Hamlet ~~ Act II Scene II

Poster for the premiere of Hamlet
at the Paris Opéra, 1868
source Wikipedia

Hamlet  ~  Act II  Scene II

Claudius summons Hamlet’s two good friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to attempt to find out what ails the young prince.  They promise to obey the king’s wishes and set off to complete their charge, whereupon Polonius enters, claiming to have discovered Hamlet’s ailment, but first Claudius must hear what the ambassador to Norway, newly returned, has to say.  The king of Norway, upon learning that Fortinbras intended to attack Denmark, has had him arrested.  When Fortinbras repented, the king gave him money and has employed his soldiers to attack Poland, asking for passage through Denmark for this task, and promising them protection.  Claudius is pleased with the news.
With much prevaricating. Polonius announces that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia.  He suggests setting up a meeting between them, while he and Gertrude hide behind an arras to see if his supposition is valid.  When Hamlet enters the room he asks leave to speak with him alone, which the king and queen grant.  He then tries to draw Hamlet into a conversation, his replies of which appear to be madness to Polonius, but are they?  Some of his comments, while on one hand are strange, on the other are quite pointed, and even Polonius appears to pick up that ‘though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.’

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear and Polonius directs them towards Hamlet, who questions why they have been sent to a prison such as Denmark. Before they respond, there is a little talk about dreams and ambitions, and beggars and monarchs, then they profess they are only there to see Hamlet. The prince seems as if he judges their answer suspect and quizzes them if their presence might not have been encouraged by another party.  He finally persuades them to be sincere, and it is Hamlet who says that he will relate who has engaged their services and why, but then he digresses with descriptions of the heaviness hanging over him and his disinterest in men. Rosencrantz hopes that is not the case because he has brought a troupe of players with him to amuse the prince.  Hamlet is cheered and seems particularly interested in their aptitude and how big an audience they will draw. He banters with Polonius, using his crazy-fashion again, yet within this section utters a very telling statement:

“I am but mad north-north-west.  When the wind is southerly,
I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

He banters with the first player, showing a surprising propensity for acting and invention, and a first rate memory.  Before the player leaves, Hamlet ensures that the troupe will be able to perform a particular play and deliver lines that he himself will write.  Yet when everyone leaves, Hamlet returns to his brooding introspection.  He is disturbed that the actor can arouse passionate feeling from nothing but a play, yet he has vehement emotions swirling within him, but has not acted upon them.  He muses that people have been emotionally affected by performances, so much so that they have been moved to confess to crimes.  He plots to have the players perform a murder like his father’s and observe Claudius’ reaction.

“…………    The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Children acting the play scene from Hamlet (1862)
Charles Hunt
source Wikimedia Commons


Good heavens!  Would you trust a country who has recently been prepared to attack you, to deploy their armies throughout your nation, based on good faith?!  Is this an indication that Claudius is completely foolish or is there more to this than first seems?

Ah, a touch of humour is added to the play!  Polonius, while stressing the importance of getting to the point, does anything but, and his prevaricating and excessive discourse becomes annoying not only to the king and queen, but to the reader as well.  As Hamlet later calls him, he certainly appears a ‘tedious old fool.’

The part about Denmark being a prison was rather telling.  Laertes had already emphasized Hamlet’s responsibility to his country, given his position, and now he also has a perhaps deeper responsibility to the ghost of his father. No matter how he might want to escape these problems, both political and filial duty prevent him, and he is indeed a prisoner.

While Hamlet’s actions may appear mad to those around him, reading behind his words, so far he appears quite sane.  His reason is powerful as he uses it to plot revenge, while confounding his friends and family.  His madness is a smokescreen to hide his true intentions.  Yet in this scene we see another emotion from Hamlet.  Guilt.  He has been commanded by the ghost of his father, and perhaps also his own conscience, to enact revenge, but he has not been able to bring himself to act.  Will this new sensation destabilize him, or make him more focused on his task?

Hamlet & Polonius
Eugene Delacroix

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