Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 2
Claudius' calculating nature becomes immediately apparent. Always conscious of appearances — of what seems to be — he speaks of Gertrude as "our sometime sister, now our queen, / Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state," and then addresses Hamlet as his "cousin Hamlet and my son." He has considered his relationships to the state, to Gertrude, and to Hamlet in all the ways people might perceive them, and manages to cover himself entirely. He has prepared explanations for both his hasty marriage to Gertrude and for the fact that, though fewer than two months have elapsed, the country no longer mourns King Hamlet's passing, and not even the grieving widow misses him. When Claudius turns on Hamlet and accuses him of "impious stubborness," he is clearly asserting his position of power over the younger man as well as over his kingdom. He scolds Hamlet in a manner befitting a concerned parent and a responsible monarch. The act fails to impress Hamlet, but Claudius remains unaware that his ruse proved itself ineffective.
Claudius further invalidates Hamlet by demeaning the young man's self-image. Accusing Hamlet of possessing "a heart unfortified," "a mind impatient," and an "understanding simple and unschool'd," Claudius defines Hamlet as inadequate to the task of being king. This accusation justifies his own ascension to his brother's throne, despite the fact that the kingship rightfully belongs to the old king's true heir, Hamlet. Every word Claudius chooses, including the condescension implied in his calling Hamlet "my cousin, and my son," reiterates his superiority and complete control.
The incest between Claudius and Gertrude remains at the forefront of Hamlet's mind in this scene. He is most aware of this incest horror, although he suspects other crimes as well. By the end of the play, Hamlet will call Claudius a "murd'rous, damned Dane," and the King will have multiple crimes to answer for. At this moment, however, the medieval English prohibition on sexual intimacy between a brother — albeit a brother-in-law — and sister serves as the primary focus for Hamlet's rage. Though Gertrude's guilt equals Claudius' in this case, Hamlet directs his fury at Claudius and merely mistrusts his mother.
This scene illustrates the actor's challenge in interpreting Gertrude's character. Gertrude's demeanor in this scene is innocent. She genuinely appears to desire happiness for Hamlet, to desire him to stay and be her dutiful son. Seemingly naive and ingenuous, she contrasts starkly with Claudius, who calculates his every word and move to have an effect on his assemblage. If she is less forthright and honest than she appears here, Shakespeare gives no hint. However, as the play unfolds, we increasingly question Gertrude's innocence. In order to make the portrayal believable, the actress must commit to whether Gertrude is playing a role or whether she is genuine.
The disparity between appearance and reality becomes a pervasive thematic motif in Hamlet. The Ghost in Scene l established the lack of clear lines between the real and the perceived, but the web of deceit and bewilderment in this scene casts a shadow that will hover over the breadth of the play. In his response to Gertrude's supplication that he abandon his grief, Hamlet assures her that he is not one to make "shows of grief . . . that a man might play." Hamlet asserts that he is not merely costumed in his black attire, nor is he prone to dramatic sighs or profuse weeping. He is genuinely grieved and honestly critical of Gertrude's and Claudius' callousness toward the loss of their husband and brother. To Hamlet, all others are making show.
Hamlet's preoccupation with hypocrisy surfaces more profoundly in his first soliloquy. The fact that his mother has joined in an incestuous union with her husband's brother less than a month after his father's death overwhelms Hamlet. A simple beast without the reasoning skills of a human being would have shown more respect for a dead mate, moans Hamlet. Worse yet, Hamlet must question her judgment. Hamlet sees Claudius as a satyr — a beast-man driven by his appetites — whereas Old Hamlet was Hyperion, the sun god himself. How can he trust a woman who would trade a god for a goat? In addition to his cynicism toward women, Hamlet's self-portrait begins to emerge in this soliloquy. When he says that his Uncle Claudius corresponds to his father, King Hamlet, no more "Than I to Hercules," Hamlet discloses his pacifistic demeanor. Hercules was a warrior who acted on impulse and charged enthusiastically into battles without questioning the ideology of the fight. Unlike Hercules, Hamlet drowns in words and perpetually struggles toward understanding.
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