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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT I, SCENE II

From the battlements the action moves inside the castle, where the new king, Claudius, is addressing a council meeting. First he expresses regret over his "dear brother's" death, then announces that he has married the widowed queen, who sits beside him. He says that his councillors have supported him in this action, then goes on to discuss young Fortinbras, who has assumed that King Hamlet's death would leave Denmark vulnerable to attack. Claudius has written to Fortinbras' ailing and bedridden uncle, the king of Norway, to put a stop to the young man's military activities. Voltemand and Cornelius are instructed to deliver the letter.

Claudius turns to Laertes. His tone becomes kindly and generous as he stresses how important Laertes' father, Polonius, is to him, and he agrees to grant the boy whatever he wants. What Laertes requests is permission to leave the court and return to France; his visit there had been interrupted by his return home for Claudius' coronation. After making sure that Polonius approves, Claudius grants Laertes his leave. He now turns to "my cousin Hamlet, and my son" and asks him, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" a reference to both Hamlet's moodiness and the fact that he is the only member of the court still in mourning for his father. The queen now speaks for the first time, adding her plea that Hamlet not "seek for thy noble father in the dust" forever. Since death is common to all, she asks, why does Hamlet seem to be making such a particular fuss about it? He replies that it is not a question of seeming, but being: His black mourning clothes are simply a true representation of his deep unhappiness.


Claudius chides the young prince for resisting the natural order of things. He reminds Hamlet that he is next in succession, and declares that he loves Hamlet as a father. Abruptly, he adds that Hamlet's desire to go back to his studies at the University of Wittenberg is against his, Claudius', wishes. The queen seconds this statement briefly and Hamlet, ignoring Claudius, replies, "I shall in all my best obey you, madam." The king seizes this moment to announce that he is delighted with Hamlet's willingness to agree. To honor him, every toast drunk at the royal banquet that night will be echoed by a salute from the castle's artillery. Claudius leads Gertrude away, and the court follows, leaving Hamlet alone.

Alone, Hamlet immediately launches into a violently emotional speech. He wishes he were dead, complains that suicide is a sin, describes the world as useless and disgusting. He then comes to the cause: his father's death. His father, compared to Claudius, was like a god next to something half man and half beast. His mother adored her husband- yet in a little over a month after his death she has married her husband's brother, "no more like my father / Than I to Hercules." Seeing someone come in, he calms down.

NOTE:

This is the first of the soliloquies that allow you to hear Hamlet's innermost thoughts. At this point he is mostly preoccupied with his mother and with her remarriage; he spends very little time praising his late father. A disappointed idealist, he has no patience with the world, with himself, and particularly not with women. Soon you will see how his disappointment with his mother fortifies his distrust of Ophelia. Notice that Claudius, in attacking Hamlet for his grief, took pains to stress Hamlet's weak, unbalanced nature ("obstinate... unmanly... peevish"). Here, Hamlet apparently accepts this view, comparing himself ironically to the mythical strong man Hercules. Full of interrupted and unfinished sentences, the speech is obviously the outpouring of a man in a deep state of emotional distress and confusion. Whether his distress is justified, or merely the raving of an over-sensitive mind, is something you will have to decide as the play develops.

 

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