Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 2 Scene 2 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 2, Scene 2

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

Hamlet | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Claudius and Gertrude hire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's childhood friends, to spend time with Hamlet, hoping they will be able to determine the cause of his strange behavior.

After attendants take the friends to visit Hamlet, Polonius, followed closely by ambassadors Voltemand and Cornelius, join the royal pair. The ambassadors, who have returned from speaking with the king of Norway about Fortinbras, are happy to report their visit as successful.

"Old Norway," they say, has commanded Fortinbras to abandon any acts of force against Denmark. Fortinbras has vowed obedience to his uncle and has turned his attention to Poland, where he originally told his uncle he was going. Voltemand notes that Fortinbras has asked permission for him and his men to pass through Denmark en route to Poland.

As the ambassadors exit, Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude he thinks Hamlet's love for Ophelia is driving him mad. Polonius then reads them a letter sent from Hamlet to Ophelia, in which he proclaims his love for her. Together, Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude decide to lay a trap, orchestrating a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia and watching from afar.

Hamlet meets Polonius while walking in the hall. They talk a little, with Hamlet verbally sparring in clever if not chaotic circles around the older man. Polonius, taking this as evidence of the prince's madness, excuses himself to go in search of Ophelia and plan a "chance" meeting.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, and Hamlet asks several times what brings them to Elsinore. Although they try to evade his questions, Hamlet quickly figures out that they've been sent to spy on him. The one good bit of information they give Hamlet is that a company of players has come to Elsinore.

With some excitement, Hamlet greets the players. Hamlet arranges for them to perform The Murder of Gonzago in the court the following night—and to incorporate some lines he will give them. Once Hamlet is alone, he speaks aloud, berating himself for his lack of action with the task the ghost has given him. He calls himself a coward and a villain, railing in his grief. Then, pulling himself together, he muses aloud about his plan to use the play—augmented with lines he will write—as a means to probe Claudius's conscience. Hamlet is convinced that if Claudius reacts guiltily, it will prove that the ghost is a noble spirit and not a devil come to trick him.

Analysis

This scene is long, rich, and loaded with action. Claudius and Gertrude try to delve more deeply into Hamlet's state of mind. While Gertrude's motives are almost certainly caring and honorable, the audience may suspect that Claudius's motives are anything but. The dubious use of spies again comes into play; they bring in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old friends of the prince, who will rely on their long-standing relationship with Hamlet to ferret out the information the king and queen desire.

In this scene, too, we see the ambassadors return from Norway. This subplot, although it doesn't consume a significant amount of stage time, does bring Fortinbras into the play. The young man becomes a foil for Hamlet; the contrast of their styles—Fortinbras is a man of action compared to the deep-thinking Hamlet—becomes apparent, even to Hamlet. The few times we see Fortinbras or hear of him not only brings that to mind for the audience, but it also causes Hamlet to look at himself and sometimes recommit to the task the ghost has assigned him.

The company of actors comes to Elsinore in this scene, prompting the opportunity for a play within a play and for Hamlet's further development. He now is plotting a way to cause Claudius to divulge his guilt through his reaction to Hamlet's play within a play. Hamlet's revision of the play will change the course of everything for the people of Elsinore. The presence of the players and Hamlet's familiarity with them also gives audiences another view of Hamlet. Throughout the play, the information we glean from his various interactions—with the soldiers and Horatio early on, with the players here and into Act 3, and with even the gravediggers in Act 5—gives us a well-rounded character by the end of the play.

As this scene closes, the presence of the company of actors also provides fodder for Hamlet to use against himself and his tendency to overthink. Contrasting himself with actors who can call up passion and tears out of a fictitious motivation, Hamlet condemns his lack of action in avenging his father, calling himself a "dully and muddy-mettled rascal," chiding himself for his inability to "say nothing!"

Thematically, this scene has many instances that tap into the themes of truth versus deception and madness.

  • The very presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern oozes deception. They are—or were—Hamlet's friends, but from the moment they arrive in Elsinore they act as Claudius's spies, forsaking their loyalty to the prince for the favor of the king.
  • Claudius's motivation in bringing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore is a far cry from Gertrude's. Although he pretends that he wants to help Hamlet, Claudius is actually looking to find out what Hamlet knows in order to stay one step ahead of him.
  • The company of players—some of the only people or groups in the play who are not hiding something—are, in an example of dramatic irony, built around the idea of reality versus appearance/truth versus deception. The basis of theater is a suspension of disbelief—a willingness to believe what one is presented—and that idea, set into the middle of this play so fraught with deception, shines a light on all of the other examples of play acting around it. The final line in this scene foreshadows the importance of this company being here in Elsinore at this time, with Hamlet saying, "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."
  • The first evidence of Hamlet showing false signs of madness, or an "antic disposition," appears in this scene. Although in the previous scene (Act 2, Scene 1) there is indication of his strange behavior and appearance from Ophelia's account, his interaction with Polonius, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, gives a firsthand view. Hamlet talks in riddles, such as when he calls Polonius a "fishmonger."

This scene also examines the theme of thought versus action, brought up by the discussion around Fortinbras and Norway, which paints young Fortinbras as a man of action to Hamlet's man of thought as well as Hamlet's comparison of himself to the players.

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