Hamlet - Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 2

Summary

The King and Queen enter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and others. King Claudius has summoned Hamlet’s two school chums to Elsinore to have them spy on the Prince and report back to Claudius, recounting Hamlet’s every move. The Queen promises them handsome compensation for their spying and assures them that Hamlet’s own good requires the service. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree. The two leave to seek Prince Hamlet, and the King and Queen turn their attention to Polonius, who claims to have the answer to Prince Hamlet’s affliction He promises to elaborate further after Claudius receives his newly arrived ambassadors from Norway.

When Polonius exits, Gertrude scoffs at the old man’s intimations. She remains certain that Hamlet’s woes are caused by the old king’s death and her hasty remarriage. Polonius returns with Ambassadors Voltemand and Cornelius. They bring news from Norway that the old and ailing king, brother to the slain King Fortinbras, has managed to restrain his nephew, young Fortinbras, from invading Denmark. In return, however, the old man asks that Denmark provide some assistance in Fortinbras’ campaign against Poland — that Claudius allow Fortinbras to pass through Denmark on his way to Poland.

As soon as the ambassadors leave, Polonius launches into an elaborate discussion on the meaning of life and duty, promising to be brief and then launching into further wordiness. Finally, Polonius asserts that Hamlet is mad. Having no patience for Polonius, Gertrude admonishes him. Again promising to be less loquacious, Polonius makes showy, wavy motions with his arms and then reads a letter he confiscated from his daughter, written in the Prince’s hand. Polonius criticizes the highly dramatic, artificial prose with random rhymes in which Hamlet has written the note and tells Claudius and Gertrude that he has forbidden Ophelia to accept any advances from the Prince. That is the order, Polonius claims, that has led poor Hamlet into madness.

Polonius then suggests that he and Claudius hide themselves behind a needlework wall hanging so they can eavesdrop on the couple when Ophelia meets with Hamlet to return his love gifts. Claudius agrees, just as Hamlet enters reading. Polonius asks the King and Queen to leave them so that he may speak to Hamlet himself.

In the encounter that follows between Hamlet and Polonius, Hamlet warns Polonius to watch his daughter carefully and then toys with Polonius’ limited wit. The exchange convinces Polonius that Hamlet is lovesick when, in actuality, Hamlet’s responses have done little but ridicule Polonius. Polonius leaves, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. Hamlet greets them as his “excellent good friends” and asks why they have come to his prison. They grouse at his choice of words, but he tells them, “Denmark’s a prison.” Rosencrantz wittily replies, “Then is the world one.” Hamlet breaks through his friends’ resistance, and the two finally admit that the King and Queen sent them to observe Hamlet and provide them with details of his behavior. Hamlet’s melancholy then erupts in a blank verse complaint that he has lately “lost all my mirth.” He laments that a foul and sickening fog now besmirches the heavens, which he once saw as a canopy “fretted with golden fire.” Hamlet then indicts the very nature of mankind.

Rosencrantz seizes the opportunity to announce the arrival of the players, and Hamlet’s mood shifts yet again. Ecstatic at the opportunity for diversion, Hamlet asks who the players are and why they are on the road. Rosencrantz answers that they are on the road because a company of child actors has usurped the London stage. Hamlet responds by saying that he welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he welcomes the actors and hopes he can be a worthy host. Polonius enters to announce the arrival of the players.

When the players enter, Hamlet requests that the lead player perform a speech from Virgil’s Aeneid in which Aeneas tells Queen Dido the story of Phyrrus, whose father Achilles was killed at Rome. The player performs the speech and moves himself to tears over Hecuba’s horror at seeing her husband dismembered. Hamlet asks Polonius to see to the players’ lodging, and, as soon as the Lord Chamberlain has left, he tells the small group of players remaining on-stage his plans for their performance of The Murder of Gonzago.He tells them that he will provide them with twelve to sixteen original lines that he wants them to add to the play. They agree, and they leave.

Hamlet then reveals his real intentions for The Murder of Gonzago.The players will perform the play with an enhanced scene, which will enact the murder the Ghost has described. Hamlet hopes that seeing his crime reenacted in front of the assembled audience will make Claudius act guilty and reveal that he murdered King Hamlet. Such an admission will prove to Hamlet, once and for all, that the Ghost is real and not simply a devil or the figment of his imagination.

Analysis

Gertrude implies in her opening words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the she and Claudius have invited the pair to Denmark for Hamlet’s benefit. Although Claudius may have ulterior motives, Gertrude is the person who insisted on contacting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and bringing them to court because of the friendship and respect that Hamlet bears for them. At this point in the play, one can reasonably assume that both Claudius and Gertrude had Hamlet’s welfare in mind when they summoned the two Germans to court.

Claudius, however, is once again aware that all eyes are on him as he solicitously welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and expresses his grave concern for “Hamlet’s transformation.” Although Shakespeare gives no suggestion that Claudius had anything but Hamlet’s welfare in mind when he summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to court, the reader knows that Claudius does nothing without self-promotion in mind. His suggestion that they report back any affliction of Hamlet’s echoes Polonius’ instructions to Reynaldo in Scene 1 regarding Laertes. Both Polonius and Claudius exhibit distrust and deception when dealing with their heirs. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern heartily agree to do the King’s and Queen’s bidding, Gertrude promises they will receive “such thanks / As fits a king’s remembrance.” Claudius has successfully deceived Gertrude as well, convincing her that he loves Prince Hamlet.

When Polonius ushers in Cornelius and Voltemand — Claudius’ ambassadors to Norway — the old man entices the King with a promise that he knows something about the Lord Hamlet that Gertrude and Claudius cannot know. He refuses to divulge any information until after the ambassadors have left, but he creates excitement over his “find.” Gertrude, motivated only by her deep, even overprotective, love for her son, remains skeptical about Polonius’ ability to help.

The ambassadors bring good news for Claudius, which cheers the King, and he plans a celebratory party. Shakespeare presents here another mirror. Young Fortinbras, a dutiful nephew whose uncle has ascended to the throne that might have been his, obeys his uncle/sovreign’s request to show Denmark leniency. Claudius knows of no reason that his nephew/subject would be less cooperative or less charitable, and he is more than willing to toy with Hamlet’s good nature.

Gertrude expresses her concern for and sensitivity toward Hamlet. She fully understands the trauma he has experienced in returning to Denmark to find his world shattered and reordered. Polonius’ plan to spy on Hamlet, to trap him, as it were, by exposing a private letter the old man has impounded from his daughter, does not please Gertrude. Her son’s welfare concerns her far more than affairs of state. However, Gertrude agrees to Polonius’ plan because it affords her the hope that Hamlet’s madness merely results from unrequited love, which can be easily remedied. The old man clearly agitates Gertrude, who urges him to disclose something substantive: “More matter and less art.” However, Polonius’ report finally wins her over, and she agrees to Polonius’ plan to spy on Hamlet. Another deception is premeditated and prearranged, another of Polonius’ “springes to catch woodcocks.”

That both Gertrude and Ophelia are complicit with the entrapment is a key to Hamlet’s distrust of women and of his inability to allow himself to love either of them. Hamlet enters in his state of apparent madness. Yet, mad with despair as he may seem on the surface, Hamlet remains sharp enough to volley artfully with words that confound Polonius’ limited wit. Hamlet calls the old man a fishmonger, a term rife with double entendre. Because “fish” was an off-color allusion to women, “fish sellers” were those who sold women’s favors — in other words, pimps.

Hamlet demonstrates his acute sense of wordplay with his sad cynicism on the subject of honesty. “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked in ten thousand.” But he clearly convinces Polonius that he is not rational. “How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.” Then again, as soon as Polonius exits, Hamlet reveals his true level of reason: “These tedious fools.” He understands that Polonius is not the only old man he needs to worry about.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return, and Hamlet elucidates his astuteness once more. He manipulates his “excellent good friends” into admitting they have been sent for. He calls fortune a whore, suggesting that one can buy luck and fate . . . like friendship. He proves that he understands the duplicitous nature of their visit. He further clarifies his presence of mind through his lucid discourse on the nature of dreams and the paradox of human existence.

Prison imagery surrounds this scene. “Denmark’s a prison,” he says. In answer to Rosencrantz’s retort that “then the world must be one,” Hamlet assents but asserts that Denmark is “One o’ the worst.” The brooding clarity with which Hamlet perceives his predicament reminds us that he has announced that he will wear an antic disposition — that he is faking his madness.

When Polonius announces the arrival of the players and Hamlet again plays with what he perceives as Polonius’ meager intelligence, however, Polonius again concludes that Ophelia’s rejection is the cause of Hamlet’s madness.

After the player’s rendition of Hecuba’s horror, Hamlet expounds to himself on the crux of his dilemma. He compares himself to an actor playing out the drama of his own life, but he cannot find the motivation to move beyond his immobilized state of melancholy. He is stuck in words, in the idea of action, terrified to move forward. The actor playacting as Phyrrus, a fictional character, is moved to kill his father’s killer; the actor relating a fairytale about a woman’s woes is capable of real emotion. Hamlet is an actor prompted by heaven and hell to seek revenge for his murdered father but is unschooled in his art and hesitates for fear of the consequences. His judgmental conscience stifles his emotions. He cannot sympathize with Gertrude or follow the Ghost’s instructions to defend her honor because his fears blind him. His incessant pandering to words emasculates him. “That I . . . must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” But because he is a man of words, he uses first the words of the play in his plan to strike at the king.

Hamlet ends the scene by revealing his plan to entrap the King by manipulating the play to force the King’s conscience to incriminate him. This time the premeditated duplicity belongs to Hamlet. Surrounded by false friends and dubious love, Hamlet recognizes an opportunity to use the honest deception of the stage to illuminate the truth.

Glossary

Sith since.

humour behavior.

from occasion by chance.

gentry courtesy.

supply and profit for the fulfillment and profitable conclusion of our hope.

in the full bent completely. Like a bow that is bent as far as it can be bent.

grace to bring honor to, dignify; with a pun on the prayer before meals.

in fine in the end.

assay of arms try to raise.

Perpend ponder.

more above moreover.

fell out occurred.

fain wish.

with sight with an indifferent eye.

round Polonius really means straight, but it is his nature to speak indirectly.

out of thy star beyond your station in life. Stars were believed to govern men’s lives.

took the fruits of followed.

watch sleeplessness.

fishmonger a dealer in fish, or someone who sells women.

outstretched aspiring.

fay faith, used in oaths (by my fay!); with a pun on fairy.

fretted having an ornamental pattern of small, straight bars intersecting or joining one another, usually at right angles, to form a regular design, as for a border or in an architectural relief; decorated like the painted ceiling over the stage at The Globe.

coted overtook.

foil and target fencing rapier and small shield.

Humorous Man the player of character parts.

tickle sere made to laugh easily.

half limp.

aery nest.

eyases unfledged birds, especially young hawks taken from the nest for training in falconry.

berattle abuse.

escoted paid.

tarre urge.

mows grimaces (twistings or distortions of the face.

Roscius the most famous of ancient Roman actors.

Buz, buz a slang expression for “tell me something I don’t know.”

scene individable preserving the unities.

poem unlimited a play that observed none of the ancient rules.

Seneca (c. 4? B.C.3A.D. 65); Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman.

Plautus ( 254?-184 B.C.); Roman writer of comic dramas.

law of writ classical plays.

liberty modern plays.

Jephthah a judge in the Bible who sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow ( Judg. 11:30-40).

valanced bearded.

chopine a woman’s shoe with a very thick sole, as of cork.

digested organized.

sallets tasty bits.

“Twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido” the story of the sack of Troy as told to Queen Dido by Aeneas. (Virgil’s Aeneid contains the story.)

Priam legendary king of Troy, who reigned during the Trojan War; he was the father of Hector and Paris.

Pyrrhus in Greek mythology, the son of Achilles; one of the Greeks concealed in the famous wooden horse.

Hyrcanian beast tiger from Hyrcania, mentioned in the Aeneid.

total gules completely red.

impasted made into a paste (the slain, not Pyrrhus).

carbuncles precious stones of fiery red color.

Ilium Latin name for Troy

rack cloud formations, a broken mass of clouds blown by the wind.

orb the earth.

Cyclops in Greek mythology, any of a race of giants who have only one eye, in the middle of the forehead; they assisted Vulcan, the god of fire.

proof eterne everlasting protection.

fellies the segments forming the rim of a spoked wheel.

nave rim; the hub of a wheel.

Hecuba in Homer’s Iliad, the wife of Priam and mother of Hector, Troilus, Paris, and Cassandra.

mobled wearing ruffled collars popular in Elizabethan England.

bisson rheum blinding tears.

clout a piece of cloth; a rag.

milch milky, moist.

muddy-mettled dull-spirited.

peak mope.

the region kites the kites of the air. The kite is a bird of prey in the falcon family.

this slave’s offal the entrails of a butchered animal; here, the king’s guts.

scullion a servant doing the rough, dirty work in a kitchen.

blench to shrink back, as in fear; flinch.

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