Poor old Hamlet, he did have rather a lot on his mind. When we first see him in Act 1 Scene 2, he is being jollied along by his uncle, the new king, who admonishes him for mourning his dead father. Claudius’ message is basically: “Suck it up, Prince.”
It’s pretty tactless of Claudius but Hamlet’s first soliloquy indicates his problem lies elsewhere. Not only is he grieving his father’s death but he is disgusted that his mother, Gertrude, has married Claudius, who is his uncle. He see Claudius (quite naturally) as inferior to his father.
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr;
I.ii 139 -140
He is disgusted that his mother has
within a month
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
I.ii 153 -157
The language in this soliloquy Hamlet emphasises his mother’s infidelity to his father and the physical and sexual nature of her relationship with Claudius.
Embedded in this soliloquy a general condemnation of women
Frailty, thy name is woman!
that will be reinforced later by Ophelia’s behaviour
Hamlet is unable to see that while Gertrude was in love with his father, she now seems quite happily in love with Claudius. We can see why Hamlet doesn’t like Claudius. If he were alive today he’d be the kind of middle-aged guy who wears knee-length cargo pants, boat shoes without socks and an open neck shirt with a gold chain. He would also drive a convertible Saab. For Gertrude, he’s obviously a fun’s sort of guy (as well as being King) and probably a bit of a contrast to Hamlet’s father who appears have worn his armour everywhere, probably to bed.
And Claudius is quite an operator. He’s already secured the Crown and the ex-Queen and he’s at the top of his game in Act 1 Scene 2, dealing with insurgency on his borders, despatching ambassadors and dispensing favours to his chief political backer, Polonius, by granting Laertes leave to return to France. He also ensures that Hamlet stays at court where he can keep an eye on him by refusing him leave to return to Wittenburg where he was a student. Properly played, the scene will emphasise Hamlet’s political, as well as emotional, isolation in the court. The emotional isolation is played out in his relationship with Gertrude and with Ophelia.
In Act I Scene iii, we have Laertes cautioning his sister Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet
Hamlet might have a pretty dim view of Claudius, but it’s also clear that Laertes has some doubts about the purity of Hamlet’s intentions, and he says to Ophelia
Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster’d importunity
I.iii 29 – 32
Polonius questions Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet.
My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honorable fashion.
Polonius is unimpressed and warns his daughter
Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.
I.iii 101 – 108
And then forbids his daughter to see Hamlet
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
I.iii 132 – 135
That the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia has no support within her family emphasises Hamlet’s isolation within the court. The only two people he can rely on, his mother and his girlfriend are aligning themselves with Claudius.
So by this stage in the play, Hamlet has suffered three major setbacks: his mother’s marriage to as uncle, rejection by his girlfriend and the appearance of his father’s ghost, demanding revenge. We see the effect of this in Ophelia’s description of Hamlet
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors
II.i 79 – 82
Polonius’ interpretation is based on his limited information about Hamlet. He doesn’t know about the ghost and he probably doesn’t sympathise with, or understand, Hamlet’s extended mourning, so his interpretation is:
This is the very ecstasy of love,
That hath made him mad
II.i 100 – 101
And he and Ophelia go bustling off to the King with the decision is made to test Polonius’ theory that Ophelia’s rejection is responsible for Hamlet’s madness.
The Queen has a different explanation for Hamlet’s madness
I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage.
II.ii 56 – 57
But like Polonius’ theory, it is based on limited information. Claudius, however is the only person, other than Hamlet, with all the information at his fingertips and he is keen to find out just how much Hamlet knows. So, he and Polonius decide to arrange to spy on a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. In this scene, the Nunnery Scene, Hamlet leaves Ophelia completely devastated and Claudius highly suspicious.
Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack’d form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul,
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger:
III.i 162 – 167
The next time we see Hamlet and Ophelia together is in the Play Scene where he publicly insults and humiliates her in the crudest terms. This scene is a forerunner of the cathartic confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude, which is fuelled not only by Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s marriage but also by the knowledge that the ghost is an “honest ghost” and that Claudius has murdered his father. It culminates in:
A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings;
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket!
III.iv 95 -100
From this point on the play, the rising tide of violence sweeps all before it. The first to go is Ophelia, driven to suicide by the loss of her father and of Hamlets love.