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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT II, SCENE II

A fanfare announces the arrival of the king and queen, greeting two new characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet's who have been summoned back in haste from Wittenberg to help discover what has changed Hamlet's behavior and to draw him into court amusements. The queen adds to Claudius' request the promise of a kingly reward. The two young men vow their obedience to the royal command and go off to see Hamlet.

In this and subsequent appearances by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you'll have to pay close attention to what they say and do to decide whether their actions are determined by their affection for Hamlet, their allegiance to the crown, or their desire for personal gain. Your interpretation will color your decision as to whether or not they deserve their fate.

Polonius comes in with two pieces of news: The ambassadors to Norway have returned, their mission successfully accomplished, and he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. The king is eager to hear about the second matter, but Polonius persuades him to deal with the ambassadors first, and goes out to bring them in. The king repeats Polonius' words to Gertrude, who maintains the cause of Hamlet's moods is obvious: "His father's death and our o'er-hasty marriage." Polonius comes back in with Voltemand and Cornelius, the first of whom describes what has happened: The king of Norway was under the impression that Fortinbras' army planned to attack Poland. Learning the truth, he was furious to have his age and sickness taken advantage of, and immediately sent out orders to stop Fortinbras, who obediently apologized. This so touched the king that he granted his nephew a reward of 3000 crowns a year and ordered him to send his army against Poland instead. Since they will need to cross Denmark to get there, Norway requests Claudius to give them a safe-conduct pass. Claudius is delighted at the success of the mission, and promising to reach a decision later, he dismisses the two ambassadors with thanks.

Polonius now launches into a long, doubletalk analysis of Hamlet's madness and its cause. He reads aloud a love letter of Hamlet's to Ophelia, explains how Ophelia came to him, what his response was, and how Hamlet went mad from her refusal to see him. The king and queen are struck by the possible truth of this, and Polonius proposes a test: Hamlet often walks for hours in the castle's main hallway, reading. At one such time Polonius will send Ophelia to meet him, while he and the king hide behind an arras or tapestry to watch. "We will try it," says the king. With apt timing, Hamlet now comes in, reading a book, and Polonius sends the king and queen away so he can talk to the young man alone.


From the ensuing conversation we see that Hamlet's witty sarcasm has gotten both more bitter and more eccentric. He calls Polonius a "fishmonger"- a slang word for a pimp- and warns him, harshly, that his daughter may become pregnant. When Polonius asks what he is reading, Hamlet pretends it is a satirical portrait of old men, which is a cruel caricature of Polonius himself. "though this be madness," Polonius says to himself, "yet there is method in't."

Suggesting that Hamlet go to an inner room that may be less drafty, he says, "Will you walk out of the air, my lord?" and Hamlet, taking him with ironic literalness, asks, "Into my grave?" More than ever convinced that this is the madness of unrequited love, Polonius takes his leave. As he departs, Hamlet audibly adds, "These tedious old fools."

NOTE:

This bitterly comic scene is the first in the play to be written in prose rather than blank verse, and the shift tells you that, in some sense, Hamlet is no longer a noble character, but a clown trading quips with a fool. Time has passed, and he has not kept his promise. Instead of plotting Claudius' death, he reads, paces, and thinks about his own death. But he can no more commit suicide than he can murder.

 

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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