Hamlet, Act 2


Act 2 is another long act, and 2.2. itself is more than 600 lines long. (The longest scene in Shakespeare?) 2.1 and 2.2 are artfully laid out: in both scenes a father figure instructs spies to report back about a son. This shows that in Denmark you can’t trust anybody: the fathers don’t think they can trust the sons, and the sons should not trust the fathers. (Hamlet already knows he shouldn’t trust Claudius, and he sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern right away.) The spying spreads more widely when Polonius plans to spy on Hamlet.

In previous readings I have found myself wondering whether Hamlet was play-acting or was really in emotional distress. The reported meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia now seems to be to be a piece of acting, designed to throw Claudius and Polonius off the track. They notice a “transformation,” and aren’t sure what to make of it. It’s “lunacy” or “distemper.” But even Claudius and Polonius think Hamlet might be up to something: there is some “method” in Hamlet’s “madness.” His replies are “pregnant.”

When Hamlet meets Ros. and Guild. he drops his antic manner, which seems to confirm that he has simply been acting. On the other hand, once he realizes that they are spying, he seems to put on another disguise: he has “lost all his mirth.” This appears to be an act, but it’s in fact rather similar to what Hamlet earlier said when he was alone, and how “weary, stale, flat, and dishonorable” everything seems. So on balance I think Shakespeare keeps the audience guessing.

Why does Hamlet tell R and G that Claudius and Gertrude are “deceived” (2.2.385)? Isn’t it his objective to keep them in the dark? Why does he say to R and G that he is only mad north by northwest?

Much of the long 2.2 is devoted to the traveling players. Hamlet is immediately interested. Does that mean that he is easily distracted from his purpose, or is he always planning and plotting? We hear a lot about children actors (a topical reference). And it’s appropriate for Hamlet, who is playing a part, to be interested in acting. But it does go on for rather a long time. I suspect that this scene is cut in modern productions, and is of less interest to a modern audience than an Elizabethan one.

Hamlet is interested in the speech about Pyrrhus killing Priam especially because at a crucial moment Pyrrhus “did nothing” and because of Hecuba’s clamor, and the weeping actor. It also appears that Hamlet already has a plan — to put on “The Murder of Gonzago.” This leads directly to “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I . . .” in which Hamlet berates himself for “saying nothing,” then swears vengeance, and then turns back on himself because the swearing is just “words” and not actions.

It’s odd that at 601 Hamlet seems to stumble on the idea that “the play’s the thing.” Had he not already at 547 proposed “The Murder of Gonzago”? Maybe we can resolve the inconsistency by deciding that at 548 he wanted to see the play privately to inspire himself to revenge, and at 601 now thinks that he should invite Claudius because he might well unintentionally reveal his guilt.

It’s also odd that at 611 Hamlet now speculates that the Ghost “may be a devil.” This is the first we’ve heard of this. He had previously concluded that the Ghost was indeed the spirit of his father, and a truth teller. Why does he now suddenly decide that the Ghost’s message needs to be confirmed? It’s moments like this that invite the audience to consider that Hamlet “delays” and seems to be hesitant to “act.”


I think Act III is even longer, almost 900 lines. The play must be one of the longest of Sh’s, and in performance it’s virtually always cut. We did see an uncut version some years ago in London, Branagh playing Hamlet, and I think it went for nearly five hours. I’m sure there’s much in Act 3 that would be cut, including some of “The Murder of Gonzago.” But the ending of the play within the play makes very clear why Claudius is so disturbed.

Yes, I think it was Maynard Mack who drew attention to the first line. Hamlet’s identity, and his state of mind, are surely a preoccupation of the play.

I may have overstated that the political background is conspicuous by absence, but it’s in an odd relation to the concern about Hamlet and the demand for revenge. In 2.1 Voltemand reports that Old Norway didn’t know that young Fortinbras intended an invasion of Denmark, but having now discovered it, presumably from Voltemand and Cornelius’ embassy, has received F’s assurance that he won’t undertake this. So Old Norway is so happy about this that he gives Fortinbras 60,000 crowns and permission to use his army against the Polacks and asks for permission to pass his army over Denmark. A recently hostile army, now 60,000 crowns richer, to pass over territory that Fortinbras just now intended to invade?! And Claudius says “it likes us well”! It may be rather negligent negotiation.

I think the reason Hamlet hasn’t succeeded his father is that Denmark is an elective monarchy, not hereditary, and Hamlet complains at some point that Claudius popped in between “the election” and himself. Claudius seems to promise his support for Hamlet, and Fortinbras wants to take over Denmark at the end. A coup or forcing the election?

Hamlet does seem rather cruel to Ophelia, though he later confesses that he loved her. But that cruelty must contribute to her eventual fate. And he gets even harsher with her in the following act, with the nunnery speech.

I don’t think Hamlet stumbles on the idea of “the play’s the thing”; he just delivers his sense that this will be a way of determining his course. He’s already asked the player if he could work in something he would write for the play, and his idea that the Ghost could be a devil he attributes to his own state of mind, which seems careful in view of his sense that he could be damned for action he is tricked into.
Yes, I think Hamlet veers back and forth between enacting his antic manner and seeming quite rational, even sometimes rather elated and witty, as with R & G and Horatio, and with the players as well.

I wonder what we are to make of all the metatheatricality, beginning with the “fellow in the cellerage” and continuing in his discussion with R & G about the earth being the “sterile promontory” – that’s the stage – and the heavens an “overhanging firmament,” an “excellent canopy,” and “majestical roof fretted with golden fire.” And of course all the discussion of the theatrical innovations are part of this. The long speech that Hamlet begins by quoting, which is taken up by the player, elicits Hamlet’s thoughts about motivation and acting and his self-blame about his own acting.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell