Hamlet: Act Two, Scene Two

Our Hamlet plot summary continues with Act Two, Scene Two, the play’s longest scene.

This scene follows hard after Act Two, Scene One’s revelation to Polonius by Ophelia of Hamlet’s strange behavior. And if we thought time had passed between the events of the first and second acts by what we heard in Act Two, Scene One, Claudius’ opening speech in this scene cements that conclusion. Claudius is accompanied by Gertrude and two courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They were not in attendance at the ceremony of the play’s second scene, as they are now here because of Claudius’ “hasty sending” (II.ii.4) for them. And why did he send for them?

Hamlet’s transformation, so call it,
Sith nor th’ exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was.
  • II.ii.5-7

Polonius is not the first to see strange behavior in Hamlet, and it has concerned Claudius enough to send for these two boyhood friends of the prince (“so neighbored to his youth and havior” [II.ii.12]). He wants them to discover what “afflicts him thus” (II.ii.17). All similarities to Polonius having Reynaldo spy on Laertes are purely coincidental.


So if Claudius and Gertrude observed strangeness (beyond sadness, mourning, melancholy, depression) in Hamlet, and then called for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and they’ve just arrived, I think we can safely say that we are at the very least a handful of weeks from the events of Act One. It seems as if Hamlet has been taking on that “antic disposition” (I.v.175) he discussed with Horatio and Marcellus after meeting the Ghost.

Even though both Claudius and Gertrude speak to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their childhood connection to the prince (in an attempt to either convince the courtiers or themselves of their care…it’s not clear), the courtiers have no illusions; their responses hew strictly to the king’s “sovereign power” (II.ii.27) and their courtiers’ “service… to be commanded” (II.ii.31-32). Before they leave, we get textual evidence of a sight gag as Claudius and Gertrude refer to the two of them in opposite order; these pawns are interchangeable.

Polonius enters, and as an audience we are prepared to hear him relate Hamlet’s madness to the king and queen. But that’s not what we get immediately. Instead, he announces the arrival of the emissaries to Norway, but he does make mention that he have “found // The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (II.ii.49). Despite Gertrude’s wish that this news take precedent, Polonius brings in the ambassadors instead (again, Hamlet the prince is trumped by issues of state).

The news from Norway is presented as excellent. The aging and sick King of Norway has taken control of the situation, “rebuk(ing)” (II.ii.69) young Fortinbras, who promised “never more // To give th’ assay of arms against” (II.ii.70-1) Denmark. For this promise, the king rewarded his nephew with funds to use in a war against Poland, for which he requests “quiet pass” (II.ii.77) through Denmark. Claudius likes the news and excuses the ambassadors.

I can’t say that I have the same high opinion of this diplomacy. For military excursions against Denmark, Fortinbras is given a slap on the wrist, AND money to fight a war with another nation. THEN Fortinbras wants to march that army through Denmark? How is this a good thing? But I digress.

Polonius then begins his wordy “expostulat(ion)” (II.ii.86) on Hamlet’s situation. In the midst of his verbal diarrhea, he drops the ironic pearl of wisdom “Brevity is the soul of wit” (II.ii.90), and even the usually patient queen grows tired of his meanderings. The speech is funny from an audience perspective (like watching a dog chase its own tail, or the Rude Mechanicals deliver their tale in Midsummer), but it has to be incredibly frustrating to the royal couple.

Regardless, Polonius does get around to Hamlet’s “madness” (II.ii.93), and provides as evidence a note written to Ophelia by Hamlet. Claudius questions how Ophelia received the letter. Polonius recounts how his daughter had obeyed his “prescripts…that she should lock herself from his resort” (II.ii.142-3). And this, Polonius claims, is why Hamlet

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves
  • II.ii.147-50

While Gertrude sees how this may be the case, Claudius wants “to try it further” (II.ii.159). Polonius says that he’ll make sure that Ophelia will talk with Hamlet, with Claudius and Polonius hiding and listening. Claudius like the plan, and Hamlet just happens by reading. Gertrude and Claudius leave while Polonius engages the prince in conversation.

This is the first we’ve seen of Hamlet since the Ghost, and the “antic disposition” is in full force (now, there is some argument as to whether or not the madness is an act or not, but we’ll touch upon that in our deeper dives into the play later in the next couple of months). Hamlet again uses his “wild and whirling words” (I.v.133) with Polonius, engaging in both the seeming nonsensical and the possible bawdy. Polonius is left with the impression that “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (II.ii.204-5).

Exit Polonius, enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And if you were thinking that Hamlet might be less “mad” and more revealing to his childhood friends (as Claudius and Gertrude had hoped), you’d be wrong. More “wild and whirling words” for them, discussing Fortune as a woman (with a little bawdy innuendo; II.ii.227-35) and Denmark as a prison (in a section that follows in the Folio edition of the play but is not in the Quarto–oh, we need to talk about that… later).

Hamlet asks them why they’ve come to Elsinore, and while Rosencrantz says that it was just to visit Hamlet, the prince questions further, asking if the two had “not (been) sent for” (II.ii.244). If there is a quick(er) thinker of the (interchangeable) two, it’s not Guildenstern, who finally admits the truth. Hamlet makes it easier on the two:

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen molt no feather. I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
  • II.ii.263-73

These and even more “wild and whirling words” are interrupted only by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s news of the arrival of the players, “the tragedians of the city” (II.ii.298). Hamlet is seemingly buoyed by this news, seemingly forgetting their lies to him, ready to greet the actors. But first he gives the courtiers one last piece of information (which they can relate to the his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” [II.ii.319]): “I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.321-2).

Polonius enters to make the official announcement of the players’ arrival. Hamlet speaks to him referencing a Biblical father-figure, Jephthah, and Polonius sees only the connection to his own daughter Ophelia. The players enter and Hamlet gives them a warm (and not merely civil) welcome. When he calls for a speech, Hamlet reveals himself to be not only a connoisseur of theater, but a bit of an actor as well (given he can recite a speech the claims to have heard performed by the players only “once” [II.ii.375]). The player continues the speech off Hamlet’s start.

Hamlet orders Polonius makes sure that the players “are well bestowed” (II.ii.462-3). Before Polonius exits with the players, however, Hamlet pulls aside the player and asks if the troupe can play something called “The Murder of Gonzago” and when he learns that they can, Hamlet asks him to “study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which (Hamlet) would set down and insert in ’t” (II.ii.480-1), to which the player agrees.

Once the old courtier and the players are gone, Hamlet laments, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (II.ii.488). He marvels at how the player could bring tears to his eyes and distractedness to his demeanor for no reason but to play a role, and wonders what that actor could do if he had “the cue for passion” (II.ii.499) that Hamlet has. Conversely, Hamlet “can say nothing” (II.ii.508) while he himself has a real reason: “a dear father murdered, // Prompted to (his) revenge by heaven and hell” (II.ii.522-3). Even though he can say nothing, he does have a plan:

I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I know my course.
  • II.ii.533-7

He still has doubts wheter the Ghost of his father is actually a “devil” (II.ii.538), and knows that he needs reasons, or “grounds // More relative than this” (II.ii.542-3). The scene, and second act, ends with his declaration: “The play’s the thing // Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.543-4)