Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act II, Scene 1

The central event of Act I is the ghost’s demand that Hamlet avenge his death. This demand sets the action of the play into motion and gives Hamlet the idea of pretending to have gone mad in order to deceive his uncle and determine whether his uncle did in fact commit murder; this feigned insanity becomes Hamlet’s primary mode of interacting with others for most of the play.

Act I also introduces the concept of retributive justice – the idea that sin must be returned with punishment. The ghost’s argument is that Claudius, having sinned by committing murder, must be punished for his sin in order for Denmark to return to health. Retribution becomes a key component of the actions of various characters: it drives Claudius to guilt, Hamlet to avoiding suicide, and Laertes to rage after the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia.

The opening scene of Act II is divided into two parts. In the first, Polonius instructs Reynaldo to pretend to befriend Laertes in order to spy on him and glean his secrets – a clear parallel to Hamlet’s pretending to be mad in order to spy on Claudius and glean his secrets. He specifically instructs Reynaldo on how to ask leading questions, instructing him specifically in the play’s theme of using words to deceive or bend the truth.

Critics have debated for centuries whether Polonius is a doddering old fool or a clever manipulator. In this scene, Polonius displays elements of both, carefully instructing Reynaldo on how to manipulate Laertes but also regularly forgetting what he’s saying and wandering off on tangents. When Ophelia tells Polonius of Hamlet’s behavior, Polonius seems to believe Hamlet is mad but immediately rushes off to tell the king, which raises the question: who is manipulating whom?

In the second part of Scene I, Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet’s extremely odd behavior. Although we do not see this scene, Ophelia paints a clear picture of it, raising more questions: is Hamlet really faking madness here, or is he at least partly driven by a genuine love for Ophelia, who has spurned him? Both his mother’s marriage and Ophelia’s leaving him seem to have shattered Hamlet’s opinion of women, and throughout the play he expresses numerous misogynistic sentiments.

Finally, Polonius’s interpretation of the reason for Hamlet’s behavior, although oversimplified, does drive the plot for the next several scenes, including Claudius’s decision to spy on Hamlet.