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HAMLET: FREE ONLINE BOOKNOTES
ACT II, SCENE 1
Polonius is sending his servant Reynaldo to Paris with the excuse of delivering money to Laertes. In reality, he wants Reynaldo to spy on Laertes, making sure he is not getting into trouble. Polonius tells Reynaldo to be extremely discreet and tactful in finding out information about Laertes, seeking out other Danes to find out what Laertes has been doing. Polonius suggests that Reynaldo tell others he has heard that Laertes is a reckless young man in pursuit of idle pleasures in order to gauge their reactions. Having received his detailed instructions, Reynaldo leaves.
Soon thereafter Ophelia enters visibly upset. She tells Polonius that Hamlet, looking disheveled and distressed, has come to her acting strangely. She tells him the prince held her tightly by the wrist and shook her violently, all the while staring intently into her eyes. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet's madness is the "very ecstasy of love" caused by Ophelia's obedient refusal to see him. He fears that he has acted too strictly by forbidding his daughter to see the Prince, but justifies his orders by saying that he has only acted in Ophelia's best interests. He decides to inform Claudius about Hamlet's condition.
Although it is not clear how much time has passed since the last scene, it is obvious that a considerable amount of time has elapsed, for Laertes has been in France for awhile. The decision of Polonius to send someone to spy on his son serves as a foreshadowing of later events in the play, when Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy upon Hamlet. At the end of Polonius' instructions to Reynaldo, he succinctly sums up the tactics that should be used to find out about Laertes' conduct. These same tactics will be used by Claudius to keep an eye on Hamlet. The difference is that Polonius has a genuine concern for Laertes and his well being; such is not the case with Claudius, who spies on Hamlet out of a desire for self-protection.
This scene also highlights the essential aspect of Polonius' character that will ultimately lead to his death. Untrusting by nature, Polonius is convinced that Laertes will conduct himself shamefully in Paris and indulge in vices; therefore, he uses underhanded and sneaky methods to observe his son. Polonius' tendency to eavesdrop and spy prepares the audience for the times when he will covertly watch Hamlet. It seems that spying is an integral part of the corrupt court of Denmark.
Furthermore, the scene allows Ophelia to announce Hamlet's strange behavior; it also allows Polonius, as Lord Chamberlain and father of Ophelia, to convey the news of Hamlet's behavior to the King. Ophelia tells her father about how Hamlet appeared in her closet "with a look so piteous in purport / as if he had been loosed out of hell / to speak of horrors." Additionally, he grabbed her and shook her. Such behavior reveals that Hamlet has, indeed, taken on a stance of craziness; therefore, this scene is closely linked to Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost, when he decides to feign madness in order to exact his revenge on Claudius. When Polonius hears his daughter's story, he jumps to the conclusion that Hamlet has gone mad because of his unrequited love for Ophelia. He immediately and arrogantly assumes he is the cause of the young Prince's problem. In fact, he is so certain about this interpretation that he hastens to the King to tell him about Hamlet's madness and its cause, exactly as the Prince has planned.