Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Polonius sends his servant, Reynaldo, to France to bring Laertes money and snoop into his son's life. Polonius suggests Reynaldo should ask around about Laertes to discover how he is living. In directing Reynaldo, Polonius urges his servant to suggest some negative qualities about Laertes—gaming, drinking, fencing, and swearing—when he talks with people. Polonius is confident this method will yield the truth about Laertes's behavior abroad.

In the second half of the scene, Ophelia enters distraught. She relates to Polonius that Hamlet came to her in her chamber disheveled and confused. Believing Hamlet to be mad with lust for Ophelia, Polonius asks if she has said anything upsetting to him. Ophelia answers that she has not spoken with him but has simply refused his letters and denied him any contact, as Polonius instructed.

Polonius is convinced that by telling Ophelia to avoid Hamlet, he has inadvertently fanned the flames of the prince's love. He tells Ophelia that they must tell the king and queen about the romantic connection between Hamlet and her, adding that concealing it might cause more grief than the knowledge that Hamlet has fallen for someone "beneath him."

Analysis

The theme of truth versus deception is rampant in this scene. As it opens, Polonius is sending his servant to France to bring Laertes money and check up on him, even though Laertes has proven himself to be responsible, obedient, and thoughtful. Although Polonius treats Laertes as trustworthy when they are face to face, he feels the need to check up on him, which in itself may be innocent enough, but he goes so far as to suggest that Reynaldo "lay slight sullies" against Laertes to dredge information out of various sources. Further, it's an example of dramatic irony that Polonius, ever mindful of his reputation, is so casual about the idea of damaging his son's—and uses deception to find the truth. In Act 1, Scene 3, Polonius had warned Ophelia about maintaining her reputation. He is concerned that if her reputation is damaged, it will also harm his status.

The second event in this scene—Ophelia relaying to Polonius the strange encounter she had with Hamlet—also plays on truth versus deception, or appearance versus reality. The audience knows from what Hamlet tells Horatio and the soldiers in Act 1, Scene 5 that he may need to appear mad. If we assume that Hamlet's odd behavior in the remainder of the play is the result of cunning intelligence and not madness, then he is appearing in a way that is untruthful. Ophelia, for her part, is being forced to appear uninterested in Hamlet—a man she obviously loves.

In this scene and as the play progresses, the audience sees the harm that such deceit causes or potentially causes. For example, Polonius's lack of honesty damages the faith that Reynaldo, much less Laertes or Ophelia, can place in him. He relies on deceit in his treatment of his children, expects others to also act deceitfully, and has no qualms about using deceit to achieve his goals. The layers of deceit also contribute to Hamlet's sorrow, disillusionment—and rage—regarding his father's death.

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