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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT II, SCENE II

Note that Hamlet sees himself growing old and useless like Polonius. Under the pressure of his inactivity and distrust of everyone around him, his wit has turned hostile. The comparison of Ophelia's possible pregnancy to the sun breeding maggots in rotten meat (note the rottenness image again) is notably cruel, even as a way to shock Polonius. But this static situation will soon change.

As Polonius is leaving, he meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The fact that he has to point Hamlet out to them suggests that either Hamlet is much changed or that they do not know him very well. Hamlet, however, greets them happily as "my excellent good friends" and immediately starts to banter with them, making sexual jokes about Fortune being "a strumpet" because of her arbitrariness. "The world's grown honest [virtuous]," Rosencrantz declares, and Hamlet replies, "Then is doomsday near! But your news is not true"- the first hint that he is suspicious of what they say. He questions their motives for visiting, asking why they have come "to prison" (since he is forbidden to travel, Denmark is literally a prison to him). Rosencrantz suggests that it is Hamlet's "ambition" (to claim the throne) that makes it one, to which Hamlet replies that he is without ambitions but has "bad dreams." Hamlet asks them again why they have come to Elsinore, and after many evasions and guilty looks, Guildenstern finally admits, "My lord, we were sent for." Beginning with "I will tell you why," Hamlet launches into an extraordinary speech of alternate praise and dispraise of the universe, saying that nothing makes him happy any longer, that "this goodly frame, the earth" is no more to him than "a sterile promontory"; the heavens, "this majestical roof fretted with golden fire," only "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors"; and man, "the paragon of animals," a "quintessence of dust." Although he goes into such detail about his changed view of life, he does not tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern its cause, as he has Horatio (compare Act I, Scene ii, lines 183-95).

NOTE:

Hamlet's long and poetic prose speech, one of the most famous in the play, is an expansion of his remark some lines earlier that "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." It expresses in philosophical terms the core of his problem: He wants to believe in the order of the universe, the beauty of the world, and the innate goodness of man, but in light of what has happened to his parents, and, in turn, to Denmark, all values seem false, and life itself seems meaningless. The careful crafting of the speech suggests that this, not his revenge, is what he has been agonizing over; he has been behaving like a student of philosophy, not a prince with a mission of vengeance to carry out. If life has no apparent purpose, and is meaningless, why seek revenge?


Rosencrantz apparently laughs, either at the way Hamlet is going on or at a misinterpretation of his remark "Man delights not me," for Hamlet quickly adds, "nor woman neither." Rosencrantz protests that he did not mean to laugh at Hamlet and covers the awkward moment with a piece of news: He and Guildenstern passed a touring company of actors on the road. When Hamlet asks which company, Rosencrantz tells him they are his favorites, "the tragedians of the city," and goes on to explain that they are traveling because a new company of child actors has replaced them as the most popular entertainment in town. Though this seems preposterous to Hamlet, it does not surprise him.

NOTE:

The rivalry between Shakespeare's company and the newly formed children's company at the Blackfriars Theater was a subject of topical interest to Elizabethan audiences. Hamlet sees the popularity of these child actors as evidence of the world's pursuit of the shallow and superficial. In Hamlet's mind, this pursuit is linked to the shifting of his mother's affections from his father to his uncle.

 

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