In Act One, scene two of Shakespeare's Hamlet, what effect does Shakespeare intend for the scene to have on the audience?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Act One, scene two, of Shakespeare's Hamlet, we learn a great deal. While scene one sets a dark mood, scene two provides extensive exposition.

With paradoxes meant to convey mutual sorrow and joy, we learn that even while Old Hamlet's death is "green" (new), Claudius has married his brother's widow.

...With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,

In equal scale weighing delight and dole,

Taken to wife. (12-14)

Claudius acknowledges that Young Fortinbras is trying to take back lands his dead father lost—in a fair contest—to Old Hamlet. In this way, Shakespeare explains the threat of war that faces Denmark (hence the armed soldiers watching the battlements), and also introduces a foil for Hamlet. Later we hear even Hamlet mourn the fact that Fortinbras is so better able to do what he believes honors his dead father, while Hamlet is never able to move with equal determination to avenge his father's death.

Laertes requests permission to leave the Claudius' court, showing respect for his father's wishes and the King's.

We learn that Hamlet is disgusted by his mother's remarriage and Claudius and Gertrude's lack of mourning for Old Hamlet's death. Gertrude ask her son to put off his dark looks—death is a part of life. He agrees; Gertrude asks him why then he "seems" so sad. For Hamlet, greatly broken up over the loss of his father, he is clear that there is nothing "seeming" about his grief.

Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems.

'tis not alone my inky cloak...

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye... (79-84)

That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play;

But I have that within which passeth show,

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (86-89)

Hamlet says that it is not the "showing" of sorrow that matters, for an actor could easily so the same with no meaning. [This foreshadows the play-within-the-play—(III,ii)—when Hamlet has the players re-enact his father's death; even then he notes that the actors seem so capable of showing sorrow, while he is unable to act on the true sadness he feels.]

We are given a clear insight into the kind of man Claudius is: not because he offers his "love" as a father to Hamlet or names him heir to the throne, but because he (who is obviously unmoved by his brother's death—we will soon learn why) accuses Hamlet of unmanly and unholy behavior by grieving.


...'tis unmanly grief;

It shows a will most incorrect to heaven... (97-98)

...Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,

A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, (104-105)

Gertrude wishes Hamlet not to return to school so soon. Alone, Hamlet wishes he could kill himself. Hamlet tells Horatio that the wedding occurred so soon after the funeral that they could have used the leftovers of the first, for the second.

Horatio reports that he has seen Old Hamlet's ghost—this introduces the theme of the disruption of natural order of the universe, for why else would the ghost roam the castle? Hamlet is told that his father's face is sorrowful and that he is dressed for war. Not sure if this is indeed his father's spirit, Hamlet declares that he will approach the ghost that night, and asks for silence from the men who have seen the apparition. This introduces the theme of secrecy.

The entire scene shows unnatural joy in the presence of sorrow, the need for secrecy, and possible threats from within and without the castle.


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