Hamlet By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 1

Summary

Polonius meets with his sly servant Reynaldo and tells him to go to Paris and spy on Laertes. He charges the servant to find any Danes living in Paris and to question them as to Laertes' whereabouts and reputation. Polonius even goes so far as to give Reynaldo permission to use lies to entrap Laertes. After Reynaldo exits in pursuit of his mission, Ophelia enters and tells Polonius that she has been horrified by the Prince. Hamlet came to her in her sewing room with his jacket askew and unfastened, and wearing no hat; his stockings were filthy and unfastened, drooping at his ankles; and he was pale and trembling, looking "piteous." Polonius diagnoses Hamlet's condition as madness due to his love of Ophelia, brought about because Ophelia obeyed her father and spurned Hamlet's advances. Polonius decides to take his information to the king.

Analysis

Many critics, including T.S. Eliot, believe this scene is irrelevant to the play. However, the scene actually mirrors themes that are central to the play's purpose. Appearance and reality are disparate entities that contradict one another.

In Act II, Scene 1, the apparently caring, nurturing father Polonius hires the shady Reynaldo (The Fox) to spy on Laertes. Polonius tells Reynaldo that he suspects the worst of Laertes and wants reports of all his dirtiest deeds gleaned from the most deceptive spying. He tells Reynaldo to look into Laertes' life in Paris even if he needs to accuse his son falsely — 'What forgeries you please.'" Polonius will pay Reynaldo to discredit Laertes with negative reports — both real and imagined — in order to teach his son the importance of reputation. The duplicity of this encounter foreshadows the behavior that will characterize Polonius throughout the play.

In the second part of the scene, Ophelia enters and reports that Hamlet has been acting incomprehensibly. She describes with painter's language the way Hamlet is attired:

Lord Hamlet with his doublet unbraced
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors — he comes before me.

The description is one that Polonius immediately recognizes — "Mad for thy love?" — because Hamlet's appearance embodies the contemporary stereotype of the spurned lover, indicating that his main objective in visiting Ophelia is to use Ophelia to convince others that his insanity was not due to any mysterious unknown cause, but to this disappointment, and so to allay the suspicions of the King. Thus, Ophelia's purpose in this scene seems to be to give credence to the notion that Hamlet never loved Ophelia at all, but merely used her. If so, then Hamlet is as guilty of deceptiveness as are those he judges.

Glossary

Danskers Danes.

what means what their income is.

keep lodge.

drabbing associating with prostitutes.

season qualify.

incontinency without self-restraint, especially in regard to sexual activity.

quaintly skillfully, ingeniously.

unreclaimed untamed.

of general assault common to all men.

videlicet (Latin) that is; namely.

windlasses roundabout means.

assays of bias This is a metaphor from the game of lawn bowling; the weight in the ball, which causes it to follow a curved line, is called the bias. Hence the meaning of the phrase is "indirect attempts."

doublet a man's close-fitting jacket, with or without sleeves, worn chiefly from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The coat that was fastened (braced) to the hose (short breeches) by laces. When a man was relaxing or careless of appearance, he "unbrac'd," much like a man today loosens his tie or takes off his suit jacket.

down gyved fallen, like fetters, about his ankles.

ecstasy madness

fordoes destroys.

jealousy suspicion.

cast beyond ourselves look beyond what we know or understand.

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