Act II, Scene ii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act II scene ii

Hamlet with Rosencrantz and GuildensternWe meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are childhood friends of Hamlet. Hamlet's changed behaviour is a cause of concern to Claudius and Gertrude. They have sent for these two young men, to see if they can find out what is the matter. They are promised rich rewards if they are successful.

Polonius arrives to tell the King that the ambassadors sent to Norway (Voltimand and Cornelius) have returned. They report that the King of Norway had not realised that Fortinbras intended to attack Denmark with the army he has been gathering. Now that the King does know, he has put a stop to it. However, he will let his nephew take the army to attack Poland, and he requests safe conduct for Fortinbras' army across Denmark.

Polonius now tells the king and queen that he believes he has found out the cause of Hamlet's madness. As proof that Hamlet loves Ophelia, Polonius produces a love-letter which Hamlet had sent her.

Polonius explains how and why he had told his daughter to reject Hamlet's advances. He then proposes a plan — he will arrange for Hamlet to come across Ophelia where he and Claudius can spy on Hamlet and Hamlet reading whilst talking to Poloniusgauge his reactions.

The king and queen leave, and just then Hamlet arrives, reading. He deliberately teases Polonius, pretending to recognise him as a fishmonger, and making ambiguous remarks about his daughter. Polonius takes these comments for proof of madness.

As Polonius leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet. At first he greets them as friends, but he soon realises they have come to spy on him. Hamlet explains to them that he has grown melancholy, though, he says, he does not know why. They tell him he may be amused by the actors who have just arrived at the castle. This troupe used to perform in a city but they have left because of the popularity of a group of child actors.

Hamlet greets the actors and asks the leading player to perform a speech about the death of Priam. The player does so, and is moved himself by the words he speaks. Hamlet asks him to perform at court a play about the murder of a king.

When alone, Hamlet berates himself for his own lack of action against Claudius, when words alone, and about mythical characters, could so affect the actor. Hamlet is determined to have vengeance. Nevertheless, he still seems unsure about the Ghost's words and decides that the play will be the means of finally proving Claudius' guilt.

Commentary on Hamlet Act II scene ii

In her duty and obedience ... hath given me this — Ophelia's duty to her father is stronger than her loyalty to Hamlet.

I'll loose my daughter to him — a telling phrase, which suggests that Polonius regards Ophelia as being completely in his control. She is being used as bait in a trap (see Imagery and symbolism: Traps).

Except my life — as in Act I scene ii, Hamlet wishes he could die; life seems a burden to him.

Then is Doomsday near — Hamlet comments bitterly that honesty is not a quality to be found in mankind. Only at the end of the world might people change.

What a piece of work is man! … this quintessence of dust — Hamlet recognises that mankind has wonderful potential, yet it is the mortality of humans which obsesses him. (See Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being. This is also an echo of Psalms 8:3-5.)

Children … that are clapped for't — a group of child actors has become popular — as happened in Shakespeare's London. (See The Theatre: Child actors).

Your ladyship is nearer to heaven — the boy playing a female role is wearing high heels. Women were not allowed on the stage in England when Shakespeare was writing. (See The Theatre: The role of women).

He speaks of Priam's slaughter — this refers to the story of the Trojan War, where King Priam is murdered in front of his wife by a son seeking vengeance; this is therefore another echo of Hamlet's situation. (See Structure).

Did nothing — this very short line describing how Pyrrhus stood with sword uplifted is a foreshadowing of Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius in Act III scene iii — but Pyrrhus then goes on to kill Priam brutally.

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell — Hamlet may be thinking of the two possible natures of the Ghost — as spirit of his father, or as devil — or he may mean that his potential act of revenge might be a good (heavenly) act against a hellish evil. However, he is not yet certain of this: the Ghost ‘may be a devil' which might lure him to damnation.

About, my brain — Hamlet now seems to pause in order to think of a plan — yet we have already seen him give instructions to the player about performing the play. Is Hamlet prevaricating, and deceiving himself about his will to act?

Investigating Hamlet Act II scene ii
  • Make a mind map/spider diagram/table of all the different characters and strands of plot which are now being introduced as the play moves to the central point of the action.
  • What do you feel about the nature of the Danish court from what you observe in this scene?
  • Look at Hamlet's soliloquy. In the first half of the speech Hamlet seems convinced that Claudius is a murderous villain, but he then decides he needs proof.
    • Why is Hamlet still vacillating? (There is no neat answer to this; critics have argued about it for centuries.)
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