What are the major themes in Act 2 of "Hamlet"?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Deception and espionage are two prominent themes examined throughout act 2 of Hamlet. In act 2, scene 1, Polonius dispatches his servant Reynaldo to France and instructs him to spy on his son Laertes. In act 2, scene 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Claudius's castle. Claudius expresses his concern about Hamlet's erratic behavior and employs both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to investigate the matter. Polonius then enters the scene and elaborates on Hamlet's love for his daughter. He suggests to Claudius that they hide behind an arras and watch as Hamlet interacts with Ophelia in the lobby of the castle. Polonius then confronts Hamlet, who pretends to be mentally unstable. Hamlet's behavior confirms Polonius's suspicions that he has become mad. Later on in the scene, Hamlet speaks to the actors and asks them to perform The Murder of Gonzago. He then informs the audience of his plan to spy on Claudius as the actors reenact how Claudius murdered King Hamlet on stage.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Deception is a primary theme of Act 2. 

In 2.1, we find Hamlet playing his "madness" ruse on the unsuspecting Ophelia.   She describes how he came to her chambers

...with his doublet all unbraced,

No hat at upon his head, his stockings fouled,

Ungarted, and down-gyved to his ankle,

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking togetehr,

And with alook so piteous in purport

As if he had been loosed out of hell

To speak of horrors -- he comes before me  (2.1.87-94)

In Act 2.2, the deception theme continues, this time with Claudius doing the dirty work; the "king" sends Rosencratz and Guildenstern, two former friends of the prince, to spy on him to see if his madness is real.

Act 2 also sets up the play "The Murder of Gonzago," a thinly veiled attempt to deceive Claudius into confession, for the play reflects the usurper's crimes. 

slauritzen | Student
Act 2 is all about appearance vs. reality. When Hamlet appears to Ophelia in sc. 1, he desperately wants to connect with her, but he cannot. This is the closest he gets to reality matching appearance. As Polonius goes on to describe how his "madness" is caused by his love for Ophelia, as Rosencrantz and Guilderstern cover up the reasons for visiting Hamlet, and most importantly how the play within a play unfolds, Hamlet discovers how the layers of his reality are unraveling. He realizes that others only appear to be helping him or looking out for him, but most are deceiving him.