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Within the castle, Claudius and Gertrude welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s friends from Wittenberg. Increasingly concerned about Hamlet’s erratic behavior and his apparent inability to recover from his father’s death, the king and queen have summoned his friends to Elsinore in the hope that they might be able to cheer Hamlet out of his melancholy, or at least discover the cause of it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to investigate, and the queen orders attendants to take them to her “too much changed” son (II.ii.36).
Polonius enters, announcing the return of the ambassadors whom Claudius sent to Norway. Voltimand and Cornelius enter and describe what took place with the aged and ailing king of Norway: the king rebuked Fortinbras for attempting to make war on Denmark, and Fortinbras swore he would never again attack the Danes. The Norwegian king, overjoyed, bequeathed upon Fortinbras a large annuity, and urged him to use the army he had assembled to attack the Poles instead of the Danes. He has therefore sent a request back to Claudius that Prince Fortinbras’s armies be allowed safe passage through Denmark on their way to attack the Poles. Relieved to have averted a war with Fortinbras’s army, Claudius declares that he will see to this business later. Voltimand and Cornelius leave.
Turning to the subject of Hamlet, Polonius declares, after a wordy preamble, that the prince is mad with love for Ophelia. He shows the king and queen letters and love poems Hamlet has given to Ophelia, and proposes a plan to test his theory. Hamlet often walks alone through the lobby of the castle, and, at such a time, they could hide behind an arras (a curtain or wall hanging) while Ophelia confronts Hamlet, allowing them to see for themselves whether Hamlet’s madness really emanates from his love for her. The king declares that they will try the plan. Gertrude notices that Hamlet is approaching, reading from a book as he walks, and Polonius says that he will speak to the prince. Gertrude and Claudius exit, leaving Polonius alone with Hamlet.
Polonius attempts to converse with Hamlet, who appears insane; he calls the old man a “fishmonger” and answers his questions irrationally. But many of Hamlet’s seemingly lunatic statements hide barbed observations about Polonius’s pomposity and his old age. Polonius comments that while Hamlet is clearly mad, his replies are often “pregnant” with meaning (II.ii.206). He hurries away, determined to arrange the meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia.
As Polonius leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, and Hamlet seems pleased to see them. They discuss Hamlet’s unhappiness about recent affairs in Denmark. Hamlet asks why they have come. Sheepishly, the two men claim they have come merely to visit Hamlet, but he sternly declares that he knows that the king and queen sent for them. They confess this to be true, and Hamlet says that he knows why: because he has lost all of his joy and descended into a state of melancholy in which everything (and everyone) appears sterile and worthless.
Rosencrantz smiles and says he wonders how Hamlet will receive a theatrical troupe that is currently traveling toward the castle. The trumpets blow, announcing the arrival of the actors (or “players”). Hamlet tells his friends they are welcome to stay at Elsinore, but that his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” are deceived in his madness. He is mad only some of the time and at other times is sane.