What change of mood occurs in Act 2, scene 1 of Hamlet?

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There is an abrupt change of tone between act 2, scene 1, and the previous scene 5 in act 1. After witnessing Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost we're treated to a spot of comic relief in the shape of Polonius. Ever the arch-manipulator, Polonius gives detailed instructions to ...

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There is an abrupt change of tone between act 2, scene 1, and the previous scene 5 in act 1. After witnessing Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost we're treated to a spot of comic relief in the shape of Polonius. Ever the arch-manipulator, Polonius gives detailed instructions to Reynaldo about spying on Laertes while he's studying abroad. He wants to make absolutely sure that his son won't get up to mischief and besmirch the family name.

At the same time, Polonius comes across as a foolish old babbler, hopelessly absent-minded as well as cunning. In addition to developing Polonius's character, this scene also provides some much-needed light relief after the brooding solemnity of Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost. Polonius has devised a detailed, clever plan—even if he says so himself—to detect the slightest misbehavior on the part of Laertes while he's in Paris; and yet he stops for a moment, so overcome by his own cleverness at devising the plan that he's briefly unable to remember the precise details:

And then, sir, does he this, he does— What was I about to say? By the mass, I was about to say something. Where did I leave?

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It is important to identify what the mood is in Act I scene 5, which is when Hamlet confronts the Ghost and finds out the truth of what happened to his father. The mood in this scene is one of horror as Hamlet struggles to comprehend what has happened and also tries to work out whether the Ghost is speaking truth of not. There is a deliberate contrast between this scene therefore and Act II scene 1, in which Polonius instructs Reynaldo, a hired spy, about the best way he can check up on Laertes. Polonius can be presented as an over-punctilious, bumbling fool, and this scene certainly could be used to support this image of him. Note the advice he gives Reynaldo, who clearly knows his job better than his employer:

Take you, as 'twere, some distant knowledge of him,

As thus: "I know his father and his friends,

And in part him"--do you mark this, Reynaldo?

Polonius presumably has to check that Reynaldo is listening at this point because Reynaldo, who probably is incredulous that he is being told how to do his job, is trying his best to not show his contempt in his facial expressions. This scene, therefore, compared to the horror and serious tone of the previous one, is one of comedy and humour. There are of course, links between both, as they both involve fathers who are trying in some ways to manipulate and keep an eye on their sons.

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