Explain how Shakespeare uses indirect characterization in Act II, Scene I as a device to develop Hamlet’s pretended insanity.

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Stephanie Gregg eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What is interesting about Act 2, Scene 1 is that while Hamlet never actually appears, more than half the scene is devoted to him.  This scene immediately follows Hamlet's dramatic encounter with the ghost of his father, in which King Hamlet reveals that he was murdered by his brother.  Prince Hamlet has forced the witnesses to swear that they will not reveal anything they have seen and will not give any indication if he feigns madness.  We find out that at some point between the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2, Hamlet has paid Ophelia a visit. During this visit, Hamlet is obviously disturbed, as reflected by his disheveled appearance.  Ophelia says he grabbed her wrist, shook her, then held her at arm's length and stared at her for a while. Next, 

. . . thrice his head thus waving up and down,  / He raised a sigh so piteous and profound  / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being.  

As soon as he leaves without ever uttering a word, she immediately finds and tells her father.  Did Hamlet anticipate that she would tell Polonius every detail of his behavior?  And then did Hamlet know that Polonius would then tell Claudius?  The alternate theory is that Hamlet is so genuinely disturbed by the vision of the ghost that he wants desperately to talk to Ophelia, whom he loves; yet he fears he can not trust her with this secret.  Either way, Shakespeare uses Ophelia to indirectly characterize Hamlet's behavior to introduce the theme of Hamlet's madness immediately after his encounter with his ghost father.

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