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The Failure of Parenting in Hamlet

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The role parents play in their child’s development is critical because they have so much influence on them. In William Shakespeare’s 1603 tragedy, Hamlet, parents cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of their children. The awful relationships between parents and their children are very important throughout the play as Hamlet, Laertes, and Ophelia are all victims of bad parenting. Gertrude and Polonius are selfish as they do not take the time to see how their kids are doing. They are meddlesome as they try to know everything that is going on in their children’s lives. They are insensitive as they fail to understand and connect with their kids. Many problems in the play are orchestrated by these parent’s bad decisions and after they die, their children lose their minds and become emotionally unstable.

Firstly, Gertrude and Polonius are selfish parents as they care more about their social status and themselves then they do about their own children’s wellbeing. Gertrude’s selfishness is displayed in her marriage to Claudius because she forces Hamlet to accept Claudius as his father. Hamlet disapproves of Gertrude’s marriage with his uncle and makes it very clear as he says, “Go not to my uncle’s bed” (3.4.180). However, Gertrude never seems to pick up on the signals that are being thrown at her by Hamlet. He is the prince of Denmark and his mother should have helped him fulfill his role. Gertrude does not do that, rather, she shows a lack of willingness to understand her son’s pain. She is too caught up in herself, to understand or connect to Hamlet.

Likewise, Polonius is also a selfish parent as he cares more about his image than his daughter Ophelia’s feelings. For example, he made Ophelia break off her relationship with Hamlet when he said, “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” (1.3.130). In this scene, Polonius displays a selfish nature where he only cares about his image. He forbids Ophelia from seeing Hamlet for the wrong selfish reasons. Polonius does not consider his daughter’s feelings for Hamlet and instead continues to warn her to conduct herself, so she does not make him look bad. He unfairly dictates Ophelia’s life making her very dependant on him and after he dies, she goes insane. In addition to selfish parenting, Gertrude and Polonius are meddlesome and their relationship with his kids contributes to the theme of the failure of parents.

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Secondly, Gertrude and Polonius like to meddle with their children and know everything that goes on in their lives. Gertrude feels the need to control their children and spy on them because she is unable to figure it out herself. For example, Gertrude, with the help of Claudius gets the help of two of Hamlet’s old childhood friends to spy on him and figure out what is wrong with him. He has been acting strange and she knows that he will not speak to her, so she bribes them to get information for her, “To draw him on to pleasures and to gather, So much as from occasion you may glean, Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus, opened, lies within our remedy” (2.2.15-18). By doing this, she shows concern for Hamlet, yet, after Hamlet tells Gertrude that he knows about Claudius, even after he shares his fears about his trip to England, she never opposes Claudius to protect him. Gertrude does not know how to connect to her son and as a result, Hamlet feels isolated. Similarly, Polonius is also guilty of meddling with his children, due to a lacking relationship. For instance, Polonius instructs Reynaldo to spy on Laertes while he is in Paris when he says, “Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris, and how and who, what means, and where they keep” (2.1.6-12). Polonius does not have enough trust in his son, so he meddles with his privacy and sends a spy. It seems as though he does not put effort into a successful relationship with his kids and as a result leaves them muddled making Polonius considerably, one of the worst fathers in literature. Additionally, Gertrude and Polonius are uncaring parents and make decisions without considering their children.

Lastly, Gertrude and Polonius share another major character flaw of being insensitive towards their kids. As the mother of a grieving son, Gertrude should have been more sensitive towards Hamlet’s feelings. Instead, two months after Hamlet’s father’s death, she remarries to Hamlet’s uncle. It seems as though she is unable to understand how Hamlet feels about the situation when she asks Hamlet, “ If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?” (I.ii 74-75) When answering Hamlet, she says that it is common for all men to die, but she does not understand how important Hamlet’s father was to him. Gertrude fails to get in touch with her son’s feelings and as a result, Hamlet remains angry and resents his parents. By the same token, Polonius is insensitive as he does not put the effort into maintaining a relationship with his son. For example, before he sends his Laertes off to university, he gives him a bunch of aphorisms like, “Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportioned thought his act.” (1.3.65) This is ironic because Polonius often gives his thoughts to his tongue and many unproportioned thoughts on his actions. This never-ending list of reminders seems to show Polonius’ sense of self-importance, believing that what he says is correct. While this is good advice, there is a lack of sincerity because it is just empty words. Polonius being the worst father in literature does not really know his son. Laertes is a wise individual, and the advice his father gives him is nothing that he does not already have. Polonius is insensitive as he always underestimates his son and tries to wrongfully control him.

In conclusion, there is much evidence that the lack of parenting in Hamlet causes the unfortunate ending of everyone dying. Gertrude’s incestuous marriage is what sets Hamlet off in the first place and her lack of interest surely does not help. Polonius is a horrible father and his spying is what gets him killed in the end. While there is evidence of the failure of parents, Shakespeare teaches us lessons on good parenting. For example, “Stay connected with your kids and encourage them to fulfill their calling in life” can relate to Gertrude’s lack of support in Hamlet. “Love your kids by trusting them” can be taken from Polonius spying on his children. All the parents had one thing in common and that was the theme of the failure of parents, which is something we can learn from when we eventually become mothers and fathers.

Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. N.Y., United States of America, Dover Press, 1999.

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The Failure of Parenting in Hamlet. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
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