Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3:

Page Index:

Enter Laertes and Ophelia:
Some editors add a stage direction here, indicating that this scene takes place in a room in Polonius' house, but Laertes' "necessaries are inbark'd" (1.3.1). That is, his luggage is already checked in, and "the wind sits in the shoulder of the sail," so the place is more likely to be a dock. We can imagine the boarding gate at an airport, where urgent things are said, things that can't wait any longer to be said.

First, Laertes wants his sister to write to him. Then, after she promises to do so, he starts talking about Hamlet. It's clear that he doesn't have a high opinion of the prince. Laertes calls Hamlet's "favor" to Ophelia "trifling," and warns her that it is like a violet, early to appear in the spring, and early to die. He goes on to say that as the body of a person grows, "the inward service of the mind and soul / Grows wide withal" (1.3.13-14). He doesn't quite complete the thought, but he apparently wants to contrast Hamlet's temporary "favor" with a true love that would grow and deepen.

Perhaps Ophelia shows her unhappiness with all of this, because Laertes makes a small concession, saying, "perhaps he loves you now," but then he goes on to point out that Hamlet, as a prince of Denmark, can't marry just anyone. Hamlet is a prince, but Ophelia is not a princess, and Hamlet needs the approval of "the main voice of Denmark." What Laertes means is that Hamlet must have the permission of the King, and Laertes has witnessed the bitter exchanges between the King and Hamlet.

So, for whatever reason, Laertes is convinced that Ophelia cannot marry Hamlet. And if she can't marry him, then the relationship can only harm her. She could "lose [her] heart, or [her] chaste treasure open" (1.3.31).

He doesn't stop there, and as he goes on, it becomes clear that although he may love his sister, he doesn't have a very high opinion of her, either. He compares her to springtime flowers, which may be diseased even before they start to bloom. Finally, he reminds her that she is young, and "youth to itself rebels, though none else near" (1.3.44), meaning that young people do stupid things, even without being tempted as Ophelia is tempted.

In short, Laertes warns Ophelia that she is danger because she is weak, and that fear is her best defense.

Ophelia says that she will take his "good lesson" to heart, but she tries to stand up for herself a little, too, saying that he should walk his talk and not tread "the primrose path of dalliance" (1.3.50). But Laertes is a firm believer in the double standard, and just says "O, fear me not," even though his father later has a strong suspicion that he is visiting French whorehouses.

Enter Polonius
Then Polonius shows up, and he--like his son--is full of advice.

Polonius starts by telling his son to get "aboard, aboard" (1.3.55), but then keeps him on shore to listen a rather long list of what he calls "these few precepts." Polonius has much good, solid advice for getting along in the world. It is true that "the apparel oft proclaims the man" (1.3.72). At least our advertising industry believes it's true that the shirt and the shoe will tell the world who we are. It is also true that "loan oft loses both itself and friend" (1.3.76); we've probably all had the experience loaning money a friend, only to find that we'll never get back either the money or the friend. But all of this good advice about being careful and always maintaining the correct appearance allows us to find irony in Polonius' final--and most famous--piece of advice: "This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man" (1.3.78-80). (Another irony is that late in the play Laertes joins the king in being extremely false to Hamlet.)

Exit Laertes:
Of course, in giving all of his fatherly advice to Laertes, Polonius himself is not being ironic. He is always sure that he is right, and when his son has departed, he turns the force of his self-assurance upon his daughter.

Polonius has an even lower opinion of Ophelia than Laertes does. Laertes was willing to think that his sister was only weak and foolish, but Polonius assumes that she should know better and is likely to lie. He has heard that Hamlet has "given private time" to Ophelia, and he wants to know what is going on, saying "What is between you? Give me up the truth" (1.3.98). Ophelia tries to defend herself and Hamlet, saying , "he hath importuned me with love / In honorable fashion" (1.3.110-111) , but Polonius will have none of it. He calls her a "green girl" and a "baby"; in a volley of what he thinks are witty remarks, he tells her that he's not about to let her make a fool of him. As for Hamlet and his love for Ophelia, Polonius is quite sure that he knows a liar when he sees one; Hamlet's vows are meant only to "beguile." He forbids her to see him again, and has so browbeaten her that all she can say is "I shall obey, my lord" (1.3.136).