Act I, Scene iii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act I scene iii

Ophelia and LaertesOphelia is the daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. As he is about to set sail to return to France, Laertes decides to give her some advice: he says she has been too friendly to Hamlet, who, as a prince, and therefore above her rank, cannot be expected to marry her. Laertes is worried that Ophelia may be seduced by Hamlet.

Polonius enters and gives Laertes his blessing.

When he has gone, Polonius reinforces Laertes' advice. He insists that since Hamlet is a young man, he will have lustful thoughts. Polonius tells Ophelia that she must keep away from Hamlet.

Commentary on Hamlet Act I scene iii

That body / Whereof he is the head - the ‘body politic'. The King is seen as the head of the whole body, which is the state. (See Religious/philosophical context: Divine right of kings, also Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being).

Crown of thornsThe steep and thorny way to heaven - the road to heaven is seen as difficult, involving self-sacrifice. For Christians, the reference to the ‘thorny' way would also suggest the crown of thorns which Christ was made to wear as he was crucified.

‘Ungracious pastors' (clergymen who do not really follow the path of Christ) preach self-sacrifice but do not practice it. (See Themes and significant ideas: Grace).

Springes to catch woodcocks - Polonius sees Hamlet's vows of love as ‘traps to catch birds', that is, enticements to seduce Ophelia. There are frequent images of traps throughout the play (see Imagery and symbolism: Traps).

Investigating Hamlet Act I scene iii

  • Notice that this is a ‘triangular' family – father, son, female – which echoes Hamlet's own situation
  • Look at Polonius' long speech of advice to Laertes. What impression do we gain here of Polonius?
    • Is he offering very good sense, or is he garrulous? Or both?
  • What do you notice about Ophelia's reaction to the advice given her by her brother and father?
  • What do you notice about Ophelia's reaction to her father's command?
    • What does it show you about the power-structure within this family?
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