We start out with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting that they are really bad at spying and have no idea why Hamlet is acting so oddly. Claudius and Polonius prepare to spy on Hamlet themselves, since R&G failed so utterly. An offhand remark from Polonius prompts Claudius to give us our first real clue at to whether or not he is has committed some great sin. I love the way his aside ends there: "O heavy burden!" (53) Now we know Hamlet's not the only one brooding over a secret.
Then, here it is: the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy. One of the most famous passages in all of literature, and pretty central to the plot of this play. Of course, it's partly a musing on suicide -- Hamlet's thinking that just dying would be a lot easier than going on with this wretched revenge business. It's also a musing on one of the central themes of the play: action versus playacting. Will Hamlet lose not only "the name of action" (87), but the ability to act as well, or will his playacting at being mad, at not knowing how his father really died -- will that aid him in acting on the Ghost's information?
Some actors play this scene as quite suicidal, others have him more musing academically about death, some start out considering their own death and move on to thinking about life and death, acting and action in a broader sense. Marvelous writing that allows for so many interpretations, don't you think? I dearly love that soliloquy -- I memorized it after the very first time I read this play, and still can recite it nearly perfectly. So beautiful. (EDIT: I don't mean I read it through once and knew it perfectly. I mean after I finished reading the play, I went back and memorized the soliloquy. Took me days.)
I do find it interesting that he says "no traveler returns" (79), because hasn't the Ghost just returned from the dead, in a way? Maybe he means never fully returns.
And then here comes Ophelia, walking around with a book, just like Hamlet was doing a few scenes ago when Polonius accosted him. She's just pretending to read or pray ("orisons" means "prayers," so quite often she's shown reading a prayer book), just as Hamlet was earlier pretending to be mad. And this is generally my least-favorite scene ever. Because Hamlet is pretty cruel here, isn't he? I have a really hard time liking him here. He's very angry when he figures out she's walking there to bait him into talking so her father and his uncle can spy on him, but right from the first, he's denying he ever loved her, denying he gave her gifts or letters or whatever her "tokens" are. And telling her to go to a nunnery, which could mean just a convent, but was also slang for a brothel -- is he telling her he wants her to go shut herself away from the world and be safe, or is he saying she's a worthless whore? Either way, unkind, Hamlet. Very unkind.
He's sending her farther down the path to her own madness, the path I think Polonius first nudged her onto by suggesting that she's to blame for Hamlet's madness. So she's got that guilt riding her, and then Hamlet disavows any love for her and does a lot of yelling and shouting -- who wouldn't be an emotional and mental wreck? But what does she say, after he's berated her? "Heavenly powers, restore him!" (140). Her first reaction is to pray for him, that he can soon be more like himself again. Only after he does some more ranting and yelling does she start to pity herself. Poor, poor Ophelia -- she's the most innocent character in all of this, excepting perhaps Horatio. Of all the characters, she deserves her fate the least.
Off stomps Hamlet, out come Claudius and Polonius, and while Polonius thinks this all still stems from despised love, Claudius disagrees. Neither of them pay much attention at all to poor, weeping Ophelia, which is pretty typical of almost all the characters in this play -- they only pay her any notice if they need her to do something or they have no other choice. Laertes, her brother, is the exception here, and that's part of why I'm so fond of him. Especially when he's played well.
Favorite Lines (Besides the Entire "To Be or Not To Be" Speech):
"...to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind" (99-100).
"I was the more deceived" (119).
"Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" (149).
"There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood" (163-64).
"Madness in great ones must not unwatched go" (187).
Possible Discussion Questions:
Do you think Hamlet is contemplating committing suicide at this point in the play, or just thinking about it somewhat abstractly?
Why do you think Hamlet told Ophelia to go to a nunnery? Do you think he meant "convent" or "whorehouse" or possibly both?
Hamlet discusses the idea that a little lewdness will overcome a lot of chastity, and that women make monsters out of men by cuckolding them -- do you think he's speaking/thinking of his mother here? Does he maybe think she cuckolded his father? Is he comparing Ophelia to Gertrude, or warning her against such behavior?