Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Summary of Act II, Scene 2

Gertrude and Claudius welcome two of Hamlet’s friends from Wittenburg, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The king and queen have summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the hopes that they can cheer Hamlet out of his melancholy and erratic behavior and perhaps even uncover the source of it. The two friends agree to help, and Gertrude asks an attendant to take them to Hamlet.

Polonius enters with the messengers, Cornelius and Voltemand, whom Claudius had dispatched to Norway. They announce that, upon hearing Claudius’s letter, the king of Norway ordered his nephew, Fortinbras, to stop making plans to attack Denmark and instead to focus his war plans on Poland.

Then, Polonius turns to the subject of Ophelia and Hamlet’s apparent madness. After rambling for several lines, he announces his theory that Hamlet is mad with love, reads several love letters from Hamlet to Ophelia, and proposes a plan to test his theory: he and Claudius will hide and watch as Ophelia confronts Hamlet in the empty hall. Hamlet will assume he and Ophelia are alone and will thus, presumably, act from his genuine emotions instead of from an intent to deceive. Claudius agrees to this plan.

Hamlet then enters, reading a book, and Polonius approaches him. Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger” and answers his questions irrationally, but Polonius comments that these replies are nonetheless “pregnant” with meaning.

As Polonius leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. Hamlet seems delighted to see them, and they ask how he is doing. The three discuss Hamlet’s disillusionment with Denmark, and Hamlet asks why his friends have come. Although they claim it was only to visit Hamlet, Hamlet states that he knows why they have come: because the king and queen sent for them. They confess this to be true, and Hamlet continues: they are there because he has lost all his joy and descended into a state of depression in which everything and everyone seems sterile, worthless, and pointless.

Rosencrantz then informs Hamlet that a theatre troupe has arrived at the castle. Hamlet welcomes them, then confesses to his friends: Gertrude and Claudius are deceived, and he is mad only part of the time; at other times, he is quite sane.

Polonius enters and announces the players’ arrival as the players also enter the room. Hamlet asks one of the players to give a speech about the fall of Troy and the death of the Trojan king and queen. The player does so, and Hamlet asks the troupe to give a play called “The Murder of Gonzago,” with some lines inserted by Hamlet himself. Hamlet’s goal is to create a trap for Claudius by using the play to show the same actions by which Claudius killed the late king. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave with the players.

As soon as he is alone, Hamlet begins cursing himself. He laments that the player who gave the speech was able to reach a depth of emotional expression for long-dead people who mean nothing to him, while Hamlet himself cannot take action even upon the murder of his own father. He decides to use the play to “catch the conscience of the king,” thus giving him definitive proof of Claudius’s guilt at last.