Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act II, Scene 2 -- Part One

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

Favorite Lines:

"...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?


  1. This scene was quite a mouthful, probably a good thing to split it in 2.
    There sure is a lot of plotting and spying, it couldn't have been much fun to live in that castle. I liked the whole "Denmark is a prison" dialogue, I fitted well into the former theme that Hamlet wanted to leave but wasn't allowed to.

    My favourite line of this scene is actually delievered by the queen when she answers one of Polonius' longwinded speeches with "More matter, with less art." I like her, she sees through the rethoric and is in general pretty clear sighted in this scene.

    1. Rose, I agree! Not a pleasant place to live. Presumably Polonius is an incurable snoop and has been spying on everyone all the time, even before all this unpleasantness.

      Gertrude is intriguing, isn't she? Privately she tells Claudius she think Hamlet's problem is his father's death and their hasty marriage, but when Polonius attributes it to rejected love, she says that's very possible. Is she changing her mind? Or just keeping her true views between her and Claudius? She's not dumb, that's for sure.

  2. Polonius is such an amusing character. :D

    And I think I'm getting the impression that the queen really is innocent here...

    This may be a weird or dumb question, but up until this scene, the lines have been in like a poem format, with every line capitalized and everything, but after the king and queen exit, it's just normal paragraphs all of a sudden. Is there a particular reason for that?

    1. Sarah, yes, he is. Kinda creepy, but amusing.

      Not a dumb question! Shakespeare hops back and forth from writing in blank or rhyming verse which is that poem format, and prose, which is what it switched to here. When he's using the verse format, he sticks to writing in iambic pentameter -- 11 syllables per line, roughly. "Pentameter" means 5 sets of two-syllable pairs, and "iambic" means one extra syllable on the end. This is very rhythmic and easy to memorize, and there's something magical about the 11 syllables that mimics human speech while also elevating it. Also, the pairs of syllables are meant to be said with the emphasis on the second syllable of each pair, which gives actors clues as to which words are important when they perform. "the TIME is OUT of JOINT, oh CURsed SPITE that EVer I was BORN to SET it RIGHT." That clues the actor in that certain words are important, "time" and "out" and so on. Of course you don't want to do a strict sing-song reading of it, but it helps them (and us readers) figure out what's more important in a line.

      The rhyming seems a little arbitrary sometimes, but he often uses it to emphasize an idea or to show that a character is somehow special. His otherworldly characters like the witches in Macbeth and the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream rhyme a lot. And his more educated or intelligent characters are more likely to rhyme than lower ones.

      IIRC it was customary to write plays in verse when Shakespeare was writing, and his extensive use of prose was rather unusual or innovative. I think he deliberately shifts to it to emphasize a change within a scene or character. For instance, here Hamlet is speaking in prose to Polonius -- is he expressing contempt for Polonius, or using it as part of his playing madness? Polonius is using it too, so is he expressing contempt for Hamlet, or mimicking him? Hamlet and R&G also use it, and they're old friends, probably being casual.

      So basically, verse gets used for heightened emotion, important things, important people. Prose gets used for more casual conversation or lower classes.

      (Cowboy, however, holds that Shakespeare switches between rhyming verse, blank verse, and prose just to annoy him.)

      This explanation from the Royal Shakespeare Company says all of that and more, and says it better than I did, if you're still confused or curious.

    2. Thanks so much for this explanation! I did notice that the one seemed more formal then the other, but it makes SO much more sense now! :D

    3. Sarah, you're welcome! Glad it makes sense.

  3. I can't believe Shakespeare has so many levels! I think I am definitely going to have to read this again in a year. I think a year should be a good enough time to think about the play and ponder about it. There is so much!

    One more thing before I go to the play. I am really not liking Polonius. Maybe he conspired with Claudius to kill Hamlet's father, and now he plans to take the throne for himself. I don't know if this is going to happen. Claudius most likely did kill King Hamlet but since I don't trust the ghost, I am willing to think anyone did it.

    Poor Hamlet! Poor guy! His every move is noticed, he has to give a performance of being mad, and he has to do it perfectly. Oh, and some people a couple hundred years from now are watching you too because they are reading the play. I think that is so interesting, that the audience is also spying on Hamlet. I don't know if Shakespeare meant that intentionally, but it was really genius of him to add that element in the play. Now I feel as if I am more connected to the play because I am in the castle and spying on Hamlet. Ophelia is going to spy on him too!!!

    You were talking about how Hamlet needs an audience to act and pretend for and mentioned how especially Horatio fills in the place of the audience for Hamlet. Could you expound on that a little bit more? Does it mean that Horatio is the only one that knows that Hamlet is pretending to act mad so in that way, he is like us the audience?

    That is very strange that Claudius does not know about Hamlet accosting Ophelia. Hamlet already has the entire castle spying on him. How does Claudius not know about it yet. I wonder about Claudius. I am guessing that marrying your brothers wife is not considered sinful in Denmark (or maybe just in the castle). He is also acting as if he is not guilty. If he killed King Hamlet, wouldn't he be wracked with guilt, especially if he also married his wife. If marrying a brother's wife is considered alright, then it would be understandable if Claudius does not feel guilt. I guess this is part of the reason why I am beginning to think Polonius might have killed King Hamlet.

    I think everyone should listen to Queen Gertrude when it comes to her son. She is his mother, so she probably knows him best. Hint, hint, hint, to all the other character in the play. Actually when I was reading that section of the play, I was yelling at Polonius and Claudius when they were wondering the reason why Hamlet was acting so crazy, and the answer was right in front of them when Gertrude told them.

    I like how you wrote about how everyone is locked in the castle, both figuratively and actually. It makes me wonder if everyone is feeling the same way as Hamlet in a way. They are all locked up, not going into the world outside them, and maybe they feel the effects of that.

    1. Ekaterina, yes, now you see how I can have spent 18 years delving into this one play. Shakespeare was amazing.

      Some adaptations do have Polonius seeming to have been, if not a co-conspirator in the plot to kill King Hamlet, then definitely aware of what happened.

      I think Shakespeare definitely meant for us to start to feel like, "Hey, we're also basically spying on Hamlet in this play too." He was too smart a fellow not to have planned on us feeling that way.

      Yes, Horatio and Marcellus are the only ones who know Hamlet is going to pretend to be crazy, and Horatio is the only one he confides his suspicions about Claudius to. So Horatio definitely is almost like our signifier in the play -- we can put ourselves in his place very easily, as he watches much of what we watch. He's not privy to the soliloquies, but we're also not privy to any conversations between him and Hamlet that happen off-stage (such as when Hamlet tells him what the Ghost says, which he clearly did, given what they say to each other in Act III Scene 2). So it kind of evens out.

      According to the notes in the copy I'm using, in England it was considered to be incestuous to marry your sibling's surviving spouse after they died, but in Denmark it was not. And as for Claudius being wracked with guilt -- let's just say that Hamlet is not the only good actor in this castle.

      I think you're right that the other characters are feeling stifled and maybe a little claustrophobic about being in this castle together. Really, almost nobody ever gets to leave during the course of this play, except by dying -- even if they do leave, like Laertes, they tend to get sucked back in.

    2. Horatio is a signifier in the play. What exactly is a signifier?

      Hamlet's not the only good actor? Oh my! This is exciting, and it is kind of like a murder mystery.

      People are going to die too! (gasps and wonders) Well, it is a tragedy, so I guess I should expect that. I have a bad feeling that Hamlet's going to die. Please don't give anything away, and I hope that my feeling in very incorrect. I also hope that Ophelia doesn't die, she seems like a sweet girl, but definitely naive. Maybe she seems naive because she is very obedient to her father. I kind of hope that Polonius dies. Unfortunately, I wouldn't feel to bad if he did.

      Well, we do know that Young Fortinbras is just travelling through Denmark to get to Poland, so I hope some action occurs as he is travelling thorugh Denmark.

    3. Ekaterina, a signifier is like the physical symbol for an idea -- like the visual or physical representation of something else. It comes from the study of semiotics, which is all about symbols and what they mean, and how meanings get attached to things or images, and the difference between denotation (what something literally means) and connotation (what something metaphorically means, reminds people of, the emotions it evokes, stuff like that). So when I say that Horatio is a signifier, I mean that on the basic level, he's just a character in the play who is Hamlet's friend and confidant, but that on a metaphorical level, he's like the physical representation of the audience within the play. Does that make more sense?

      Yeah, Hamlet is very much a murder mystery, with Hamlet as detective. And, since it's a tragedy, there will be deaths. The only Shakespearean plays with a higher body count are King Lear and Titus Andronicus.


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