Scene 2.2 - In a Lobby on the Upper Floor of the Castle
Claudius welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, former classmates of Hamlet, to the Danish court. They have been summoned, the King continues, to help discover what is ailing the much-changed Hamlet. The King's instructions to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are akin to those Polonius has given to Reynaldo: they are to spend time hanging out with Hamlet, gaining his trust, and then hopefully Hamlet will unburden his heart to them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern readily agree to the plan and are brought to Hamlet.
Polonius enters to announce the return of the ambassadors to Norway, but also (and, in his mind, more importantly) to announce his discovery of the cause for Hamlet's lunacy. Claudus, intrigued, wants to hear news of the latter first but Polonius makes him wait, the better to hype the import of his recent findings. Gertrude, in Polonius' absence, doubts aloud that the root of Hamlet's distemper is anything other than the obvious: his father's death and her overhasty marriage. The ambassadors meanwhile arrive to report that the young Fortinbras was indeed planning an attack against Denmark, though the elder Fortinbras had mistakenly supposed it was aimed at Poland. The elder thus rebuked the younger, forbade him ever to war with Denmark, and commissioned instead an invasion of Poland. As Denmark lies between Norway and Poland, the elder Fortinbras has asked Claudius' permission for the troops to pass through Danish territory.
Extremely pleased, Claudius says he will answer the petition later, for he is at the end of his patience in waiting to hear Polonius' report on Hamlet. Polonius is tickled to be center stage and promises to be brief in his account - "since brevity is the soul of wit" - but he just isn't quite the master rhetorician that he fancies himself. He babbles at length, even after Gertrude interrupts him with an impatient "More matter with less art" (i.e. "Give me substance, not flowery phrases!"). Quoting a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, Polonius declares that Hamlet's affectionate words to his daughter betray an obsessive and unrequited love. The words he reads aloud seem quite natural to a young lover, so Polonius finds it necessary to explain further: Ophelia, having followed her father's commands, has exasperated Hamlet by ignoring his advances, to the point where the love-sick Hamlet has now lost his mind. The King and Queen are neither convinced nor unconvinced by Polonius' diagnosis. They therefore agree to observe in secret an interaction between Hamlet and Ophelia.
Hamlet suddenly turns up on stage, reading a book, and Polonius asks to be left alone with him. Polonius immediately perceives a lack of coherence in Hamlet's speech that reminds him of his own love-madness when he was young. But as the conversation progresses, Polonius slowly realizes that Hamlet's words are no more random than nonsensical: Hamlet knows full well what he is saying, and he has a particular purpose in mind. Polonius - who famously remarks, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." - just doesn't know what or why. Taking his leave to plan the meeting between Hamlet and his daughter, Polonius exits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter.
After greeting his friends, Hamlet seeks to find out the cause for their unexpected return to the jail-like Denmark. They deny that Denmark is a prison, but Hamlet insists that for him at least it is so. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to persuade Hamlet that they have just dropped in for a visit, but they are not quick to come clean: Hamlet must ask them repeatedly if the King and Queen sent for them before they finally admit it. Then he goes on to explain why they were summoned - because of his most strange transformation - while also reassuring them that he will not betray to the King and Queen his knowledge of their mission. Hamlet attempts to explain his metamorphosis: though man be noble and angelic, even god-like, and though the world be beautiful, Hamlet confesses that he finds everything no more than the "quintessence of dust." It is all meaningless to him. Man doesn't delight Hamlet, and he hastens to add - noticing Rosencrantz's wry smile - that neither does woman, lest his comment be misunderstood as a statement of sexual preferences. Rosencrantz clarifies that with his smile he meant nothing of the sort, but rather that he was envisioning the difficulty the players who have come to entertain the court will encounter given Hamlet's melancholy.
Introduced by Polonius, the players enter and are officially welcomed to Elsinore by Hamlet. He asks them to perform a speech on the spot, to give a foretaste of their acting abilities. When asked what they should perform, Hamlet suggests Aeneas' tale to Dido about the slaughter of Priam. The choice is, of course, anything but coincidental. The son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, is summoned to the Trojan War to avenge his father's death at the hands of Priam - a situation strikingly similar to Hamlet's own. The first player brilliantly performs a long soliloquy, even conjuring up tears and turning pale during it. As the players leave, Hamlet pulls one of them aside and requests that they perform The Murder of Gonzago the following day; the player consents, further agreeing to memorize and insert a short speech that Hamlet will supply. Mightily moved by the player's poignant performance, Hamlet is equally horrified: how is it that a mere player, who has no "motive or cue for passion" as Hamlet does, can so convincingly act on his feelings? Hamlet is tortured by the fact that he cannot seem to act on his: "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here, / But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his own conceit / .Yet I, / A dull and muddy-meddled rascal, peak / Like a John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, / And can say nothing ./ Am I a coward?" Hamlet is suffering from paralysis of analysis, unsure whether to trust the ghost or not, thinking too much and acting too little. He therefore resolves to use the play as a test of Claudius' guilt or innocence, having once heard the guilty will react inadvertently to what they see on stage - in essence, they will make a physical (but unspoken) confession. Announcing "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King," Hamlet settles on having a scene resembling the murder of his father staged before his uncle.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7