I have so much to say about this scene that I am splitting it into two posts. This first post will deal with lines 1-312, ending where it says "Enter Polonius." I'll discuss the rest of the scene in the next post.
And so the spying begins in earnest. We got a taste of it in the previous scene, with Polonius sending Reynaldo to spy on Laertes, but now Claudius is sending Hamlet's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him and try to find out why he's acting all nutty. And Claudius hasn't even heard about Hamlet accosting Ophelia yet! But already he's worried about Hamlet's "transformation," saying that neither Hamlet's "exterior nor the inward man Resembles that it was" (6-7). He and Gertrude flatter and bribe Guildenstern and Rosencrantz into agreeing to try to tease the truth from Hamlet. Nice friends, huh? And nice parents, too! Yeesh.
Gertrude knows her son well, though. She's convinced his antics stem from "his father's death and our hasty marriage" (57). Claudius should just listen to her and not bother with all these little sneaky tricks. Paranoid much, Claudius?
And then here comes Polonius to suggest another reason for Hamlet's behavior: despised love. Polonius told Ophelia to reject Hamlet, and now Hamlet's acting all odd, so surely that must be the reason! Gertrude thinks that might be true, though she doesn't sound convinced.
Also in here we get the news that hey, guess what? Young Fortinbras was totally planning to try to take over Denmark. Happily, those messengers Claudius sent to Fortinbras' uncle got there just in time to alert him to Fortinbras' schemes, and so now Fortinbras has agreed to attack Poland again. Yay! Warmonger diverted. Though he wants to march through Denmark on his way to Poland... surely there's no harm in that, right? Okay, good, let's get back to the whole Hamlet problem.
So Hamlet sent a love letter to Ophelia, and Polonius decides he needs to critique Hamlet's writing style. Actually, I remember reading once, so long ago that I can't remember anymore where I read it, that the whole "'beautified' is a vile phrase" (110) thing might have been a dig from Shakespeare at one of his fellow playwrights. That playwright had been mocking or denigrating one of Shakespeare's plays, and then written something that had the phrase "beautified" featured prominently in it, so Shakespeare is mocking him back here too. I can't remember anymore at all where I read that, or who the other playwright was, alas, but I thought it was a cool idea.
Look at me, I'm getting as bad at going off on tangents as Polonius. He reads them the letter, he discusses how he's told Ophelia to reject Hamlet, and he and Claudius hatch yet another plan to spy on Hamlet. The poor guy! Spied on from every angle. In fact, Polonius kind of tries to sound him out here himself, asking him about what he's reading and so on. Hamlet warns him to keep an eye on Ophelia, and then he says "Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive -- friend, look to 't" (181-82). I think there are two possible meanings here, but maybe you can think of others? Hamlet loves his double entendres and word play, so I think either he's saying, "Watch out because your daughter might get pregnant" or "Watch your daughter so she doesn't start thinking about things she shouldn't." Maybe even start realizing what a fool her father is? Polonius seems to take the former view, as he uses the word "pregnant" in line 204, and the phrase "be delivered of" on line 207.
Okay, so then Guildenstern and Rosencrantz enter, and while Hamlet was kinda wild and antic around Polonius, he seems pretty normal with them, though he keeps up the wordplay. They seem to think his whole joke about Fortune's private parts to be pretty normal for him. But Hamlet seems to have suspected their appearance from the first, and he gets them to admit that Claudius and Gertrude have sent them to watch him because he's acting oddly. He gives them some reasons for it, and falls to musing about the worthlessness of the world and people.
Depending on whether your copy follows a Quarto or a Folio edition, you might be missing a chunk or two of the scene -- my copy has them at the back of the book, and I can flip to them there. (For an explanation of the whole "Folio vs. Quarto" thing, this page explains it pretty well.) The first is the part where Hamlet calls Denmark a prison, which I find really important. As John Gielgud says, "[a]ll the people in the play are shut up in this castle... There is this curious feeling... that they are all really locked in the castle, in a miasma of corruption and sensuality" (John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet p. 17). Hamlet can't leave -- Claudius has as much as told him he's under house arrest -- and Hamlet doesn't know who's listening in on him, who's watching him. These old friends of his are being used against him, and soon Ophelia will be -- and of course, we the audience are also in a way spying on him. Hamlet as a play, and Hamlet as a character, are all consumed with acting, pretending, playing -- they demand an audience, and we fill that role for the play, while many of the other characters, especially Horatio, fill it for Hamlet.
With all the spying going on, I start feeling sort of claustrophobic and worried. To quote Gielgud again, "They're bad, shallow people, the people in this play. All except Hamlet, Horatio, the Gravedigger, and the Player King. They all have a zestful superficiality which should create a feeling of corruption" (JGDRBIH p. 91). Elsinore is not a pleasant place to be at this point.
And here come more people to fill up this castle! Rosencrantz calls them "the tragedians of the city," and it's understood that this is supposed to be the King's Men, Shakespeare's own company. The second part my edition is "missing" is where R&G tell Hamlet that there's a company of child actors that is really popular right now, and so this troupe of tragedians is travelling around to find audiences. When Shakespeare wrote this, there really was such a troupe of child thespians who were very fashionable and caused a big stir in London's theater world -- your edition probably has notes about this too. Just another instance of Shakespeare inserting the real world into his play -- the line "Hercules and his load too" is supposed to refer to the Globe Theater too, as Hercules holding up the earth was the sort of logo of the Globe.
Hamlet's super happy that his favorite acting troupe has arrived, and that's where we're going to stop right now. I hope to post the next part tomorrow -- right now, I need to go get ready to head to the movie theater and see the telecast of Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in... Hamlet! More about that tomorrow too :-D
"...brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes" (90-91).
"That he is mad, 'tis true. Tis true, 'tis pity,
And pity 'tis 'tis true" (97-98).
"To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand" (175-76).
"Words, words, words" (189). (I very much wanted to use that line as the title for this blog when I created it, but it and many variations of it were already taken.)
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" (201-02).
"Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks; but I thank you" (236-37).
"...there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (244-45).
"A dream itself is but a shadow" (253).
"What a piece of work is man: how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties; in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how line an angel; in apprehension how like a god -- the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" (267-72)
"Oh, there has been much throwing about of brains" (323).
Possible Discussion Questions:
What do you think of Hamlet's letter to Ophelia? Does he mean she shouldn't doubt that he loves her, or is he saying she should? "Doubt" could mean "suspect" here, which would make "never doubt I love" (117) mean "never suspect I love." Or it could mean "hesitate to believe," which would mean "never hesitate to believe I love." And Hamlet sent her this letter recently, so did he suspect it would be shown to her father and then Claudius and Gertrude?