Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1501
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 his son, Polonius sends him on his way.
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After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters, obviously upset. She tells her father that Prince Hamlet entered 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 has uncovered the cause of Hamlet’s recent 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 erratic 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, he 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. (Some of Hamlet’s later speeches suggest that he may have heard Polonius’s plan, and this scene is often staged in a way that suggests Hamlet overhears their 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 mask a biting 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. As the trumpets sound the approach of the actors, Hamlet tells his friends that they are welcome at Elsinore. 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 announce the arrival of the acting troupe. Hamlet asks them to show their talents by giving a speech. The first player recites a dramatic speech about the murder of Priam that pleases Hamlet and bores Polonius. As the actors follow Polonius out of the room, Hamlet takes one aside and, after requesting that they perform The Murder of Gonzago, asks whether they could add in several lines of his own devising. The actor agrees, and Hamlet is left alone.
In his second soliloquy of the play, Hamlet berates himself for his inaction. Comparing himself to the talented actor from earlier, he says that it is monstrous that an actor can summon such passion over an imaginary character, while he cannot seem to summon the same passion over an actual act of treachery. It is revealed that Hamlet intends to have the actors perform a scene mimicking his father’s murder for the court. By closely watching Claudius’s reaction during the play, Hamlet feels sure he will obtain proof of his uncle’s guilt.
Act II further develops the character of Polonius, who may be interpreted in a variety of ways. Polonius’s decision to pay Reynaldo to spy on his son emphasizes his controlling nature, which we first glimpsed in act I. Polonius may be seen as a sneaky manipulator or a foolish busybody—indeed, he has been portrayed as both by various productions. On one hand, Polonius’s willingness to spy on his son and his specific instructions to Reynaldo on how best to extract information from Laertes’s friends suggest that Polonius is quite calculating. We see further evidence of Polonius’s scheming when he proposes that the king and queen use Ophelia as bait to spy on Hamlet. Polonius does not seem to consider how such an encounter will affect his daughter, who has already clearly been traumatized by Hamlet’s erratic behavior. If we interpret Polonius as a shrewd manipulator, these scenes suggest that he values information and scheming more than the well-being of his children.
Alternatively, Polonius is easily interpreted as a bumbling fool, and his actual advice to Reynaldo does seem to suggest that he is much less cunning and subtle than he thinks. In a plot that seems counterproductive at best, Polonius plans to spread false and potentially damaging rumors about his son just to find out whether or not Laertes is misbehaving. In Polonius’s conversation with his daughter, he immediately jumps to the simplistic (and incorrect) conclusion that Hamlet must be mad with love for Ophelia. When Polonius attempts to convey his “discovery” to the king and queen, Gertrude is forced to interrupt his long, bombastic speech to tell him to get to the point: “More matter with less art.” In his later interactions with Hamlet, Polonius does not seem to pick up on Hamlet’s subtle verbal barbs, dismissing most of what Hamlet says as the ravings of a madman. Polonius also comically interrupts the player’s dramatic speech to complain that it is “too long,” suggesting that he is not cultured or intellectual.
These scenes also introduce us to the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who will always appear together. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often treated like a single character, and even the king’s and queen’s respective goodbyes (“Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern. / Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.”) seem to imply that differentiating between the two men is difficult and unnecessary. Though summoned by the king and queen to spy on Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern prove inept, and Hamlet sees through their ploy almost immediately. Unlike Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not necessarily seem to have harmful intentions, yet they are easily dominated, manipulated, and controlled by others, as evidenced by their interactions with both Claudius and Hamlet.
Act II reveals that Hamlet’s scheme of madness has progressed significantly. Though some scholars argue that Hamlet is, by this point, already truly insane, the clever and sharp criticisms that lurk beneath his seemingly nonsensical speeches are strong evidence that he is still in command of his mind. When Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger,” for example, it could be meant as a euphemism for “pimp”—perhaps in reference to Polonius’s plan to use his daughter to trick Hamlet. It could also be taken as a simple insult meant to insinuate that Polonius is of low stature. Convinced Hamlet is crazy, Polonius pays little attention to these remarks, even as Hamlet subtly insults him to his face.
Hamlet again shows clarity with the arrival of the players, quickly coming up with a ploy to prove Claudius’s guilt. His plan with the play seems to indicate that Hamlet is either stalling for more time or remains unconvinced of Claudius’s guilt. After watching one of the players perform an especially dramatic speech, Hamlet disparages himself for not being able to muster up the same level of passion for his real-life revenge, wondering, “What would he do / Had he the motive and cue for passion / That I have?” Though he vows to do better, Hamlet’s painful awareness of his inability to take action remains a source of his internal conflict throughout the play.