Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act II, Scene 2

Is Hamlet mad or only pretending? His actions are so realistic that some critics have argued his already-fragile sanity shattered on seeing his father’s ghost, or perhaps that his insanity actually created the ghost in the first place. Others, however, argue that his moments of lucidity are so grounded and insightful that he is in fact sane, if given to outbursts of irrationality – which make sense in the face of the loss he has recently suffered.

This is by far the longest scene in the play, and as such, it develops several of the play’s main themes. The scene can be broken into four main parts: Polonius’s conversation with Claudius and Gertrude; Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius; Hamlet’s reunion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the scene with the players, including Hamlet’s soliloquy on the difficulty of taking decisive action.

The first section, which includes the conversation with the ambassadors, sets up a contrast between Hamlet, the son of the recently-deceased king of Denmark, and Fortinbras, the son of the recently-deceased king of Norway. Although both are the sons of kings who have died and both have seen their uncles take the throne, Hamlet is frozen by despair and indecision, while Fortinbras is taking active steps to pursue his revenge. Although the contrast is developed more sharply throughout the play, in this scene the most important information is that Fortinbras’s uncle has forbidden him to attack Denmark, but has given him permission to pass through Denmark on his way to Poland – indicating that perhaps Claudius has been tricked into allowing an enemy army into his country. However, Claudius doesn’t seem to care; he’s far more interested in Hamlet’s madness.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s arrival is another major development. The pair exist in a state of constant bewilderment about what is going on and fear that they will offend someone. In the text, Shakespeare fails to distinguish between the pair except for their names, and in several places it appears that the characters can’t even tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apart.

The arrival of the players is the third significant event in this scene. They serve as a metaphor for life, which is sometimes indistinguishable from play-acting. Hamlet is amazed by the player-king’s ability to respond emotionally to a fiction about which he knows very little, while Hamlet himself is paralyzed by his lack of knowledge. In fact, most people do respond emotionally to situations before they have all the facts, but this is what Hamlet is deliberately preventing himself from doing. Ironically, Hamlet refuses to react emotionally but plans to trap the king by eliciting an emotional response – a reaction that, in Hamlet’s version of logic, could never be relied upon as truthful.