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Polonius enters to announce the arrival of the players, who follow him into the room. Hamlet welcomes them and entreats one of them to give him a speech about the fall of Troy and the death of the Trojan king and queen, Priam and Hecuba. Impressed with the player’s speech, Hamlet orders Polonius to see them escorted to guestrooms. He announces that the next night they will hear The Murder of Gonzago performed, with an additional short speech that he will write himself. Hamlet leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and now stands alone in the room.
He immediately begins cursing himself, bitterly commenting that the player who gave the speech was able to summon a depth of feeling and expression for long-dead figures who mean nothing to him, while Hamlet is unable to take action even with his far more powerful motives. He resolves to devise a trap for Claudius, forcing the king to watch a play whose plot closely resembles the murder of Hamlet’s father; if the king is guilty, he thinks, he will surely show some visible sign of guilt when he sees his sin reenacted on stage. Then, Hamlet reasons, he will obtain definitive proof of Claudius’s guilt. “The play’s the thing,” he declares, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.581–582).Read a translation of Act II, scene ii →
If Hamlet is merely pretending to be mad, as he suggests, he does almost too good a job of it. His portrayal is so convincing that many critics contend that his already fragile sanity shatters at the sight of his dead father’s ghost. However, the acute and cutting observations he makes while supposedly mad support the view that he is only pretending. Importantly, he declares, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.361–362). That is, he is only “mad” at certain calculated times, and the rest of the time he knows what is what. But he is certainly confused and upset, and his confusion translates into an extraordinarily intense state of mind suggestive of madness.
This scene, by far the longest in the play, includes several important revelations and furthers the development of some of the play’s main themes. The scene contains four main parts: Polonius’s conversation with Claudius and Gertrude, which includes the discussion with the ambassadors; Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius, in which we see Hamlet consciously feigning madness for the first time; Hamlet’s reunion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the scene with the players, followed by Hamlet’s concluding soliloquy on the theme of action. These separate plot developments take place in the same location and occur in rapid succession, allowing the audience to compare and contrast their thematic elements.
We have already seen the developing contrast between Hamlet and Laertes. The section involving the Norwegian ambassadors develops another important contrast, this time between Hamlet and Fortinbras. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the grieving son of a dead king, a prince whose uncle inherited the throne in his place. But where Hamlet has sunk into despair, contemplation, and indecision, Fortinbras has devoted himself to the pursuit of revenge. This contrast will be explored much more thoroughly later in the play. Here, it is important mainly to note that Fortinbras’s uncle has forbidden him to attack Denmark but has given him permission to ride through Denmark on his way to attack Poland. This at least suggests the possibility that the King of Norway is trying to trick Claudius into allowing a hostile army into his country. It is notable that Claudius appears indifferent to the fact that a powerful enemy will be riding through his country with a large army in tow. Claudius seems much more worried about Hamlet’s madness, indicating that where King Hamlet was a powerful warrior who sought to expand Denmark’s power abroad, Claudius is a politician who is more concerned about threats from within his state.
The arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the most enigmatic figures in Hamlet, is another important development. These two characters are manipulated by all of the members of the royal family and seem to exist in a state of fear that they will offend the wrong person or give away the wrong secret at the wrong time. One of the strangest qualities of the two men is their extraordinary similarity. In fact, Shakespeare leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern almost entirely undifferentiated from one another. “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,” Claudius says, and Gertrude replies, “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,” almost as though it does not matter which is which (II.ii.33–34). The two men’s questioning of Hamlet is a parody of a Socratic dialogue. They propose possibilities, develop ideas according to rational argument, and find their attempts to understand Hamlet’s behavior entirely thwarted by his uncooperative replies.