At the house of Polonius, Laertes was taking advantage of his father’s absence to discuss some delicate matters with his sister, Ophelia. He had been keeping an eye on her since his return from France.
“My luggage is already on board,” Laertes said. “Farewell, and sister, whenever a ship is getting ready to sail make sure you have a letter for me.”
“Can you doubt it?” Ophelia asked.
Laertes smiled as he looked at her. He loved her. He worried about her. He summoned the courage, or rather suppressed a niggling embarrassment, to broach the subject that had been troubling him.
“As for Hamlet and his interest in you, disregard him. It’s nothing more than the flirtations that come with nature. Brief, not permanent. Sweet, but it will wither. The perfume of the season. No more.”
“No more than that?”
“Think of it as nothing more than that. The natural curve of a man’s development is not restricted to size and bulk. As the physical temple matures so do the inner responsibilities. Perhaps he loves you now, and his intentions are not to besmirch you, but bear in mind his future. His will is not his own, he will always follow the commitments of his birth. He cannot satisfy his cravings, like the common people. The safety and health of Denmark will depend on his decisions. Therefore his choice of wife must be taken after he has heard and considered the opinions of his subjects. So if he says he loves you, let your wisdom understand that he loves you only as much as a man in his position can. Can your honour sustain the loss if you pay too much heed to his serenades, if you fall in love with him, if you give him your virginity? Fear it, Ophelia. Fear it, my dear sister, and don’t fall prey to desire. The modest girl lets only the moon appreciate her beauty. Virtue cannot defend itself against the calamity of gossip. Even the most beautiful of plants are killed by the frosts of spring. The liquid dew of youth is particularly vulnerable. The young are so inclined to rebel for no reason.”
Ophelia paused to consider what her brother had told her.
“I take the gist of the lesson to heart. But, dear brother, don’t be like an ungodly pastor showing me the steep and thorny path to Heaven while you yourself indulge in all the sins you now forbid, listen to your own cautions.”
Laertes was taken aback by Ophelia’s retort. He suddenly realised how mature his sister had become.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, sounding rather hurt.
The exchange was in danger of turning bitter, but by luck their father, Polonius, entered the room.
“I’ve stayed too long,” Laertes continued. “Here is father. A double blessing is a double grace. Farewell again, father.”
“Yes, still here, Laertes? Get aboard, get aboard! The wind is perfect, and they are waiting for you! Here’s my blessing and remember your father’s advice: Don’t give a tongue to hasty thoughts, and never act in haste. Be friendly, but discerning. To those friends who have proved their loyalty grasp them to your soul with hoops of steel. But don’t shake hands with every comedian who comes your way. Avoid starting a quarrel but once involved give everyone else second thoughts. Hear a lot, but say little. Listen to opinions, but reserve your judgement. Dress as well as your pocket permits, but avoid uncouth trends. Apparel announces the man. The French aristocracy are particularly select in this. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. A loan often loses the money and the friend. Borrowing dulls the edge of common sense. But above all else: to yourself be true. Then as sure as night follows day, you cannot be false to any other. Farewell. May my blessings help you fulfil your aims.”
Laertes smiled, accustomed as he was to his elderly father’s warnings.
“Most humbly I take my leave, my lord.”
“Time moves on. Go, your servants are waiting.”
“Farewell, Ophelia, and remember well what I have said to you.”
“It’s locked in my memory, and you yourself shall keep the key.”
When Laertes left, Polonius attempted to quiz Ophelia about what went on between the siblings before he entered the room.
“What did he say to you, Ophelia?”
“Respectfully, something regarding Prince Hamlet.”
“Indeed. I’ve been thinking about Hamlet myself. I have been informed that lately you have been having private meetings with him. You have lavished very liberal amounts of time on him. If this is so – as I have been told by way of warning- I must tell you that you do not understand yourself as clearly as one who is my daughter should. What is between you? I want the truth.”
“He has, my lord, lately showed his affection for me more frequently.”
“Affection? Pooh, you speak like a naive girl, unschooled in such perilous business. Do you believe in his affection, as you call it?”
“I don’t know what I should think, my lord.”
“To be sure, I must teach you. Regard yourself as an immature filly having been taken in by these ‘tenders of affection’, clear counterfeits. Tender yourself more expensively or, for want of better verbal currency, you’ll tender yourself a fool.”
“My lord, he has courted me in an honourable fashion.”
“Fashion! Passing fancy you can call it! This is nonsense!”
“He has confirmed his intentions with all the vows of Heaven.”
“But snares for birds! When the blood burns, lavish promises come from the soul! The blaze gives off more light than heat, Ophelia, and when it comes to fulfilment, promises will douse the flames. From now on curtail your enthusiasm for meetings with Hamlet. Simply believe that he is young and can walk down roads barred to you. Don’t believe his vows, they are not true indicators of his emotions but mere trumpets on behalf of his manly impulses – but sounding to you like saintly and pious promises. This is my last word on the matter. From now on I do not want you to squander your time talking to Hamlet. Clear? Now, come along.”
Since Polonius was one of the most senior men of the Danish court, Ophelia and Hamlet had known each other since childhood, but he was several years older and had spent much of the past few years immersed in his intellectual interests in Germany so the sudden blossom of romance was unexpected and, given the Prince’s grief, worrying- particularly to a political sort like Polonius.
“I shall obey, my lord.”
Ophelia, chastised and embarrassed, wondered how she could obey this order.