Study Guide

Hamlet Sex

By William Shakespeare

Sex

Act I, Scene ii
Hamlet

[…] O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on 't! ah fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this:
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king; that was, to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth.
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on. And yet, within a month
(Let me not think on 't; frailty, thy name is woman!)
[…]
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.
(1.2.136-150; 161-164)

Hamlet's got a serious problem with mom. It's not just that he's disgusted by Gertrude's incestuous marriage to Claudius —Hamlet can hardly stand to think about his mother having sex, period. Which, um, seems normal to us. What's not normal is the way that he keeps thinking about it, anyway.

HAMLET
[…]That it should come to this:
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth.
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on. And yet, within a month
(Let me not think on 't; frailty, thy name is woman!)
[…]
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.
(1.2.141-150; 161-164)

Hamlet's got a serious problem with mom. It's not just that he's disgusted by Gertrude's incestuous marriage to Claudius —Hamlet can hardly stand to think about his mother having sex, period. Which, um, seems normal to us. What's not normal is the way that he keeps thinking about it, anyway.

Act I, Scene iii
Laertes

LAERTES
Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.
Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes.
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth,
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary then, best safety lies in fear.
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
(1.3.37-48)

Laertes insists that Ophelia should fear premarital sex because a "deflowered" woman is seen as damaged goods that no man will want to marry. This speech is also full of vivid innuendo, as when he compares intercourse to a "canker" worm invading and injuring a delicate flower before its buds, or "buttons," have had time to open (1.3.39-40). Nice. It's not quite as creepy as Hamlet's fixation with his mom, but it's pretty close.

Polonius

POLONIUS
Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire. From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence.
(1.3.124-130)

Ophelia's virginity is a family affair: her dad agrees with her brother that her sexuality makes her vulnerable to damage. But it also makes her powerful: in Polonius' hands, Ophelia is nothing more than a tool to reveal Hamlet's state of mind.

Act I, Scene v
The Ghost

O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
(1.5.87-95)

Like Hamlet, the ghost focuses on Gertrude's sexuality as he urges Hamlet not to let "Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest." Translation: kill Claudius so Gertrude can't sleep with him anymore. Oh, but leave her out of it. (Yeah, right.)

Act II, Scene ii
Hamlet

HAMLET
For if the sun breed maggots in a dead
dog, being a god kissing carrion—Have you a
daughter?

LORD POLONIUS
I have, my lord.

HAMLET
Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a
blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive,
friend, look to 't.
(2.2.197-203)

To Hamlet, pregnancy is less the miracle of life than the miracle of death: given that Hamlet has just said "dead dogs" and "breed maggots" in the sun, it's obvious that Hamlet is equating Ophelia's body with "carrion" (another word for road kill). This suggests that women's bodies are putrid and rotten: they give birth to dead things. Gross? Yeah. But in a way, Hamlet's right: everything born dies. (Oh, he's also punning on the word "sun," which alludes to the big shiny thing in the sky and also to Hamlet, the "son" of the dead king and the guy who would impregnate Ophelia with "maggots.")

Act III, Scene i
Hamlet

HAMLET
Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest,
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am
very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences
at my beck than I have thoughts to put them
in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act
them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
(3.1.131-140)

Since Hamlet thinks all women are "breeders of sinners," he obviously doesn't think much of women. But, it also suggests that he doesn't think much of himself either, being one of those "sinners" that's been "bred" by a woman. In fact, Hamlet says it would be better if his "mother had not borne" him at all. Bonus: that would mean she'd never had sex. Double win!

Act III, Scene ii
Hamlet

HAMLET
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

OPHELIA
No, my lord.

HAMLET
I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA
Ay, my lord.

HAMLET
Do you think I meant country matters?

OPHELIA
I think nothing, my lord.

HAMLET
That's a fair thought to lie between maids'
   legs.

OPHELIA
What is, my lord?

HAMLET
Nothing.
(3.2.119-128)

Hamlet's dirty talk (which we translate into modern lingo in "Steaminess Rating") puts Ophelia in an impossible situation. When Hamlet makes lewd innuendos, Ophelia can't respond in a way that suggests she knows what he's talking about. If she does, then it would suggest that she knows a little too much about sex. This could be as damaging to her reputation as, say, losing her virginity before marriage. Our point? Hamlet gets the power to control Ophelia's conversation, just like Polonius and Laertes have the power to control her body.

Act III, Scene iv
Hamlet

HAMLET
Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!
(3.4.103-106)

Wait, Hamlet, tell us again how you think sex is pretty much the most disgusting thing ever. We didn't catch it the first time. Or the second time. Or the… well, you get the point. Hamlet thinks sex is gross.

HAMLET
Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that mattering unction to your soul
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven,
Repent what's past, avoid what is to come,
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue,
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
QUEEN GERTRUDE
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!
(3.4.165-177)

There's that word "rank" again. This time, Hamlet warns Gertrude to stop spreading "compost on the weeds" (sleeping with Claudius), which will make her sins (incest) even "ranker" than they already are. What's more, Hamlet's talk of "ulcers," "infection," and "corruption" seems to allude to venereal disease. It's as though Hamlet thinks women are contagious. Given contemporary standards of hygiene, we're thinking both men and women were running around contagious most of the time.

The Ghost

GHOST
Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But look, amazement on thy mother sits.
O, step between her and her fighting soul.
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.
Speak to her, Hamlet.
(3.4.126-131)

It looks like Hamlet was so busy laying into Gertrude for sleeping with Claudius that he forgot all about the ghost's orders for him to leave Gertrude "to heaven"—almost as if he's more upset by Gertrude's sexuality than his father's murder.