Hamlet The first part of this scene, between Polonius and Reynaldo, is not necessary to the plot of the play, and is often cut from performances. That’s a shame, because it’s lots of fun. Polonius thinks he is very wise, and Reynaldo, a sort of superior butler, knows otherwise. Polonius is sending money and notes (maybe more advice) to his son, Laertes, but he’s suspicious about what Laertes might be up to. He seems to assume that if Laertes is fooling around, he will lie about it, so Polonius has a plan.
His fetch of wit (2.1.38) is for Reynaldo to find some friends of Laertes, and say certain things about him, such as he’s very wild, and see what the friends say. (Later, Hamlet, in trying to discover if the King is really guilty of murder, will use a similar device to discover the truth: He’ll watch the King’s reactions while something like the murder of King Hamlet is shown in a play.) Polonius is quite proud of his plan, because, as he says, Thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out (2.1.61-63). Of course, when Polonius mentions we of wisdom and of reach, he’s thinking of himself, despite the fact that he takes too long to say all of this, forgets what he’s saying, and contradicts himself. Reynaldo politely tolerates all of this, and goes about his business. Exit Reynaldo. Enter Ophelia: Just as Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia comes rushing in, badly frightened.
Without warning, Hamlet has come into her closet (i.e., her study or sewing-room), seized her wrist, stared at her, sighed, and gone back out, all without saying a word. His clothes were unlaced and unbuttoned, and he had a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors (2.1.79-81). It’s interesting and puzzling that she should describe him very much as the Ghost might be described. However, Polonius isn’t puzzled. He immediately jumps to the conclusion that This is the very ecstasy of love (2.1.99). He says that he is sorry he misjudged Hamlet, but he is most interested in rushing off to tell the King.
Polonius’ exit lines, This must be known; which, being kept close, might move / More grief to hide than hate to utter love (2.1.115-116), are not the clearest that Shakespeare ever wrote, but they need to be considered carefully. He apparently means that if he doesn’t tell the King that Hamlet is crazy because Ophelia dumped him, there will be more trouble than if he does tell. This implies or assumes a couple of things. First, the King is very interested in finding out what is wrong with Hamlet. And, since this is the first time we’ve seen any sign of the antic disposition that Hamlet said he might put on, we may assume that the King hasn’t seen any sign of it, either.
Therefore, the antic disposition is probably not the reason for the King’s interest in Hamlet’s state of mind. We can guess that Claudius sees Hamlet as a potential political rival, and that Claudius senses danger in Hamlet’s continued mourning for his father. Second, the phrase hate to utter love means that Claudius will hate to hear that the daughter of his close advisor has a relationship with Hamlet. This might lead us to guess that Polonius’ real–though unstated–reason for putting a stop to the relationship was to make sure that he was on the right side: the King’s. Summary of Act 2, Scene 2: The King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to investigate Hamlet’s madness . . . Polonius’s theory of Hamlet’s madness .
. . Polonius examines Hamlet . . . Rosencrantz and Guildenstern examine Hamlet .
. . The players arrive . . .
Hamlet’s second soliloquy. Enter King and Queen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. –King: Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (2.2.1). Exeunt Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Polonius. –Polonius: I have found / The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy (2.2.48-49). Enter Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius].
–King: Well, we shall sift him (2.2.58). Exeunt Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]. –Polonius: My liege, and madam, to expostulate (2.2.86). Enter Hamlet. Exeunt King and Queen.
–Queen Gertrude: But, look, where sadly the poor wretch comes reading (2.2.168). Exit Polonius. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. –Guildenstern: My honor’d lord! (2.2.222). A flourish trumpets for the players.
Enter Polonius. –Hamlet: I am but mad north-north-west (2.2.378). Enter Players. –Hamlet: Come give us a taste of your quality, come, a passionate speech (2.2.431-432). Exit all but Hamlet. –Hamlet: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (2.2.550).
Enter King and Queen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: The King welcomes dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (2.2.1), and immediately gets down to business. They, friends of Hamlet, are supposed to hang out with him, so that they can find out what’s wrong with him. The King says that he cannot dream of what might be wrong with Hamlet, other than his father’s death. Of course, we’ve already learned that the King killed Hamlet’s father, so we may suspect that what the King really wants to know is what Hamlet knows or suspects, and what Hamlet might do. The Queen seconds the King’s request by telling them how much Hamlet likes them, and by suggesting that there might be some money in it for them, or–as she puts it–such thanks / As fits a king’s remembrance (2.2.25-26). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not only agree to do what they’re asked, they suck up.
They know, and say, that the King could simply command, rather than ask, and so they’re glad he asked. Exeunt Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Polonius: As soon as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave to seek out Hamlet, Polonius comes bustling in with two pieces of news: The ambassadors to Norway have had success, and he has discovered the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy (2.2.49). The King wants to hear what Polonius has to say about Hamlet, but Polonius insists on bringing in the ambassadors, and saving the news about Hamlet as the fruit [i.e., the dessert] to that great feast. Polonius steps out to fetch the ambassadors, and the King and Queen are alone for a moment.
The King wonders aloud if Polonius really has found the source and head of Hamlet’s distemper. The Queen replies with a bit of common sense: I doubt [suspect] it is no other but the main; / His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage (2.2.56-57). Enter Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]: The King and Queen’s moment alone is soon over. In comes Polonius, with Voltemand and Cornelius in tow. Voltemand tells the King that the King of Norway, who was sick, thought that Fortinbras was raising his army to fight the Poles, but when he received the letter from the King, he called Fortinbras in, learned the truth, and gave him a rebuke.
Now Fortinbras has promised never to direct any hostilities toward Denmark, and to use the army only to attack Poland. The King of Norway is happy with this, and wants the King’s permission for Fortinbras to pass through Denmark on his way to Poland. All this may sound fishy, but the King seems satisfied and says he’ll think about it. Later in the play, he has given the requested permission, because Fortinbras briefly appears, leading his army across the stage toward Poland. The King thanks Voltemand and Cornelius, and they exit, never to be seen again. Exeunt Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]: As soon as the ambassadors are gone, Polonius, saying he will not expostulate on the obvious, expostulates.
And after he says that brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes (2.2.90-91), he proceeds to be very tedious as he explains his theory of Hamlet’s madness. He makes his case by reading a love-letter written by Hamlet to Ophelia, and then explaining how he, faithful and honorable, got Ophelia to lock herself away from Hamlet. He concludes in his windy way: And he, repulsed–a short tale to make– 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, And all we mourn for. (2.2.146-151) The King and Queen are almost persuaded, but still doubtful, and so Polonius boasts that I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the centre. The King asks how his theory may be tested, and Polonius offers to loose Ophelia to Hamlet while he and the King hide behind a curtain to overhear their conversation.
Enter Hamlet. Exeunt King and Queen: The King agrees to Polonius’ plan for spying on Hamlet, but just then Hamlet himself comes wandering into the room, reading a book.Polonius is eager to examine Hamlet for himself, and he shoos away the King and Queen, so that he can board Hamlet. He starts right in, saying Do you know me, my lord? as though Hamlet is so far gone that he can’t recognize Polonius. Hamlet replies, Excellent well; you are a fishmonger (2.2.174). And so goes the rest of the encounter, with Polonius asking more dumb questions and Hamlet replying with insults which Polonius doesn’t understand because he thinks they only show just how crazy the prince is. In the course of the conversation Hamlet mocks Polonius’ attitude towards Ophelia, telling him that conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive (2.2.184-185). And Hamlet also mocks Polonius’ appearance and lack of self-knowledge by pretending to read a passage from his book that describes old men as having wrinkled faces and a plentiful lack of wit; of course, he is really describing Polonius.
Polonius sort of gets the idea that something is going on, but all he can figure out is that Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t (2.2.205-206). Exit Polonius. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Baffled, Polonius takes his leave of Hamlet, and just as he does, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up, so that they, too, can take a shot at finding out what’s wrong with Hamlet. Hamlet greets his old friends heartily, and asks how they’re doing, which leads to a good-old-boy off-color joke about the secret parts of Fortune. Then Hamlet asks, What news? He means what we mean when we say What’s up? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t have a good answer to that question. They didn’t come just to hang out with Hamlet, and they didn’t just happen to run into him while they were doing something else.
They came to find out what his problem is, but they’re not supposed to tell him that. So Rosencrantz answers Hamlet’s What news? with None, my lord, which is a little white lie. Hamlet then invites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be on his side. He asks, What ha …