Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 1 Scene 2 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 2

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains Act 1, Scene 2 in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Claudius holds court at Elsinore and thanks everyone for their support through the kingdom's recent events: the death and funeral of his brother, King Hamlet, and Claudius's subsequent marriage to Gertrude. Claudius then turns to the matter of young Fortinbras of Norway, giving everyone the latest information on the warlike young man's actions.

Claudius speculates that Fortinbras thinks Denmark may be in chaos and that this environment may offer him an advantage. Claudius relates that he has written to Fortinbras's uncle, the present king of Norway who is gravely ill. The letter informs the older man of his nephew's actions.

Claudius then turns his attention to Laertes, son of the counselor Polonius. With a show of fatherly affection for Laertes, Claudius presses to know what he has to ask. Laertes, having come from France for Claudius's coronation, now asks permission to return to France. Ascertaining that Laertes has his father's blessing to depart, Claudius agrees that Laertes may go.

Claudius and Gertrude then chide Hamlet about his continued mourning for his father. Claudius tells Hamlet that while it is commendable to honor one's father, to so prolong a display shows a weakness of character. He then invites Hamlet to look upon him as a father and wishes Hamlet to reconsider going back to school in Wittenberg and instead stay in Denmark with them. Gertrude echoes his words. As Hamlet vows to obey, Claudius and Gertrude leave.

Alone, Hamlet reveals the depth of his despair, saying that were it not against God's law, he would contemplate suicide. He speaks of how weary he is of life, and we come to understand that it is not just his father's death that has Hamlet in such sorrow but also the quick marriage of his mother to his uncle.

Hamlet's grief is interrupted by the entrance of Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo, who have come to tell him of the ghost they've seen. Wildly shocked and interested, Hamlet peppers them with questions and makes plans to stand watch with them that night. As the men part, Hamlet asks them to tell no one else what they have seen. The others, swearing their loyalty to him, give their word.

Analysis

Shakespeare again packs a lot of information into a single scene, some of it played out here and some previous action communicated in the dialogue. This scene gives a firsthand look at the new king and queen, as well as some understanding of their strained relationship with Prince Hamlet. Hamlet's emotional disturbance is readily visible. His unease is shown in an aside about the added level to which he and Claudius are now related: they are now both uncle/nephew and stepfather/stepson. His declaration that he and Claudius are not at all alike gives the audience insight into Hamlet's feelings about his uncle—that he is hesitant to trust him. His remarks foreshadow what will become ever clearer: the two men truly are not alike.

This scene also provides the first real view of Claudius's character in the fatherly way he behaves toward Laertes, contrasted with the harsher manner in which he deals with his stepson Hamlet.

Shakespeare provides a brief but instructive view into the relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet. Her plea for Hamlet to stay in Denmark suggests she truly values her only child. And because Hamlet obeys, it shows he is devoted to both his mother and father. In his soliloquy, however, he expresses disappointment in his mother because of her ability to move on so quickly after her husband's death. Hamlet believes his parents' relationship was strong—full of love, affection, and commitment—so he finds it incomprehensible and even disloyal that she could so easily enter into a relationship with Claudius, who Hamlet says is "no more like my father [t]han I to Hercules."

He ends his soliloquy saying that while his heart is breaking, he must hold his tongue. The reason for his resolve is not made clear. Perhaps he does not wish to emotionally wound his mother, or perhaps he feels threatened by Claudius—or perhaps he wants to hide his anger until he is ready to strike at Claudius. At this moment, Shakespeare ushers in Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo with their startling news. It is an intense moment for Hamlet to hear that the ghost of his father walks Elsinore Castle, and such cliff-hanging moments keep both the tension and the sense of tragedy ramped through the course of the play.

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