Hamlet - Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 2

Summary

In a trumpet flourish, Claudius, the new King of Denmark, and his wife Gertrude enter their stateroom in the company of various courtiers, including Prince Hamlet, Claudius’ aide Polonius, Polonius’ son Laertes, and the ambasadors to Norway Voltemand and Cornelius. Claudius explains that he and Gertrude have chosen to marry immediately after his brother’s death because, in light of the encroaching Danish army, the court could not afford excessive grief lest young Fortinbras mistake their mourning for weakness. He dispatches Voltemand and Cornelius to inform young Fortinbras’ uncle of the young man’s campaign against the Danes. As Claudius is himself, Fortinbras’ uncle is brother to the recently dead king and currently controls the throne. Claudius hopes that the old man has the power to stop Fortinbras from carrying out his mission.

Claudius then turns his attention to Laertes, who petitions the King for permission to return to school in France. Claudius confers with Polonius who answers verbosely that he consents to Laertes’ wish.

Having dismissed Laertes, the King and Queen both notice Hamlet’s dark demeanor, and Hamlet sneers at the King’s loving posture. Gertrude and Claudius encourage him to cease grieving and to get on with life. Gertrude asks Hamlet why he seems so particularly affected by his father’s death, and Hamlet snaps at her that, unlike his mother and her husband, he has no pretenses. “Seems, Madam? Nay, it is.” Hamlet accuses Gertrude of pretending grief and rejoicing in the old king’s death. Claudius reminds Hamlet that he is next in line to the throne, and asks him not to return to school in Wittenberg, a request that Gertrude reiterates. Hamlet acquiesces without enthusiasm. Satisfied that they have had their way, Claudius and Gertrude leave Hamlet to his own thoughts.

In his first soliloquy, Hamlet bemoans the fact that he cannot commit suicide. He wishes that his physical self might just cease to exist, “melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” He complains that his religion prohibits suicide and claims that he would sooner die than continue watching his mother engage in her vile incest. These thoughts torment him, but he knows that he can’t speak them aloud to anyone.

Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo enter, and Hamlet, unguarded with Horatio as with no one else, snidely jokes that King Claudius has sought to save money by using the funeral refreshments to feed his wedding guests. He tells Horatio that his father’s memory haunts him. Horatio seizes the opportunity to tell Hamlet about his encounter with the Ghost of the old king. Hamlet agrees to watch that night in case the Ghost walks again.

Analysis

It is significant that Claudius admonishes Hamlet as he addresses him for the first time in the play. Claudius is clearly the antagonist, and he begins his hour upon the stage in a blatantly adversarial role. Were Claudius’ demeanor not enough to tell the audience that the two are rivals, Hamlet underscores the discomfort of their relationship by asserting his disgust for the man with his own opening statement.

The key words that exemplify the critical purpose of this scene include “show,” “seem,” and “play.” Cornelius and Voltemand say they will “show our duty.” Laertes “came to Denmark to show” his allegiance to King Claudius. Gertrude asks Hamlet, in reference to his “nighted color,” “Why seems it so particular with thee?” Hamlet responds to her question by using the word “seems” twice in a single sentence, and he says he cannot pretend, but rather, must be what he is. He then goes on to say that the moods and shapes of grief are true for him. Though his emotions may seem to be those of an actor, he is not acting. Everything in this scene points to the challenge of discerning appearance from reality, a challenge that becomes more pronounced when Horatio tells Hamlet about the appearance of the Ghost.

Claudius’ calculating nature becomes immediately apparent. Always conscious of appearances — of what seems to be — he speaks of Gertrude as “our sometime sister, now our queen, / Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,” and then addresses Hamlet as his “cousin Hamlet and my son.” He has considered his relationships to the state, to Gertrude, and to Hamlet in all the ways people might perceive them, and manages to cover himself entirely. He has prepared explanations for both his hasty marriage to Gertrude and for the fact that, though fewer than two months have elapsed, the country no longer mourns King Hamlet’s passing, and not even the grieving widow misses him. When Claudius turns on Hamlet and accuses him of “impious stubborness,” he is clearly asserting his position of power over the younger man as well as over his kingdom. He scolds Hamlet in a manner befitting a concerned parent and a responsible monarch. The act fails to impress Hamlet, but Claudius remains unaware that his ruse proved itself ineffective.

Claudius further invalidates Hamlet by demeaning the young man’s self-image. Accusing Hamlet of possessing “a heart unfortified,” “a mind impatient,” and an “understanding simple and unschool’d,” Claudius defines Hamlet as inadequate to the task of being king. This accusation justifies his own ascension to his brother’s throne, despite the fact that the kingship rightfully belongs to the old king’s true heir, Hamlet. Every word Claudius chooses, including the condescension implied in his calling Hamlet “my cousin, and my son,” reiterates his superiority and complete control.

The incest between Claudius and Gertrude remains at the forefront of Hamlet’s mind in this scene. He is most aware of this incest horror, although he suspects other crimes as well. By the end of the play, Hamlet will call Claudius a “murd’rous, damned Dane,” and the King will have multiple crimes to answer for. At this moment, however, the medieval English prohibition on sexual intimacy between a brother — albeit a brother-in-law — and sister serves as the primary focus for Hamlet’s rage. Though Gertrude’s guilt equals Claudius’ in this case, Hamlet directs his fury at Claudius and merely mistrusts his mother.

This scene illustrates the actor’s challenge in interpreting Gertrude’s character. Gertrude’s demeanor in this scene is innocent. She genuinely appears to desire happiness for Hamlet, to desire him to stay and be her dutiful son. Seemingly naive and ingenuous, she contrasts starkly with Claudius, who calculates his every word and move to have an effect on his assemblage. If she is less forthright and honest than she appears here, Shakespeare gives no hint. However, as the play unfolds, we increasingly question Gertrude’s innocence. In order to make the portrayal believable, the actress must commit to whether Gertrude is playing a role or whether she is genuine.

The disparity between appearance and reality becomes a pervasive thematic motif in Hamlet. The Ghost in Scene l established the lack of clear lines between the real and the perceived, but the web of deceit and bewilderment in this scene casts a shadow that will hover over the breadth of the play. In his response to Gertrude’s supplication that he abandon his grief, Hamlet assures her that he is not one to make “shows of grief . . . that a man might play.” Hamlet asserts that he is not merely costumed in his black attire, nor is he prone to dramatic sighs or profuse weeping. He is genuinely grieved and honestly critical of Gertrude’s and Claudius’ callousness toward the loss of their husband and brother. To Hamlet, all others are making show.

Hamlet’s preoccupation with hypocrisy surfaces more profoundly in his first soliloquy. The fact that his mother has joined in an incestuous union with her husband’s brother less than a month after his father’s death overwhelms Hamlet. A simple beast without the reasoning skills of a human being would have shown more respect for a dead mate, moans Hamlet. Worse yet, Hamlet must question her judgment. Hamlet sees Claudius as a satyr — a beast-man driven by his appetites — whereas Old Hamlet was Hyperion, the sun god himself. How can he trust a woman who would trade a god for a goat? In addition to his cynicism toward women, Hamlet’s self-portrait begins to emerge in this soliloquy. When he says that his Uncle Claudius corresponds to his father, King Hamlet, no more “Than I to Hercules,” Hamlet discloses his pacifistic demeanor. Hercules was a warrior who acted on impulse and charged enthusiastically into battles without questioning the ideology of the fight. Unlike Hercules, Hamlet drowns in words and perpetually struggles toward understanding.

Knowing his weakness, Hamlet decries his inability to commit suicide, revealing his devotion to the laws of Shakespeare’s religion. Hamlet refers to Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius as incestuous, though history and cultural practices often encourage marriage between a widow and her brother-in-law. Elizabethan laws had only recently been changed to ban such unions. Hamlet’s pain and embarrassment over his mother’s incest — a marriage that besmirches her entire culture — is great enough to make him long for the comfort of death but not great enough to allow him to reject “His canon ‘gainst self slaughter.”

When Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio tantalize Hamlet with news of the Ghost, Hamlet excitedly questions them as to the details of the sighting and asserts his absolute surety that the Ghost is “honest” rather than a “goblin dam’d.” Horatio contradicts his own earlier observation that the old king was angry by telling Hamlet that the Ghost seemed clothed “More / In sorrow.” The Ghost’s misery reinforces Hamlet’s belief that the Ghost is in earnest. As his interchange with Horatio illustrates, Hamlet’s sardonic sense of humor disguises his own aching melancholy and nagging suspicion that some “foul play” is afoot.

Glossary

in one brow of woe Everyone in the kingdom ought to mourn.

jointress a woman who has been given an interest for life in her deceased husband’s estate; here, a partner.

weak supposal poor opinion.

importing concerning.

ourself royal plural, used throughout the King’s speeches.

gait progress.

delated articles detailed provisions set forth in their instructions.

pardon permission.

cousin kinsman. This word was used for any near relation; here it would refer to nephew.

sun a pun on son, again indicating Hamlet’s dislike of the new relationship between himself and his uncle.

nighted black, signifying deep mourning.

obstinate condolement grief that is contrary to the will of heaven.

corse corpse, dead body.

impart behave.

bend you incline yourself.

Be as ourself in Denmark Claudius is extending to Hamlet all the special privileges and prerogatives belonging to a crowned prince.

rouse draught of liquor, toast.

bruit proclaim.

Fie for shame! an interjection expressing a sense of outraged propriety.

merely entirely, absolutely, altogether.

Hyperion a Titan often identified with the sun god.

satyr in Greek mythology, a woodland diety usually represented as having pointed ears, short horns, the head and body of a man, and the legs of a goat, and as being fond of riotous merriment and lechery.

beteem permit.

Niobe in Greek mythology, a queen of Thebes who, weeping for her slain children, is turned into a stone from which tears continue to flow; hence, an inconsolable woman.

Hercules in Greek and Roman mythology, the son of Zeus, renowned for his strength and courage, especially as shown in his performance of twelve labors imposed on him.

I’ll change that name with you I am your servant.

make you from what is the news from?

Season your admiration Moderate your wonder. Shakespeare frequently uses admiration in its original (Latin) sense of wonder.

cap –– a –– pe fully armed from head to foot.

truncheon a general’s baton.

beaver the visor of the helmet, which could be lowered in battle.

sable silver’d black streaked with white.

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