Act II, Scene i

Synopsis of Hamlet Act II scene i

Polonius has decided to send his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes, and to check if he is behaving well in France. Polonius suggests that Reynaldo should invent some slanders about Laertes, to see how others react to them.

As Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters in a distraught state. She tells Polonius that Hamlet has come to her in a dishevelled condition; Hamlet took her arm and looked hard into her eyes, and sighed.

Ophelia and Polonius conclude that, because she denied him access to her, Hamlet has gone mad with unrequited love. Polonius decides that he must tell the King and Queen.

Commentary on Hamlet Act II scene i

Put on him / What forgeries you please — another example of the idea of slander and calumny which runs through the play (c.f. the ‘ear of Denmark is abused' in Act I scene v.)

Drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling, drabbing — in spite of Reynaldo's protestation, Polonius does not agree that such activities would dishonour Laertes. Shakespeare ironically juxtaposes the idea that it is acceptable for Laertes to go ‘drabbing' (visiting prostitutes) with the arrival of Ophelia who has been so forcibly told by her father and brother to guard her chastity.

Down-gyved to his ankle — an interesting image, as ‘gyves' are fetters; there are Fetters. Photo by André Karwath available through Creative Commonsvarious references in the play to the idea of prisons and punishment (see Imagery and symbolism: Traps).

As if he had been loosed out of hell — this telling line reminds the audience that it is the appearance of the Ghost which has appalled Hamlet. We do not yet know what his feelings are about Ophelia.

Mad for thy love? … That hath made him mad — Whether or not Hamlet is mad at all is one of the frequently disputed questions about the play.

Any passion under heaven /That does afflict our natures — the importance of balancing passion and reason is discussed at various points during the play. (See Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being).

Investigating Hamlet Act II scene i
  • Focus on Polonius' behaviour in this scene. Make notes on:
    • the content of his speech to Reynaldo
    • the delivery of his speech
      • What is suggested about the kind of man Polonius is?
  • What do you feel about his reaction to the terrified Ophelia?
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