Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 1 Scene 3 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 3

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains Act 1, Scene 3 in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

As Laertes prepares to head back to France, he and Ophelia talk about his trip and promise to write to each other, but Laertes quickly steers the conversation to the topic of Ophelia and Hamlet's relationship. Showing the concern of a thoughtful older brother, Laertes warns Ophelia not to take Hamlet's attention too seriously. Laertes tells her that a person of Hamlet's stature does not have the liberty to choose a mate, and reminds Ophelia that the welfare of a prince's country may depend upon that choice. Reciprocating Hamlet's affection, he adds, could damage her reputation.

While Ophelia promises to take Laertes's counsel to heart, their conversation is interrupted by their father, Polonius, who is surprised to find Laertes still in residence. Once Laertes leaves, Polonius echoes much of his warnings about Hamlet, dismissing Ophelia's claims that Hamlet's expressions of love are sincere. As the scene closes, Polonius forbids her to spend any more time with Hamlet, and Ophelia submits.

Analysis

The scene—basically just conversations between two siblings and then between a father and his two children—does a lot of work, both in developing character and in building the plot.

The audience gains insight into Laertes and Ophelia's characters. For example, as Laertes questions Ophelia about her relationship with Prince Hamlet, he appears as the caring older brother. Laertes also comes across as confident and practical, with straightforward reasoning and a gentle style. Being older—and no doubt because he is a male and has been beyond the gates of Elsinore and the borders of Denmark—he is more worldly than his sister and aware of the trouble that a young man's attention can cause a young woman's reputation.

Ophelia, for her part, shows herself to be young and inexperienced, but also earnest and without guile. She is sincere in her love for Hamlet and believes he is equally sincere, but she appears oblivious to the potential darker side of a young man's intentions. Both Ophelia and Laertes seem thoughtful, which stands in contrast to what we learn of Polonius in both the following conversation and in the unfolding play.

Polonius then talks first with Laertes and then with Ophelia. The audience gets an initial glimpse into Polonius's character. Whereas his children seem to be straightforward and sincere, Polonius appears somewhat self-absorbed and politically minded—even in situations where his children are concerned. This scene also captures Polonius's tendency to use many words when one would do.

The scene communicates backstory while moving the plot forward. The scene provides more information about Laertes, Ophelia, and Polonius, and a sense of the society and hierarchy in Denmark. Hamlet is observed through others' eyes and the scene gives enough information about Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship to show that it's a matter to watch as the play unfolds.

Reality versus appearance is a key theme that runs through the play and is central to this scene. "What are Hamlet's true intentions?" both Laertes and Polonius are asking. "Is he what he seems?" or "is he deceiving Ophelia?" Even as Polonius cautions Ophelia that Hamlet's intentions might not be what they seem, he is actually more concerned with how her actions might affect his reputation. Those same motivations underlie his advice to Laertes. So much of what Polonius counsels has to do with outward appearance and with little regard for an inner self.

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