As Laertes prepares to sail back to France, he bids goodbye to his sister, Ophelia, and warns her not to gamble her “honor” by falling in love with Hamlet—a broody man bound to the will of his country. Laertes condescendingly advises Ophelia to mind her reputation, keep her virginity intact, and stay far away from Hamlet and the “danger of desire.” Ophelia says she’ll keep Laertes’s words close to her heart—but cheekily urges him to follow his own advice upon returning to France.
This passage establishes that Ophelia and Hamlet have some sort of relationship. Though Shakespeare keeps the details of their romantic and sexual history ambiguous, Laertes’s anxiety about Ophelia losing sight of herself (and her honor) shows that he believes she is already head over heels for Hamlet, and establishes her sexual purity as a chief social concern.
Polonius enters to give Laertes’s departure his blessing. He gives his son some fatherly advice, warning the young man to make many new friends—but not to let anyone get too close without proving their trustworthiness—and also urging him to stay out of quarrels, to dress well, to never borrow nor lend money, and, “above all: to thine own self be true.” Laertes bids his father and sister goodbye one final time, reminding Ophelia to remember the things he told her before heading down to the docks.
Polonius is submissive and sycophantic when it comes to his dealings with the monarchy. But with his own children, he spews platitudes and attempts to appear knowledgeable and self-assured, revealing a gap between the image he projects to the world and his true inner motivations.
After Laertes leaves, Polonius asks Ophelia what her brother told her. Ophelia tells him that Laertes gave her some advice about Hamlet. Polonius says he’s noticed that Hamlet and Ophelia have been spending a lot of time together, then asks Ophelia to tell him what’s going on between the two of them. Ophelia says that Hamlet has “made many tenders of his affection” to her. Polonius scoffs at Hamlet’s “tenders,” and tells Ophelia that she would be a fool to believe Hamlet cares for her. Ophelia insists that Hamlet is true to her, but Polonius warns his daughter that Hamlet is too young—and has too much freedom—to be true. Polonius urges Ophelia not to waste any more of her time with the prince. Ophelia promises to obey her father.
This passage shows that Ophelia is bound to the whims and orders of the men in her life. Her father and brother attempt to control her very feelings and sexuality, while she feels tugged in the other direction by Hamlet’s promises and affections. The fact that so many men are attempting to govern Ophelia means that, by necessity, she must stifle certain aspects of herself in order to meet their expectations—a stressful and dishonest way of living that will cause her to become increasingly unstable as the play moves forward.