Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act I, Scene 2

Scene I ended with a sense of dark foreboding: a ghost is stalking the castle, indicating some kind of unrest or calamity about to befall Denmark. By contrast, Scene II opens inside the jovial court of Claudius, the brother of the recently-deceased king. Although Claudius begins by talking about his sadness over his brother's death, he switches almost immediately to happier topics, including his marriage, and he happily grants Laertes leave to go back to France.

The switch, however, is an uneasy one, leaving the audience with a sense of ambivalence about Claudius: how is it actually possible to grieve one's dead brother properly while also marrying his wife? This uncertainty creates an image of a court that is unbalanced and deeply weakened, particularly when added to the fact that the dead king's ghost – a symbol of social order gone awry – has been seen stalking the castle.

The sense of ambivalence deepens when Claudius attempts to give Hamlet some “fatherly advice” that amounts to telling Hamlet how to feel about his own father's death. This does not go over well, especially when Claudius has replaced Hamlet's father not only as king of Denmark, but also as the spouse of Hamlet's mother.

Hamlet responds to Claudius's advice only sparingly in Claudius's presence, but when left alone his actual feelings begin to come to the fore. He is despondent over his father's death, which is expected, but he blames his mother, not Claudius, for the “o'erhasty marriage.” This blame is the first in a series of scenes in which Hamlet blames various women for problems they have little logical connection to, building a motif of misogyny (irrational hatred of women) that runs throughout the play.

Hamlet is also presented as the only person at court who does not seem at all interested in going along with Claudius's takeover. His hesitation could be read in two ways. Hamlet may be the only “good” person at court – or he may be a malcontent who risks disrupting the social order by refusing to play along.

Finally, Hamlet's first soliloquy presents the idea of suicide, a theme that is developed throughout the play. In the Christian world of the play, committing suicide is a mortal sin that damns the person who commits it to an eternity in hell – but Hamlet continually experiences his own world as too painful to be borne. Hamlet will continue to explore the problem of death, damnation, and what happens in the afterlife throughout the play; the problem regularly stops him from acting decisively when he has the chance.

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