Hamlet Act 2, Scene 1 Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:04 Act 2, Scene 1
  • 0:28 Polonius & Reynaldo
  • 1:44 Polonius & Ophelia
  • 3:33 Quotes
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Act 2, Scene 1 is a transitional scene in Shakespeare's ''Hamlet.'' In it, the action returns to the complex, deceitful world of the court. Polonius is shown to be conniving as well as stupid. As Hamlet reacts to his encounter with his father's ghost, Ophelia is the first to be affected.

Act 2, Scene 1

The opening of the second act of William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet gives the audience a break after the intense scene between Hamlet and his father's ghost. Polonius returns to the stage; his conversation provides some comic relief, but also reveals a darker side to his own character than was previously visible. Ophelia tells her father about an encounter with Hamlet that has left her deeply shaken.

Polonius and Reynaldo

As Act 2, Scene 1, opens, Polonius is giving his servant, Reynaldo, money and some letters to take to his son Laertes, who's recently gone back to studying in Paris. Polonius also asks Reynaldo to check up on Laertes' behavior. So far, fairly normal. But Polonius' instructions rapidly get weird: he asks Reynaldo to gradually zero in on Laertes by checking up on the Danish expat community in Paris. Then, he tells Reynaldo to pretend to only vaguely know Laertes, but to have heard that he's gambling, getting drunk, or going with prostitutes.

Reynaldo tries to hint that this seems like a really bizarre plan. He's worried that his inquiries might damage Laertes' reputation. Also, he doesn't really see the point of such an elaborate pretense. Polonius, however, remains adamant in the conviction that setting Reynaldo up as a spy is the best way to see if his son is behaving himself. Notably, this strategy makes clear Polonius' own hypocrisy, or failure to do as he advises. Although he told Laertes, in Act 1, Scene 3, to trust his own nature, he clearly doesn't trust his son enough to let him do so. His manipulations are typical of the complex court politics that shape Act 2.

Polonius and Ophelia

No sooner has Reynaldo, still skeptical, departed, than Ophelia enters. She is obviously upset; before she can even get a word out, her father is asking what's the matter. She tells her father that she was frightened, but then is silent long enough that Polonius asks 'With what, i' th' name of God?' Ophelia says that Hamlet came to find her in her private rooms. This is a big deal! As an unmarried young woman, Ophelia would have admitted only family members or close female friends to her chambers.

Not only was Hamlet breaking a social taboo by visiting Ophelia alone in her chambers, Ophelia says he looked 'As if he had been loosèd out of hell / To speak of horrors.' He didn't even speak, but held her by the wrist for a long time, while gazing at her as intensely as if he wanted to draw her. It's worth noting that this is a long encounter, suggesting that Ophelia isn't telling her father the whole story. Since Ophelia and Hamlet have a romantic history, of which Polonius disapproves, it's possible that she wasn't frightened, but says so to avoid her father's criticism. On the other hand, some interpretations of Act 2, Scene 1 have suggested that Hamlet sexually assaulted Ophelia during their off-stage meeting.

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