Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act II, Scene 1

The first part of this scene gets left out of a lot of productions because it's main purpose is to show that Polonius is a sneaky and suspicious guy who loves spying on people -- even his own son.  That will make his actions in later scenes seem very in character, but overall it's not all that important.  Polonius tells Reynaldo to go to Paris and ask around about what Laertes has been up to -- it seems that Laertes might be getting into some mischief.  Remember that Ophelia warned him not to give her advice to behave herself and then go be all bad-boy himself.  I don't know what he's been getting into, but here Polonius seems to think that gambling, drinking, and whoring are not out of the question.  College kids, I tell you!  They don't change much, do they?

One part of that exchange with Reynaldo does make me laugh, though -- when Polonius loses his train of thought.  That is unabashedly funny.

And then things turn darker again.  In comes Ophelia, all freaked out because Hamlet just approached her with his jacket undone, his stockings down around his ankles (one hopes he still had pants of some sort on!), and acting very oddly.  How oddly?  He didn't speak a word!  And we all know that Hamlet loves him some words.  Is this the beginning of his pretending to be mad, sort of a trial run to see how people react?  Is he actually still pretty weirded out by the whole Ghost encounter, and seeking out a sympathetic person?  Is he trying to freak Ophelia out on purpose to start pushing her away and get her to stop loving him?  

Ophelia has very obediently stopped talking to Hamlet or let him visit her, just as Polonius told her to do.  She's afraid that this has caused Hamlet's strange behavior -- that he's going mad because he can't have her.  What a horrible burden for her!  Poor thing, thinking that by obeying her father she's causing the man she evidently loves to go mad.  I feel quite awful for Ophelia through this whole play -- she's constantly ordered around.

Gielgud feels that that off-stage scene she describes "must have been an attempt to seduce her forcibly" (JGDRBIH p. 58).  I'm not entirely convinced, though perhaps Hamlet was trying to make that statement -- if you don't let Ophelia be with me peaceably and nicely, I'll be with her not so peaceably and nicely?  More a statement for Polonius than anyone else, maybe?  The stockings down do insert a sense of indecency into that scene, though Hamlet's purpose is debatable.  

Anyway, Hamlet's acting weird and has scared Ophelia, and Polonius is the first one to use the word "mad" in the play, and to suggest that Hamlet is mad.  He gets the reason all wrong, but whatever.  Off he goes to report to Claudius, but although he tells Ophelia to come along with him, she's not in the next scene.  Probably he sent her to her room to cry.

Favorite Lines:

"This is the very ecstasy of love" (99).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you think Hamlet is mad when he accosts Ophelia?  What do you think his purpose was to behave and appear that way toward her?


Please note that the next scene is really long and complicated, so I will probably split it into a couple of posts.  Go ahead and read the whole thing in one go, but don't be alarmed when I do more than one post on it.

16 comments:

  1. I think that Hamlet was putting on the crazy act. After all, he warned Horatio in the previous scene that he might have to act strangely/ madly. In all likelihood, his aim was to have word get back to Claudius that his nephew/ stepson had become unbalanced. It would be easy for him to fool poor credulous Ophelia, and she was obviously going to tell her father, since she had been following his advice for dealing with Hamlet (refusing to see him, etc.). And since Polonius was always toadying to the king, Hamlet would know that he'd run to Claudius with news of Hamlet's supposed madness.

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    1. Lynn, I agree. I think it was his first try at playing mad, and he was trying to figure out far to take things. Like you said, he would know that Ophelia would tell Polonius, and that Polonius would instantly run off to tell Claudius. He's a clever boy, this Hamlet.

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  2. Hehe, this was a very strange scene. I can see why the first part is sometimes left out, especially considering all the excitement that bookends it, makes it a little boring by comparison. I do like the bit where he loses his train of thought though!

    Based on the last scene where Hamlet says that they would see him act strangely and that they shouldn't say anything or act like they know something, I would agree that he is 100% pretending and calculating. Haha, I feel like if he were really at all crazy he would still talk, but he knows not talking is one of the strangest things he could do! :P

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    1. Sarah, yes, it's kind of disjointed, isn't it? It flows really well to leave it out and go from Hamlet saying he's going to act crazy to Ophelia reporting that he is, indeed, acting crazy.

      I sort of forget about the first part sometimes, especially if it's been a long time since I've read/seen the play. The first time I saw the DVD of the stage version with Richard Burton as Hamlet, Hume Cronyn was so convincing there as Polonius that I thought he really had forgotten his lines! Laugh-out-loud funny.

      That's a good point that he might be deliberately not talking to point out that he's not himself! Hamlet is a student of theater, and his encounter with Ophelia certainly sounds very theatrical, doesn't it?

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  3. I too think that this scene was Hamlet starting his madness act. His uncle would probably be more prone to believe it if he heard about it from several sources.
    I did find it a bit funny that Polonius right away contributed it to love.

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    1. Rose, yes, it's pretty funny not only that Polonius immediately and constantly is convinced this is all about love. And he says several times that he himself suffered a lot for love, so that makes me wonder about his own back story. We know absolutely zero about his wife.

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  4. You know, I think I'm going to have to put this read-along on hold for a bit because 1) I've started yet another course (this time in world Literature) with my grandfather and 2) NaNoWriMo approaches. :( I'd really love to keep doing this along with everyone else, but I don't think I'll be able to fit it in just right now. But I'll get back to the play as soon as I possibly can!

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    1. Eva, that's a shame :-( What, this doesn't fit into World Literature? Hope to see you catching up eventually!

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    2. Actually, the Shakespeare we'll be studying is Hamlet, so I'll do some catching up, then. :) And I'll probably end up just forging on anyway and reading on with the readalong after all, because I hate falling behind on anything. :P

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    3. Eva, that's awesome! Please be sure to share any insights your grandfather has :-)

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  5. Hamlet not saying a word. I must agree, that is very odd.

    I am very curious to why Hamlet did accost Ophelia. I can see why productions leave this scene out. I'm slightly confused by it, and I wish I could pin down Hamlet's character. That way I could understand some of the reasons why he is acting so strange besides the ghost. What does Ophelia have to do with the ghost?

    Oh! One more thing. I do not like Polonius and even though I don't know what happens to him, I think that is going to be my final opinion of him. Actually, not liking him might turn into extreme dislike, but I have to see what else he does. That is interesting how he was the first one to put the label Hamlet as mad. I wonder if he was trying to find something wrong with Hamlet when he heard that he was in love with Ophelia, and now I'm completely suspicious of him.

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    1. Ekaterina, most productions include what's in the text here, but don't act out the scene she describes. I know the Mel Gibson movie version does act it out, and some of the others do too -- depends on the director's vision, I guess. It's easier to do with a movie where you can do a voice-over of Ophelia narrating the scene, or cut between locations easily without having to do a big scene change.

      Hamlet remains a bit of a cipher even when you've studied this play for decades. However, mostly he's acting weird and wacky because he's trying to convince everyone but Horatio that he is going crazy, and he's using that madness as a disguise to allow him to try to get information and test this theory that Claudius killed his father.

      So Ophelia has nothing at all to do with the Ghost, but everything to do with Hamlet trying to convince people he's going crazy and is not to be held responsible for what he does or says. As Lynn pointed out above, Hamlet probably knew that Ophelia would report his actions to Polonius, who would immediately run and inform Claudius, so Hamlet knows Claudius will pretty instantly hear that he's acting nutty without Hamlet having to get anywhere near Claudius.

      Polonius isn't a very likable character, nor is he meant to be, I will say that much.

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    2. Thanks for explaining. Sometimes when I'm reading the play, I don't really understand everything fully, so it's nice to read your posts about the scenes. They usually clear some of the clouds in my head.

      No wonder why so many people like Hamlet then. If he remains a bit of a cipher, then that means that there is more to talk about after you read the play. That's a good sign. I tend to like movies and books I can later discuss continually with my mom. We have an ongoing conversation comparing different adaptations of different books like Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and Great Expectations. Maybe Hamlet will be added to the list, once we watch a couple of versions. :-)

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    3. Ekaterina, that's what's so great about read-alongs -- we can pool our thoughts and learn from each other! I know I would never have understood as much of The Silmarillion if I hadn't been reading it for a read-along and had other bloggers explaining stuff to me.

      Yes, Hamlet is an almost boundless character -- he's so complex and so intelligent that he's almost too big to be contained in a play. Which is why he's so universally fascinating, I think -- we can all find some part of him we relate to, some part we admire, some part we want to study. After spending more than half my life thinking about him, I still don't feel like I totally get him.

      That's cool that you and your mom like to discuss and compare different versions of things! I really enjoy doing that too, but different things with different people -- I don't have one person who digs them all.

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  6. I think it's a bit of a shame that the earlier part of this scene with Polonius and Reynaldo gets left out so much because I think it adds a lot to Polonius. He may be a "tedious old windbag" - I love that expression you used! So true! - but this scene clearly shows that he can be cunning and dangerous. You can definitely see why he's Claudius's right-hand man here and understand why Hamlet decided that he had to adopt an "antic disposition" to protect himself. And I believe that Hamlet is being calculating to Ophelia in this scene as well, it seems that everyone is in agreement about this.

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    1. Hannah, I agree -- this scene really gives us a great sense of how sneaky and subtle Polonius is. Sometimes I suspect his nonsensical wordiness is all a facade.

      (Lol -- Hamlet calls Polonius a "tedious old fool," so I kind of was paraphrasing him there.)

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