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HAMLET: LITERARY CRITICISM / ONLINE ANALYSIS
ACT I, SCENE 2
Claudius, the new King of Denmark and brother of the late King Hamlet, enters with his new wife Queen Gertrude, his nephew-turned-stepson Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes, and other courtiers and attendants. Claudius is warning the members of the court against excessive grief over the late king. He justifies his admittedly hasty marriage to Gertrude, the widowed queen, by saying that the marriage had been done in the best interest of Denmark and with the approval of the courtiers. He then turns to the issue of the growing animosity between Denmark and Norway.
Claudius tells the members of the court about the recent aggression by Young Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, who is mobilizing his military resources with the intention of recovering from Denmark the lands lost by his late father. Claudius feels the young Fortinbras is taking advantage of the confusion and disorganization of Denmark in the wake of the sudden death of King Hamlet. Claudius tells his court that the new King of Norway, who is the uncle of the young prince, is old and bed-ridden and has no knowledge of his nephew's vengeful actions. Claudius states that he has written a letter to the old King requesting him to restrain his nephew from his aggressive military preparations against Denmark.
Claudius then turns to Laertes, who requests permission to return to France. Laertes explains that he had come to Denmark in order to be present at the coronation ceremony. Laertes' father, Polonius, is reluctant to say goodbye to his son, but finally consents. Claudius then grants leave to Laertes.
Claudius turns to Prince Hamlet, who continues to grieve for his father, and questions him regarding his melancholy. Queen Gertrude advises Hamlet to deal philosophically with his grief, telling him all human beings must die eventually. She then begs her son to regard the new King (her new husband) as a friend. Hamlet, extremely upset at his mother's hasty remarriage and her apparent lack of mourning, is deeply hurt and irritably replies to his mother that his grief is genuine and cannot be philosophized away. He explains that his dark cloak and other external signs of mourning are nothing in comparison with what he feels in his heart. Claudius commends Hamlet for his intense devotion to his late father but points out that everybody, at some point in life, suffers such a loss. He adds that a protracted period of mourning goes against the teachings of religion and is evidence of "impious stubbornness."
Claudius asks Hamlet to regard him as his father and tries to give him paternal advice. Not approving of Hamlet's wish to return to Wittenberg, Claudius implores him to remain at Elsinore. When the Queen also urges Hamlet to stay, he consents. Claudius proclaims that a great feast will be held that night to celebrate Hamlet's "gentle and unforc'd accord." Claudius, Gertrude, and the courtiers then depart. Left alone for the first time, Hamlet expresses his melancholy aloud. He is disgusted with life, and the world appears to him "weary, stale, flat, and, unprofitable," a place fit for only those who are gross and ill of nature. He longs to die and wishes that suicide were not a sin. He is outraged by his mother's hasty marriage to his Uncle laudius barely two months after the death of his father and curses her frailty. Though Claudius is the late King's brother, he is a much inferior man and cannot be compared with Hamlet's father. Hamlet curbs his emotions as he sees Horatio and Marcellus approaching.
During conversation with Hamlet, Horatio makes it clear that he does not approve of the Queen's hasty remarriage. He also tells Hamlet about Bernardo and Marcellus seeing the ghost of the late King on two consecutive nights during their guard duty. Horatio also explains that he himself joined the watch and saw the ghost with his own eyes. When Hamlet asks his friend whether he tried to speak to the ghost, Horatio explains how it remained silent and shrank away when the cock crowed. A curious Hamlet questions Horatio about every little detail of his encounter with the apparition. He then decides to join the watch later in the night, hopeful of seeing the ghost himself. He swears Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus to secrecy about what they have seen.
After his friends depart, Hamlet is once again left alone and reflects upon the strange news he has just heard. He is convinced that the appearance of his father's apparition is an omen of foul play that will soon be revealed. Hamlet exclaims, "My father's spirit in arms! All is not well."
The second scene provides a stark contrast to the opening scene of the play. In the first scene, the ghostly image of the dead King of Denmark predominates; in the second scene, the successor to the dead king rules in his place, enjoying both his court and his family. In the first scene, the protagonist of the play is noticeably absent; in the second scene, Hamlet is introduced as an intelligent, emotional, and grief-stricken young man. The atmosphere of the opening scene is cold, menacing and dark. In the second scene, the formal grandeur of Claudius' court predominates.
At this stage, Claudius' villainy is not exposed, but his hasty marriage to the queen, who is his sister-in-law, and his verbal arguments both suggest some impropriety. In fact, many consider the marriage almost incestuous, and Claudius feels he must justify it by stating that he had the approval of the courtiers. Additionally, it is certainly tactless for the new King to encourage the dead king's family to forsake their grief, especially since royalty usually stays in mourning for almost a year. It is also inappropriate for Claudius, at this early stage, to suggest to the grieving Hamlet that he look upon him as a father or to suggest that there be a celebration at the court, filled with festive drink.
Claudius' lengthy speech, couched in rhetoric and smooth justifications, is truly political in every sense, revealing the King's true nature. He begins with a conventional tribute to the memory of his late brother and then quickly proceeds to justify his own actions. He claims that discretion has emerged victorious in its battle with grief and that he has married the queen in order to unite Denmark. Claudius' prime intention in this classic Machiavellian argument is to make his actions appear natural and preserving of national interests.
Like the first scene, this second one is concerned with the foreign politics that will shape much of the course of the play. Young Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, has become a potential threat to Denmark, mobilizing his military forces in order to recover the lands lost by his father in the battle with the late King Hamlet. A battle with Fortinbras also poses personal problems for Claudius; a Norwegian attack will definitely remind the courtiers of the heroic battle fought by King Hamlet and place the new king in a position to be compared. As a result, Claudius is determined to deal with the matter efficiently. With both diplomacy and the desire for self-preservation in mind, the king dispatches Voltimand and Cornelius as emissaries to the ailing King of Norway, carrying a plea for him to restrain young Prince Fortinbras.
The scene also develops the character of Queen Gertrude, who is Claudius' new wife and Hamlet's mother. She does appear to be a concerned mother, worrying about her son's melancholy, urging him to think of Claudius (now his uncle and his stepfather) as a friend, and encouraging him to stay at Elsinore rather than returning to Wittenberg. For the most part, however, the picture of her is not favorable. Hamlet calls her frail, and everyone seems to question her hasty marriage to the king only weeks after her husband's death. Unlike Hamlet, she does not seem to be filled with grief.
The scene also introduces some of the minor characters, including Laertes and Polonius. Laertes is characterized as a pleasure-seeking young man who is anxious to get back to his life of indulgence and gay abandon in Paris. His father, Polonius, is a verbose and pompous man. When the king asks him a simple question, Polonius launches into a stilted, long-winded speech, saying that "He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave / By laborious petition, and at last / Upon his will I seal'd my hard consent." Later in the play, the pomposity of Polonius will give a few moments of comic relief to the tragic drama.
By comparison to Polonius' speech, the one given by Claudius to Hamlet is less stilted and more natural. As he chides his new stepson for his melancholy, he uses both "nature" and "reason" as his arguments. He urges Hamlet to embrace "forgetfulness," claiming that remembrance is a "fault to heaven," a "fault against the dead," and "a fault to nature." Claudius' argument is both philosophical and religious. He claims that death must be accepted stoically since it is the fate of all mankind. Furthermore, Claudius accuses Hamlet of having "impious stubbornness," displaying a weak heart and revealing an unschooled mind because of his protracted period of mourning. It is like the king, in pointing out the weaknesses of Hamlet, is trying to demonstrate that the Prince is unfit to rule the kingdom and, thereby, to strengthen his own position as the monarch. Ironically, Claudius' speech is really a condemnation of himself, for he is guilty of committing a "fault to heaven" and a "fault against the dead;" fratricide is a primal sin.
Claudius asks that Hamlet give up his studies at Wittenberg. As always, the request is filled with self-interest, for the king feels there is an advantage to himself by having the Prince with him at Elsinore; at the court, Claudius can keep a close watch on his stepson and make certain that he is not garnering support and power from the populace. Although Hamlet largely ignores Claudius' request, he does listen to his mother's pleas; in the end, he agrees to stay at Elsinore, a fatal decision for the entire family, for Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet will all three soon die.
It is important to notice in this scene that Claudius seems to have a fondness for drinking. As the play progresses Hamlet condemns Claudius' drinking orgies. In the Renaissance age, indulgence in drinking was taken as a sign of abandoning reason, the quality that distinguished man from beast. Thus, right from the beginning of the play, Shakespeare hints at the bestiality of Claudius, which evokes Hamlet's deep revulsion and disgust.
Even in this early scene, Hamlet begins to reveal himself as a tragic hero, but he is not directly or initially responsible for the tragic events that surround him. Hamlet comes into a situation that is already fraught with evil; Claudius has previously seized the throne and married his mother. Even though Hamlet, at this point, does not suspect murder, he feels the marriage is foul. Then when he learns about the ghost of his father, Hamlet immediately senses that it is a bad omen. In truth, Hamlet will soon fall from misery into greater misery.
Shakespeare also develops the theme of appearance vs. reality. Hamlet resents his mother's insinuation that he is putting on a show of being grief-stricken. Ironically, he is the only family member who is truly mourning his father's death. He replies that all outwardly signs of his grief, such as his black cloak of mourning, his tears, and his sighs, are mere appearances, not even close to the depth of the real grief in his heart. Ironically, Hamlet immediately believes the tale about the appearance of a ghost and plans to go and see it that same night. It is obvious that he is eager to find out the real reason for his father's death. This theme of appearance vs. reality will play an important part in the entire play.
Hamlet's first soliloquy (an extended speech spoken alone on stage in which a character thinks aloud) reveals his true thoughts. He is in such despair over his father's death and his mother's hasty and unnatural remarriage that he would like to die. The only thing that keeps him from suicide is that he considers murdering oneself to be a sin. The imagery of the unweeded garden in his soliloquy symbolizes the fall from a state of perfection and order. It is obvious that his mother's marriage has affected Hamlet profoundly. Coming within weeks of the king's death, it indicates to him a callous indifference to the memory of his father on his mother's part. The fact that the wedding took place so soon after the funeral is, in fact, emphasized three times in the course of his speech. Hamlet's soliloquy culminates in resigned acceptance of heart break and silent inactivity. He feels, however, that he cannot currently do anything about the marriage and knows it is best to hold his tongue for the time being. In the end, his soliloquy is not a reasoned assessment of the situation but a passionate outpouring of his disgust and bitterness with the ways of the world.
Although Hamlet is in a dejected state of mind, his mood lightens when he sees his loyal friend Horatio, showing warmth and genuine happiness. For a brief moment, one sees a glimpse of the former Hamlet, who was the "glass of fashion and the mould of form." Hamlet's reference to his father provides Horatio with an opportunity to gently tell him the news of the ghost. Although he is alarmed and thinks it is a bad omen, Hamlet resolves to speak to the apparition himself. After his friends leave, Hamlet ponders the ghost and thinks it may be a devilish spirit that has assumed his father's form. More importantly, his suspicions are aroused. If his father's death had been a natural one, Hamlet feels that the ghost would not have appeared; therefore, he suspects some "foul play." He impatiently waits for the night to come when "foul deeds will rise ... to men's eyes."