that he will avenge his father’s death “when *Claudius+ is drunk asleep; or in his rage; / Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed” (III.iii.89-90). If Hamlet murders Claudius as he sins, Claudius’ soul will go straight to hell, where his soul belongs. Although Hamlet plans to kill Claudius swiftly, the murder does not occur until the final scene of Hamlet. Only after the sword fight ends and Gertrude dies, with Hamlet himself dying, does he muster up the courage to kill Claudius. Hamlet first stabs him with the poisoned sword. Then, Hamlet tells Claudius “Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane, / Drink off this potion” (V.ii.330-331) and pours the poisoned drink down Claudius’ throat. Hamlet finishes this murder by demanding Claudius “Follow *Hamlet’s+ mother” (V.ii.332). Although paralyzed by his conscience until this point, Hamlet at last avenges his father’s murder. Unlike Hamlet, Claudius’ reasoning behind desiring to kill Hamlet is purely selfish. After Hamlet’s play, Claudius knows that Hamlet is aware of the murder of King Hamlet. Claudius feels threatened by Hamlet and “likes him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range” (III.iii.1 -2).
Discreetly, Claudius begins mentioning to Gertrude how “Out of his lunacies” (III.iii.7) Hamlet is and that “The terms of *their+ estate may not endure” (III.iii.6) if Hamlet stays in Denmark. Gertrude slowly begins to agree with Claudius and eventually decides that sending Hamlet to England would be best for everyone. Claudius’ plan is to send Hamlet to England and have him killed while there; this way, no one will suspect Claudius of the murder. Unfortunately for Claudius, Hamlet sneaks upon a pirate ship while on his way to England and returns to Denmark. Cleverly, Claudius comes up with a new plan in which Laertes and Hamlet will fence. However, the fatal part to this plan is that Laertes’ sword will be “unbated” (IV.vi.138) and dipped in poison so that even “if *Laertes+ gall him slightly, / It may be death” (IV.vi.146-147). Claudius creates a back-up plan just in case the sword fight does not end the way he hopes. “If *Hamlet+ by chance escape *Laertes’+ venomed stuck” (IV.iv.161) Claudius will offer Hamlet a drink, which will administer a poison. To Claudius’ delight, during the sword fight Hamlet is scratched by Laertes’ sword and eventually dies, but not until after Hamlet kills Claudius. The main storyline of Hamlet includes the planning of Hamlet’s and Claudius’ deaths. Although the audience may never know if Hamlet enjoyed Claudius’ company as an uncle before the death of King Hamlet, the audience can be sure that as stepfather and stepson, Hamlet and Claudius share the most dysfunctional relationship in Hamlet, characterized by their desires to kill each other. These five distinct, yet equally significant illustrations of the parent-child relationship in Hamlet collectively can be interpreted as William Shakespeare’s depiction of the good, bad, and ugly in this universal dynamic. The audience notices these evident archetypes: Laertes’ punitive loyalty, Ophelia’s dutiful obedience, and Hamlet’s adolescent rebelliousness. Although Polonius spies on Laertes, this fatherly love that is exhibited makes Polonius and Laertes’ relationship considered the healthiest. Ophelia and Polonius have intertwined lives and, although they love each other, the amount of sharing they do with one another is outrageous and unhealthy. Although he was only seen as a ghost, Hamlet’s late father had a normal relationship with his son, filled with its own share of expectations. Hamlet and Gertrude hold a curious relationship that balances between affectionate and outlandish, which becomes evident under the lens of psychological theories like the Oedipal complex. Hamlet and Claudius share the most deadly relationship in Hamlet; as expected, this kinship ends fatally. Shakespeare appeals to the ubiquitous emotions and conflicts that even occur in modern parent-child relationships, and his spectrum of case-in-points leaves much room for reflection. Should parents be so central in the lives of their offspring? What exactly defines the ‘perfect’ relationship with one’s parent? Should children unconditionally obey their elders? Our young generation now sees first-hand the struggles that Shakespeare epitomizes in Hamlet and once again seeks to answer these eternal questions. “Having babies is fun, but babies grow up into people.” -Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H