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.
"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.