William Shakespeare in the play Hamlet espouses a diverse view of family relationships. Shakespeare explores the theme of family relationships based on the experiences of Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes, all who are characters whose central roles in the play development cannot be underscored. Intelligently, he crafts a scenario where not all family relationships are rosy; some are sour to say the least. Gertrude is the first character whom we encounter trying to ensure that her family remains intact, but his son takes precedence in her life. Though she doesn’t openly express a motherly relationship to her son Hamlet, the challenges weighing down on her have force her to make a quick decision juggling the expectations of her husband whilst according her son his desired attention and affection.
In addition, the relationship between his father and stepfather gives us information about the kind of relationship the family is accustomed to. Ophelia and Laertes offer the reader perspectives on the relationship amongst themselves as brother and sister whilst the treatment they receive and give to Polonius; their father before and after the time of his death, show the kind of difficulties experienced in untrustworthy and overbearing father. Their actions though are limited to and more often than not centre on their acting role directed to Hamlet who is the central figure of focus in the text.
Though the feelings of affection of Gertrude to his son are not superficial, one moment determines just how much she loved her son. In order to save her son Hamlet from Claudius, she drinks the poison in the cup. After drinking the poison, she tenderly wipes the sweat from her son’s brow, a real motherly show of deep affection. Gertrude undertakes all this at a time when her son has been protesting at her selfishness and her failure to accord him attention which has instead been directed to her husband. The moment is quite fascinating and the audience can question whether Gertrude was aware that there was poison in the cup she drank from. If indeed she knew of the poison, she really wanted the best for her son. After drinking, she affectionately calls onto Hamlet, “Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows; The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet. Come, let me wipe thy face. (act5. sc2 313-315)” This shows how much she cared for her son.
On the other hand, Claudius, the stepfather of Hamlet seems to be jealous of the fortune of Hamlet. He is really committed to eliminating Hamlet to an extent that he has Rosencrantz and Guildestern spy on Hamlet. Claudius is so committed to killing Hamlet to an extent that he instructs the King of England to ensure his murder on his arrival and ensures that he sends Hamlet to England. The acts of Claudius point at a relationship not so cordial; founded on jealousy and motivated by the fear of the unknown.
The tribulations of Old Hamlet and the circumstances behind his demise also highlight a repulsive family relationship. It is made very clear that Old Hamlet was murdered by his brother, Claudius through poisoning as shown to Hamlet by the ghost (act 1 scene 5). Hamlet swears to revenge the killing of his father which would involve his murdering of his stepfather Claudius. He says So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word; It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.' I have sworn 't. (act 1 sc5 116-118). Though Claudius is the step father and brother to Hamlet and Old Hamlet respectively he is committed to eliminating the whole family.
Hamlet venerates his father, Old Hamlet. After Hamlet killed Polonius he shows the picture of old Hamlet and Claudius to Gertrude, then he compares old Hamlet and Claudius, he says Claudius is a ‘goat man’ and Old Hamlet is ‘son of god.’ This shows not only how much respect he had for his father but also that he really worshipped him. In asserts our speculation that indeed, he does resent Claudius. Ophelia was used by Polonius as a spy and not as a daughter. Her huge task was to ensure that she kept track of what Hamlet did and reported it promptly to her father. Polonius harshly directed his daughter, “Have you so slander any moment leisure As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look to't, I charge you. Come your ways. (act 1, sc2 143 - 145). Polonius was convinced that Hamlet is only interested in getting into Ophelia's pants, and that she is a naive ninny to think anything else. After the death of Polonius, Ophelia went mad. Sudden sadness struck her as there would no longer be someone to comfort her. Indeed, she allows her mind to wander away so much that she cannot even recognize her brother Laertes who is back from France. Thus, the father is seen as overbearing whilst the daughter has to contend with a father who is strict and harsh in his parenthood.
The brother-sister relationship between Laertes and Ophelia is more cordial and warm, in fact with high degree of care and concern. Laertes is more charitable to Ophelia. He advises Ophelia to remain conscious of the fact that Hamlet, being a prince might not even be allowed to marry her. So, he advises her against getting close to or even sleeping with Hamlet. His hypothesis is that if Ophelia allowed her relationship with Hamlet grow, she might end up the disappointed person or dishonored. This espouses a really caring and understanding brother, one who goes an extra mile to ensure her safety, security and psychological soundness of his sister.
The lack of trust and loyalty in father son relationship is expressed in the manner in which Polonius handled the issue of Laertes when he was in France. His lack of trust in his son forced him to send Reynaldo to spy on him. Though not mush of the feelings of Laertes are expressed before the death of his father, he accords him love and affection when he passes on and seems to respect him his father.
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After the death of Polonius, the determination to fight for his father elaborates his feelings of passion for is father. Thus, his decision to leave for France is explained in his desire to live by his own ways and that same reason made him return to honor his father. His respect for his father is unquestionable though he perceived his father t be overbearing. He wanted to have a sword fight with Hamlet in order to avenge his father’s killing. In addition, he was skeptical of Claudius plan to use poison and instead wanted to put poison in his sword. He says’
“ His means of death, his obscure funeral-
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones,
No noble rite nor formal ostentation-
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call't in question. (act4, sc5, 237- 242)
Laertes love for his family is fully exposed when it becomes apparent that he has lost his entire family. Though he was distraught at the news of his sister’s madness, he cannot bear the pain of her death. This instance showed how much he loved Ophelia and compounded with the prior sessions in which he advice her shows just how much he cherished her as a sister. His opinions on her relationship with Hamlet were founded on the strong understanding of wht made them a family and sought to ensure honor and dignity was maintained in their family line. On her burial he says
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears. But yet
It is our trick. Nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,
The woman will be out.—Adieu, my lord.
I have a speech of fire that fain would blaze,
But that this folly doubts it. (act 4, sc7, 212-215)
To conclude, the family relationships in Hamlet present a complex web. Though the children espouse respect and obedience to their parents, the parents are presented as more overbearing and directed by their own desires and egoistic ambitions. Based on whether a person stands in the way of success, for Polonius and Claudius, is a specimen to warrant hatred that can result in the murder and this shows just how much they disregard family relationships. Shakespeare vehemently captures the human nature in a spot on manner.