Hamlet Act II

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Clearly some time has passed since the first act. Enough time that Ophelia has been able to rebuff Hamlet’s attentions, for Hamlet to “go insane,” and for his royal parents to send off for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to come from abroad. Maybe a few weeks? A couple months? Hamlet still hasn’t done anything to avenge his father’s death, and he’s starting to feel worthless. He’s not quite sure whether his father’s ghost is a demon sent to tempt Hamlet into a wrongful act, but he feels like he ought to believe the ghost’s story. And he ought to have acted on it. When the troupe of actors arrives, Hamlet thinks this is his chance to throw a wrench in Claudius’ gears – to make him betray his guilty conscience in an unguarded moment. Hamlet admonishes himself for his weakness – he ought to act on his vengeful instincts, but he lacks the courage. 

Some questions that I’m thinking about while reading this: 

First, I wanted to see for myself whether I thought Ophelia was a virgin or not. (Remember in my notes on the introduction by Harold Jenkins I said that Jenkins believed Ophelia died a virgin.) During Hamlet’s discussion with Polonius, Hamlet first compares Polonius to a fishmonger. According to Jenkins, the daughters of fishmongers are seen as having more than ordinary propensity to breed. Hamlet then says: “Let her not walk i’th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, / but as your daughter may conceive – friend, look to’t.” Now, outwardly, Hamlet referred “conception” to the breeding of maggots under the sun (from an earlier line), but how can there be any question that Hamlet meant also to suggest that Ophelia might conceive a child? But does Hamlet mean “Don’t let her out, or something bad might happen to her.” Or does he mean “Don’t let her out, because everyone will soon be able to see she’s pregnant.” I guess that’s open to interpretation. Later in the scene, Hamlet compares Polonius to the Hebrew judge Jephthah, who sacrificed his virgin daughter. That might be a hint that she’s still a virgin, and that Polonius is endangering her.

My second question was whether Hamlet is feigning madness or was really mad. I can see why many people believe he was only feigning madness – his “mad” ranting during this act was calculated to mock Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. There was a method to his madness. 🙂 But, as far as I’m concerned, the phrase “fake it till you make it” applies in Hamlet’s case. He certainly had enough to go mad over…

Polonius and Reynaldo
The Royal Shakespeare Production 2009
Directed by Gregory Doran
Act II, Scene i: The act starts with Polonius instructing his man Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. A very untrusting father, is Polonius. As soon as that important business is through, Ophelia dashes in to tell her father about a shocking encounter with Hamlet. The prince has apparently entered her chamber uninvited, grabbed Ophelia by the arm and creepily stared at her. Then he turned and left the room – eyes cast over his shoulder to gaze fixedly upon the distraught maiden. Polonius gets excited…not only has he discovered the reason for Hamlet’s madness (which the King and Queen want to know), but he now has the opportunity to say “Look! I did everything I could to discourage this mis-match, but the Prince is still in love with my daughter…perhaps they ought to marry?” *gleeful aspirations shine in eyes*

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern 
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Act II, Scene ii: Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived in from abroad, and Claudius and Gertrude are asking them to check on Hamlet – to discover the reasons for his madness and perhaps soothe the melancholy prince. When they leave in search of Hamlet, Polonius comes with their messengers, newly arrived from Norway. The messengers tell Claudius that Fortinbras’ uncle has admonished the prince for threatening war with Denmark, but upon Fortinbras’ apology, his uncle has furnished the prince with more money for his army and told him to attack Poland instead. They now ask Claudius’ permission for Fortinbras’ army to cross through Denmark on the way to Poland.

Hmmm. Does someone smell a ploy? They’re just going to allow Fortinbras’ army to cross through Denmark? Oh well, it’s their kingdom. 

After the messengers have been thanked and sent away, Polonius tells the royal couple that Hamlet has gone mad with love for Ophelia. They decide to test this theory later by setting Ophelia loose on Hamlet. (Poor Ophelia.) Then Hamlet walks in. Polonius has a rather nonsensical conversation with Hamlet, partly because Polonius isn’t very clever and partly because Hamlet is playing with Polonius’ mind. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk in. The nonsensical conversation continues with them (and for the same reasons). *Why do Claudius and Gertrude keep sicing idiots on Hamlet? What do they hope to achieve?* Finally, a troupe of actors arrives, and Hamlet decides to use them as bait for Claudius’ guilty conscience.

2 thoughts on “Hamlet Act II

  1. That's an interesting analysis, really. I myself believe Hamlet just pretends to be mad. The remark, “There's method in it,” and also Hamlet's cunning acts makes me think that he's not as crazy as people think he is. He's just a bit depressed. But then, it's just my interpretation.


  2. That's what I always believed too. I'm really just trying to explore other options at the moment, I haven't made up my mind yet. In fact, I don't think I ever will, because I don't think it matters. It's all interpretation, right? I like leaving things like that open. 🙂


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