Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2 Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:04 Act 2, Scene 2 in Context
  • 0:28 Politics, Politics
  • 1:50 Conversations With Hamlet
  • 3:30 Quotes
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
In Act 2, Scene 2 of 'Hamlet,' we see the prince becoming more caught up by court politics. Claudius is worried about domestic policy, where Hamlet, whether mad or sane, is the greatest threat, and about foreign affairs. Polonius is convinced Hamlet's just lovesick. Hamlet himself hatches a plan.

Act 2, Scene 2 in Context

In this scene, the rising action of Hamlet's second act continues, as plots are set in motion that will culminate in the play's climax. Continuing from the previous scene, Shakespeare shows us the court of Denmark as a place both claustrophobic and corrupt. Everyone wants something from Hamlet, but he just wants clarity. The extent to which the balance of the prince's mind is disturbed remains an open question.

Politics, Politics

In the opening speech of Act 2, Scene 2, Claudius enthusiastically welcomes the play's most famous secondary characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to court. His mission: to get these men, childhood companions of Hamlet, to spy on him. This is just as creepy as it seems. That Claudius is concerned at the changes in Hamlet's behavior can be taken as a sign of a guilty conscience. The queen, Hamlet's mother, seconds her new husband's request, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern readily agree.

Everything seems to be going Claudius' way. When the ambassador Voltemand returns, he reassures the king that nothing threatens the peace between Norway and Denmark. Although Voltemand tells Claudius that there's only good news, the audience might be suspicious of the Norwegian king's claims that he thought his nephew Fortinbras was gathering soldiers for an attack against Poland, and he would definitely never dream of recapturing territory from Denmark. When Polonius says that he has no need to tell Claudius how kings should act, Shakespeare hints that while Polonius can't, someone should.

Polonius tells King Claudius and Queen Gertrude his own theory about Hamlet's odd behavior: that the prince is mad with love for Polonius' daughter, Ophelia. As evidence in support of his theory, Polonius reads aloud one of Hamlet's love letters, which he confiscated. The queen is reassured by Polonius' diagnosis of lovesickness; Claudius wants more proof.

Conversations with Hamlet

Polonius' attempt to interrogate Hamlet ends in absurdity. Shakespeare has Polonius using simple language, and calling Hamlet 'my lord' each time he addresses him. His conviction that he's humoring a madman couldn't be more clear. Hamlet, meanwhile, mocks Polonius so skillfully that the old man doesn't even notice.

When Polonius leaves Hamlet, he practically bumps into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they arrive. Throughout their conversation with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern echo each other and complete each other's thoughts, indicating their lack of independent initiative. They begin by trading dirty jokes with Hamlet, but quickly move on to philosophy and current events.

In conversation with his old acquaintances, Hamlet expresses both his pessimism about human nature, and his sense of being trapped. Like Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to humor Hamlet, suggesting that he only feels trapped at court because he's ambitious. Hamlet claims that he can't follow their logic, but then shows that he follows them only too well, correctly intuiting that they've been sent to check up on him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have to confer with each other before even responding to this. Fortunately for them, a troupe of traveling actors enters, providing a distraction.

Hamlet's interaction with the players forms a striking contrast with his careful conversations with the courtiers. For Polonius, who introduces them, Hamlet has only mockery. With the actors, though, who are powerless and homeless, Hamlet affectionately exchanges news and jokes. Their conversation poignantly highlights how out of place Hamlet feels in the court. It's the actors, too, who give Hamlet an idea: he'll force a confession from his uncle by having a play put on about his own father's murder.

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