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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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FREE ONLINE LITERATURE ANALYSIS FOR HAMLET

ACT II, SCENE 2

Summary

King Claudius welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into his chambers. He mentions Hamlet's melancholic and strange transformation and attributes it to the late King's death. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Hamlet's childhood friends, Claudius and Gertrude ask them to investigate the Prince's strange conduct so that he can be brought back to normalcy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree and go in search of Hamlet.

Polonius enters with the news that the emissaries to Norway have returned with favorable news. Polonius further tells Claudius that he has found the cause of Hamlet's madness. Claudius is eager to hear this, but Polonius insists on bringing the emissaries in first. Although Claudius is excited that Polonius seems to have discovered the "head and source" of Hamlet's "distemper," Queen Gertrude very much doubts it. She attributes Hamlet's strange behavior to grief over his father's death and her overhasty marriage.

Polonius enters with Cornelius and Voltimand, the emissaries. They tell Claudius that his appeal to Norway has been successful; the bed-ridden King of Norway has restrained his nephew from proceeding against Denmark. The Norwegian monarch had been under the impression that the military preparations of his young nephew were against the Poles. When he found out that his nephew intended to march against Denmark, he reprimanded him and made him promise he would never attack Denmark. The armies mustered by Fortinbras now plan to march against Poland. Additionally, the emissaries tell the King that Fortinbras requests permission to march through Denmark on the way to Poland. Claudius responds that he will think about it. He graciously thanks the courtiers for their good work in averting a war and dismisses them.

Polonius now shares his certainty that Hamlet's insanity is the "very ecstasy of love" for his daughter Ophelia. He confesses that he has forbidden Ophelia from reciprocating Hamlet's overtures, due to her social position, and that her rejection must certainly be the cause of Hamlet's insanity. While Claudius and Gertrude agree that unrequited love could be a probable reason, they are not sure that this alone accounts for Hamlet's madness. Nevertheless, they agree to go along with a plan suggested by Polonius. The Lord Chamberlain says that he will contrive to have Hamlet meet Ophelia in the lobby, where he and the King can then spy upon the couple from behind a wall. As they make their plans, Hamlet approaches. Polonius asks Claudius and Gertrude to leave so that he can talk to the Prince alone.

Hamlet enters reading a book, and Polonius questions him about his madness. The Prince's answers and references to Ophelia convince Polonius that his guess has been correct. He does not realize, however, that Hamlet's answers are carefully constructed to ridicule him, making constant references to old men. Polonius decides that this is an opportune time to set up a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. After it is arranged, Polonius departs.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive on the scene. Hamlet is surprised to see them and asks what they are doing in Denmark. His suspicions are aroused when they reply evasively. Hamlet then tells them he knows they are present to find out the reason for his strange conduct. He explains that great changes have occurred recently that have led him to think more about death. Rosencrantz remarks that under such circumstances Hamlet is unlikely to obtain pleasure from the company of actors, who are on their way to the castle. Hamlet at once shows an interest in the actors when he learns that they are the same "tragedians of the city" whose performances he has enjoyed in the past. Obviously planning something, Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the King and Queen are deceived about his insanity. Polonius then enters with the news that the players have arrived. Hamlet makes fun of Polonius and further convinces him that Ophelia is the source of his madness.

Hamlet greets the players warmly, full of memories about their last meeting. He asks them to recite some lines from a play that he likes particularly well. Then he asks them to recite a speech from Virgil's Aeneid, in which Pyrrhus kills the aged King Priam. Next Hamlet tells Polonius to see that the players are comfortably lodged at the castle. All leave with Polonius except the first player. Hamlet asks him whether his troupe can enact "The Murder of Gonzago." When the first player says that it is possible, it is decided the performance will take place the following night. Hamlet tells the actor that he plans to insert into the play a short speech of ten to twelve lines that he will write. The first player, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern leave the stage, and Hamlet is left alone again.

Once again, Hamlet expresses his thoughts aloud. He is amazed by the skills of actors, who can so realistically portray grief over the death of fictional characters. He is also astonished at their abilities to rouse in themselves such a state of passion that tears flow from their eyes and their voices tremble with tender emotion over characters who do not even exist. Hamlet reflects that the passion of the players would surely be aroused if they had a genuine cause, such as his. Hamlet then curses himself for having failed so far to take any action against Claudius; he feels he has failed in his plans for vengeance. He is, however, encouraged by his plan to test Claudius' conscience. "The Murder of Gonzago" contains an incident similar to the alleged murder of his father. When it is performed on the following night by the players, Claudius' reaction will hopefully tell Hamlet all he needs to know about the new King's guilt in the death of his father.

Notes

This scene is important in that a lot of information is revealed and a good deal of action to advance the plot takes play. Claudius instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet; the emissaries sent to Norway return with the good news that the old King of Norway has restrained young Fortinbras from proceeding against Denmark; Polonius tells Claudius that Hamlet's madness is a result of unrequited love and plans to eavesdrop on Hamlet's conversation with Ophelia; and the troupe of strolling players arrives, giving Hamlet the perfect opportunity to determine the degree of Claudius' guilt.

Claudius has developed some suspicions about Hamlet's behavior and asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. He has shrewdly perceived that Hamlet's appearance may be deceptive. Masking his purpose of self-preservation in the guise of concern for his new son, Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that neither Hamlet's "exterior nor the inward man / Resembles what it was." Underneath the appearance, Claudius is more concerned about the threat that Hamlet poses to him than about Fortinbras' planned attack. His skewed priorities reveal his tenuous position as King. Ironically, Hamlet's feigned madness, which was meant to ward off the King's suspicions, has resulted in the very opposite reaction.

As soon as the emissaries leave, Polonius confidently asserts that he has found the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. True to his character, he struggles in vain to be brief but ends up being quite verbose. He finally asserts that Hamlet's insanity is caused by his unrequited love for Ophelia. He reads a poorly written love letter sent by Hamlet to Ophelia as proof. The love letter is obviously a part of Hamlet's charade of madness and paints a conventional picture of a dejected lover. Polonius then proposes to "loose" his daughter on Hamlet, using her as bait to discover the depth and cause of the Prince's madness. As part of the plan, Polonius and Claudius will hide behind a curtain and observe the couple together. His earlier concern for his daughter's virtue is now lost as he proposes to make Ophelia vulnerable to the "mad" prince.

Hamlet's rude mockery of Polonius is deserved. He obviously has figured out that Polonius has ordered his daughter to stop seeing him. He, therefore, seizes the opportunity to satirize Polonius' moral obtuseness. He calls Polonius a "fishmonger" or a pimp, knowing that Polonius is not a protector of Ophelia's virtue but a weak-willed father who will use his daughter in order to help the King. The simple-minded Polonius, unable to understand the Prince's allusion, thinks that Hamlet is really mad and persists in his efforts to find out what is exactly wrong. Hamlet, in order to further confound Polonius, continues to talk in riddles. Referring to the corruption and disease of the court, Hamlet tells Polonius that even the apparently pure sun breeds maggots in a dead dog.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for all their efforts, fail to discover Hamlet's secret. Instead, the Prince discovers theirs and makes them confess that they have been sent from the King to discover the reason for his strange conduct. Hamlet now has more cause for being melancholic since even his childhood friends can no longer be trusted. Hamlet suggests to them that he has changed because his ambition to ascend the throne has been thwarted; he also talks about his disillusionment with the world. He states that men too often abandon reason and sink to a bestial level, appearing to be nothing more than the "quintessence of dust."

Finally, this important scene introduces the players, who perform an essential function in both the plot and the theme of Hamlet. When the players arrive, Hamlet asks the first player to recite Aeneas' speech to Dido; it is about the fall of Troy and the killing of King Priam by the Greek Pyrrhus and bears particular relevance to Hamlet's own situation. In this speech, Pyrrhus is dressed in black armor smeared with blood that is soon baked into a thin crust by the excessive heat of Troy, "roasted in wrath and fire." The speech foreshadows the bloody acts required to exact vengeance in the tragic conclusion of this play. Appropriately, the lines of the speech show Pyrrhus to be suspended in inaction, "neutral to his will," much like Hamlet has been himself. In the last part of the speech, Hecuba is wildly lamenting Priam's death, an ironic contrast to Gertrude's apparent lack of feeling over the death of her husband. The speech ends by proclaiming that even the gods would have been moved by the spectacle of Hecuba's sorrow; at the end of Hamlet, everyone is moved by the great loss of life.

The introduction of actors into the play further develops the theme of appearance versus reality. Hamlet even wonders aloud at the ability of actors to portray emotions so realistically; yet Hamlet himself is doing such a good job of acting the madman that everyone in the court assumes he has lost his mind. In the end, he will be transformed from an actor depicting madness to a man possessed by madness.

When Hamlet is left alone, he soliloquizes his innermost thoughts. He derides himself for being a "a dull muddy-mettled rascal" and a dreamer. He castigates himself for inaction and fiercely criticizes himself for pining over his dead father instead of taking positive action. The soliloquy begins as a reaction to the actor's realistic description of Hecuba's grief at Priam's death. In contrast, Hamlet, who has "the motive and the cue for passion," still fails to act; he calls himself a "pigeon-liver'd" coward who lacks the gall to kill Claudius, and describes his enemy as a "bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless [unnatural] villain."

There are several explanations as to why Hamlet delays his vengeance until it is too late. Perhaps he continues to fear that the ghost is only a devilish villain that is wrongly leading him down a murderous path. Certainly, regicide, the killing of a king, is a great crime, and Hamlet wants to be certain that Claudius is truly guilty of murder. Additionally, Hamlet's background in Christianity has taught him that revenge is forbidden. All of these factors contribute to Hamlet's hesitation. He is, however, convinced that the enacting of "The Murder of Gonzago," with his insertion of some lines containing an incident similar to the murder of his father, will help him definitively ascertain Claudius' guilt; in turn, he will be free to act. In the end, Hamlet cannot be criticized for this procrastination, for he is a cautious young man, with a serious task at hand; he wants to make sure he is correct in his pursuit of justice.

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