Act I, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Claudius, King of Denmark: Prince Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather

Gertrude, the Queen: Hamlet’s mother

Polonius: the King’s advisor

Laertes: son to Polonius

Prince Hamlet: son of the late King and Queen Gertrude

Voltemand and Cornelius: messengers to King of Norway

King Claudius announces that, despite his grief over his brother’s recent death, he has taken Gertrude to wife. He also informs the court of young Fortinbras’s aggression, and assigns Voltemand and Cornelius to deliver a dispatch to the King of Norway (Fortinbras’s uncle) urging that he restrain his nephew. Laertes asks the King’s permission to return to France, which he left to attend the coronation. The King grants the request, being assured that Polonius also assents. The King and Queen then urge Hamlet to cease his mourning, and to abandon his plan to return to his studies in Wittenberg; Hamlet agrees.

Everyone departs, leaving Hamlet alone to lament his mother’s hasty remarriage to a man less worthy than her first husband, Hamlet’s father. Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo enter and tell Hamlet of the Ghostly apparition; he vows to watch with them that night and speak to it.

King Claudius and his new bride worry over Hamlet’s odd behavior; Gertrude correctly guesses that he is upset over his father’s death and their “o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.57), a surmise which suggests that the queen feels some twinge of guilt over her recent actions. The royal couple press Hamlet to stay in Denmark at court, and not return to his studies in Wittenberg. Claudius’s motives are, of course, ulterior: to spy on Hamlet in order to learn the true cause of his madness, again suggesting that Claudius has some cause to fear retribution from his nephew/son. Perhaps incredibly, Hamlet agrees to their request to remain, even before he vows to avenge his father’s death. Why he would stay in an environment he finds uncomfortable and distasteful is a puzzle, unless we assume filial obedience as his overriding motive. More likely, however, this turn of events is another instance of the inexorable workings of fate, bringing together all the “actors” in some cosmic drama, as later scenes will bear witness.