Hamlet Act II, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act II, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

Act II, Scene 1:

Act II opens as Polonius orders his servant Reynaldo to follow Laertes to Paris and seek out any Danes that may be acquainted with him. Wanting to keep tabs on Laertes’s behavior, Polonius suggests that Reynaldo spread false rumors about Laertes to see whether they are confirmed or denied by those who know him. After giving Reynaldo specific instructions on how to surreptitiously obtain information about Laertes, Polonius sends him on his way. After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters, obviously upset. She tells her father that Prince Hamlet suddenly came into her room looking disheveled and wild. He grabbed her by the arm and let out a deep sigh before walking away without saying anything. Polonius says he was wrong to have thought that Hamlet’s interest in Ophelia was trifling and concludes that Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia must have driven him to madness. Believing he knows the reason for Hamlet’s strange behavior, Polonius goes to tell the king.

Act II, Scene 2:

King Claudius and Queen Gertrude greet Hamlet’s old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Increasingly distressed by Hamlet’s odd behavior, the king and queen have invited his friends to the castle in the hopes that they will be able to uncover the cause of Hamlet’s madness. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go off to find Hamlet, Polonius enters and announces that Voltemand and Cornelius have returned from Norway. He also informs the king and queen that he has discovered the reason for Hamlet’s strange behavior. Though Claudius is eager to hear more, Polonius convinces him to meet with the ambassadors first. Cornelius and Voltemand report that the old king of Norway had no knowledge of young Fortinbras’s plans to attack Denmark and, once informed, immediately put a stop to them. After vowing never to raise arms against Denmark again, young Fortinbras was given permission to use his forces to attack Poland instead of Denmark. For that purpose, the old king asks Claudius to allow Fortinbras’s army to pass through Denmark’s lands. Pleased with this outcome, Claudius dismisses Voltemand and Cornelius.

Polonius turns the conversation to Hamlet, and—despite saying “I will be brief”—he gives a long-winded, wordy introduction before finally revealing that he believes Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia to be the source of his madness. As proof, Polonius produces a love letter that Hamlet sent to Ophelia. To test his theory, Polonius suggests that they send Ophelia to Hamlet and then spy on their conversation. The king agrees just as Hamlet enters, reading a book. (It is worth noting that some of Hamlet’s later speeches suggest that he may have heard Polonius’s plan to spy on him and Ophelia, and this scene is often staged in a way that suggests Hamlet overheard the conversation.) The king and queen exit, and Polonius goes to confront Hamlet. On the surface, Hamlet appears confused during his conversation with Polonius, apparently mistaking him for a “fishmonger”; however, his seemingly absurd statements hide a stinging assessment of Polonius’s character. Eventually, Polonius exits to make the arrangements for the meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and greet their friend. Hamlet is happy to see them but quickly realizes that they must have been summoned on Claudius’s orders. When he presses them, they admit that the king and queen did indeed send for them. Hamlet says that his depressed behavior is the reason they have been summoned, admitting that nothing delights him anymore. Rosencrantz informs Hamlet that an acting troupe is en route to the castle and laughs, saying that they will clearly receive a poor welcome from the depressed prince. As the trumpets sound the approach of the actors, Hamlet tells his friends that they are welcome at Elsinore, but he warns them that his mother and his uncle are mistaken about his madness, claiming enigmatically that he is only mad sometimes.

Polonius reenters to...

(The entire section is 1,582 words.)