Why is act II scene 2 in Hamlet important to the whole play? Why is it more important than the other acts?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A much longer, slower, and detailed scene than those short ones of the first act, Scene 2 of the second act in Hamlet is intrinsic to the drama because it significantly initiates and develops subplots, provides insights into key characters, introduces motifs, and includes an important monologue and soliloquy of Hamlet that characterizes him and moves the plot forward.

Subplots

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to King Claudius, and he enlists them in spying upon Hamlet. When Hamlet speaks to them, they admit to him what their intent is in having discourse with him, which serves to further the action..
  • The guilt of Claudius for the death of King Hamlet is suggested by his having his schoolmates spy upon him. Hamlet hopes to prove Claudius's culpability with the play, The Murder of Gonzago.

Motifs

  • The motif of youth vs. age is evinced in the conversation about adult acting companies as opposed to the theme of the play as youth replacing their elders. This conversation parallels the action of the real drama. 
  • The motif of illusion vs. reality which is pervasive throughout the play is reinforced with the company of players as there are several allusions to young boys' playing the parts of women.
  • The motif of women's being weaker than men is (“frailty, thy name is woman—”) is reinforced with the boys playing the parts of women.

Insights into characters 

  • Hamlet's depression is suggested in his soliloquy and his monologue:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel...how like a god...And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, nor woman neither....(2.2.288-293)

  • Hamlet baits both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Polonius, indicating that he not only perceives their duplicity, but that he is calculating. He also perceives the hypocrisy of people as he remarks about how quickly people change their allegiances, alluding to Claudius who is now king, who people now praise whereas before when Hamlet was king, they mocked him:

...my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little. 'Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find out. (2.1.336-340)

  • Hamlet also reveals much of his opinion of himself in his soliloquy. He feels that he is a coward--"O what rogue and peasant slave am I!" (2.1.506)--because he has not yet taken action against the man who has murdered his father. He attempts to work himself into a passion so that he can carry out the revenge the ghost of his family has requested. But, then, he wonders if the ghost were, instead, "a devil" to tempt him to regicide and then damnation for such a crime. As he reasons, Hamlet decides that he will watch Claudius during the performance: "the play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (2.1.561-562)
  •  Polonius displays his duplicity in this scene, as well as his willingness to sacrifice Ophelia for his political gain. Polonius, who exemplifies well what is "rotten in Denmark" will later suffer the consequences of this duplicity. He is also provides some comic relief, especially when he gives his redundant and confusing instructions to his servant Reynaldo.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also duplicitous, although they admit their complicity with King Claudius. They, too, suffer consequences for their betrayal of Hamlet.
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