Act I, Scene ii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act I scene ii

Claudius and Gertrude 1911Inside the castle in a state room, we meet Claudius, brother of Old Hamlet and uncle of Prince Hamlet. He has married Gertrude, the widow of the previous King. Claudius explains to the courtiers that, although he mourns the death of his brother, he rejoices in his happiness now he has married the queen.

As the new ruler by virtue of his marriage, Claudius now turns to his responsibilities to defend the country; he is aware of Fortinbras' plan to attack Denmark, and sends ambassadors to the King of Norway, Fortinbras' uncle, to ask him to restrain his nephew.

Claudius next speaks to Laertes, son of the councillor Polonius. Laertes has returned to Denmark for the coronation but now wishes to resume his studies in France. Claudius grants this request. He then turns to Hamlet, who is clearly mourning his father's death and is out of tune with the rest of the court. Claudius tells the Prince that his mourning is excessive, and also asks him not to return to university in Wittenberg.

When alone, Hamlet lets loose a torrent of bitterness against his mother's remarriage, which he sees as incestuous. He wishes he could die.

Horatio enters with the guards, and they tell Hamlet about seeing his father's ghost. He decides that he will visit the battlements where the Ghost has appeared, and will speak to it.

Commentary on Hamlet Act I scene ii

Our dear brother's death - Claudius immediately uses the ‘royal plural' — ‘we' when he means ‘I' — which establishes at once for the audience that he is the King. Rulers were seen as more than just an individual; they represented the whole nation, and as such in Shakespeare the name of the country (e.g. ‘Denmark', or ‘The Dane', in this play) can mean both the whole country or simply the king himself.

Your better wisdoms have freely gone with this affair along - Polonius is the only councillor whose opinions we hear in the play, but as far as we know Claudius does seem to have the support of the court for this marriage — except for Hamlet.

More on Denmark's system of government: At various points in the play Shakespeare suggests that Denmark operates a system whereby the next King is chosen by the aristocracy, rather than the eldest son inheriting automatically. Hence Claudius, through his marriage to the widow of the previous King, has strengthened his right to be chosen.

Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras - Fortinbras, like Hamlet, is a Prince who has not followed his dead father to the throne; his uncle has succeeded instead. (See Structure.)

My cousin Hamlet and my son - ‘Cousin' in Shakespeare means any close relative or even close friend. Hamlet is not Claudius' son — as Hamlet makes very clear in his bitter response — but Claudius is speaking as his step-father.

More than kin and less than kind - Hamlet's response indicates that he feels they are too closely related as he regards the marriage as incestuous. He and Claudius are ‘less than kind' — i.e. not the same kind of person at all, with a bitter pun on the word ‘kind' suggesting he does not view Claudius in a kindly (friendly) light.

Photo from Deucsche FotothekThy nighted colour - Hamlet, unlike the rest of the court, is conspicuously wearing black, as he is in mourning for his father. The queen addresses her son by the intimate ‘thee' whereas in his next speech Claudius addresses him with the more formal ‘you'. (See Shakespeare's language: Thee, thou and you.)

I know not seems - the idea of false appearances is a strong theme throughout the play (see Themes and significant ideas: False appearances); the fact that Shakespeare later introduces actors and a ‘play-within-a play' reinforces this.

A will most incorrect to heaven … a fault to heaven - Claudius indicates that God is the ruler of all things, and that, as creatures of God, we must accept his will. God has chosen that this was the time for Old Hamlet to die. Later we learn that this is gross hypocrisy, since Claudius has murdered his brother. However, at the moment neither Hamlet nor the audience knows this, and Claudius' words make him sound a dutiful Christian.

Jocund health - Claudius will drink to celebrate. The excessive drinking at the court of Denmark is later criticised by Hamlet (Act I scene iv).

O, that … the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter - Hamlet wishes that God (the eternal Creator) had not forbidden suicide.

More on suicide: The Bible does not specifically ban suicide but in the Old Testament of the Bible the Ten Commandments (see Themes and significant ideas: The Ten Commandments) forbid murder, and the Christian church interpreted this as including ‘self-slaughter'.

‘Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed - the image of a garden occurs several times in Hamlet, particularly in connection with the garden where Old Hamlet was murdered. For Shakespeare's audience this might well have connotations of the Garden of Eden. (See Imagery and symbolism: The Garden of Eden.)

Frailty, thy name is woman - Woman and weakness, Hamlet feels, are synonymous. For Shakespeare's audience, especially coming after the reference to the garden, this would be a reminder of Eve, whose succumbing to temptation led to the Fall of humankind.

(See Imagery and symbolism: The Garden of Eden.) Hamlet's perception of the weakness of Gertrude and Ophelia, the only two female characters in the play, affects him deeply. (See Characterisation: Hamlet. For further information, see Big ideas: Women in the Bible)

Would I had met my dearest foe in heavenheaven is eternal bliss, the reward Christians hope for after this life. Hamlet hopes for rest in heaven after death, and would therefore also hope that anyone who was his ‘dearest' (in this context, ‘greatest') enemy would not achieve it. He deliberately acts to prevent Claudius achieving heaven in Act III scene iii. (See Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement.)

I doubt some foul play … foul deeds will rise - although Hamlet does not yet know that his father has been murdered, he senses that the appearance of the Ghost indicates evil deeds and a disturbed spirit which cannot rest in peace as it should.

More on the ‘rest' of the dead: A Requiem mass was a service asking for ‘requies' (peace) for the soul of someone who has died.

 
Investigating Hamlet Act I scene ii
  • Read out loud the opening speech by Claudius. How does Shakespeare create the sense of smooth diplomacy and stateliness in Claudius' speaking voice?
    • How does this contrast in style and tone with the opening scene?
  • Read Hamlet's soliloquy and highlight all the exclamations and short phrases.
    • What mood do they convey when read aloud?
  • Why does Shakespeare create such a contrast between the apparent calm reasonableness of Claudius and his court, and the feelings of Hamlet?
  • Look at Hamlet's welcome of Horatio. What does this suggest about their friendship?
  • How does Shakespeare change the mood when Horatio and the guards discuss the Ghost?
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