Summary and Analysis
Gertrude implies in her opening words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the she and Claudius have invited the pair to Denmark for Hamlet's benefit. Although Claudius may have ulterior motives, Gertrude is the person who insisted on contacting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and bringing them to court because of the friendship and respect that Hamlet bears for them. At this point in the play, one can reasonably assume that both Claudius and Gertrude had Hamlet's welfare in mind when they summoned the two Germans to court.
Claudius, however, is once again aware that all eyes are on him as he solicitously welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and expresses his grave concern for "Hamlet's transformation." Although Shakespeare gives no suggestion that Claudius had anything but Hamlet's welfare in mind when he summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to court, the reader knows that Claudius does nothing without self-promotion in mind. His suggestion that they report back any affliction of Hamlet's echoes Polonius' instructions to Reynaldo in Scene 1 regarding Laertes. Both Polonius and Claudius exhibit distrust and deception when dealing with their heirs. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern heartily agree to do the King's and Queen's bidding, Gertrude promises they will receive "such thanks / As fits a king's remembrance." Claudius has successfully deceived Gertrude as well, convincing her that he loves Prince Hamlet.
When Polonius ushers in Cornelius and Voltemand — Claudius' ambassadors to Norway — the old man entices the King with a promise that he knows something about the Lord Hamlet that Gertrude and Claudius cannot know. He refuses to divulge any information until after the ambassadors have left, but he creates excitement over his "find." Gertrude, motivated only by her deep, even overprotective, love for her son, remains skeptical about Polonius' ability to help.
The ambassadors bring good news for Claudius, which cheers the King, and he plans a celebratory party. Shakespeare presents here another mirror. Young Fortinbras, a dutiful nephew whose uncle has ascended to the throne that might have been his, obeys his uncle/sovreign's request to show Denmark leniency. Claudius knows of no reason that his nephew/subject would be less cooperative or less charitable, and he is more than willing to toy with Hamlet's good nature.
Gertrude expresses her concern for and sensitivity toward Hamlet. She fully understands the trauma he has experienced in returning to Denmark to find his world shattered and reordered. Polonius' plan to spy on Hamlet, to trap him, as it were, by exposing a private letter the old man has impounded from his daughter, does not please Gertrude. Her son's welfare concerns her far more than affairs of state. However, Gertrude agrees to Polonius' plan because it affords her the hope that Hamlet's madness merely results from unrequited love, which can be easily remedied. The old man clearly agitates Gertrude, who urges him to disclose something substantive: "More matter and less art." However, Polonius' report finally wins her over, and she agrees to Polonius' plan to spy on Hamlet. Another deception is premeditated and prearranged, another of Polonius' "springes to catch woodcocks."
That both Gertrude and Ophelia are complicit with the entrapment is a key to Hamlet's distrust of women and of his inability to allow himself to love either of them. Hamlet enters in his state of apparent madness. Yet, mad with despair as he may seem on the surface, Hamlet remains sharp enough to volley artfully with words that confound Polonius' limited wit. Hamlet calls the old man a fishmonger, a term rife with double entendre. Because "fish" was an off-color allusion to women, "fish sellers" were those who sold women's favors — in other words, pimps.
Hamlet demonstrates his acute sense of wordplay with his sad cynicism on the subject of honesty. "To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked in ten thousand." But he clearly convinces Polonius that he is not rational. "How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of." Then again, as soon as Polonius exits, Hamlet reveals his true level of reason: "These tedious fools." He understands that Polonius is not the only old man he needs to worry about.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return, and Hamlet elucidates his astuteness once more. He manipulates his "excellent good friends" into admitting they have been sent for. He calls fortune a whore, suggesting that one can buy luck and fate . . . like friendship. He proves that he understands the duplicitous nature of their visit. He further clarifies his presence of mind through his lucid discourse on the nature of dreams and the paradox of human existence.
Prison imagery surrounds this scene. "Denmark's a prison," he says. In answer to Rosencrantz's retort that "then the world must be one," Hamlet assents but asserts that Denmark is "One o' the worst." The brooding clarity with which Hamlet perceives his predicament reminds us that he has announced that he will wear an antic disposition — that he is faking his madness.
When Polonius announces the arrival of the players and Hamlet again plays with what he perceives as Polonius' meager intelligence, however, Polonius again concludes that Ophelia's rejection is the cause of Hamlet's madness.
After the player's rendition of Hecuba's horror, Hamlet expounds to himself on the crux of his dilemma. He compares himself to an actor playing out the drama of his own life, but he cannot find the motivation to move beyond his immobilized state of melancholy. He is stuck in words, in the idea of action, terrified to move forward. The actor playacting as Phyrrus, a fictional character, is moved to kill his father's killer; the actor relating a fairytale about a woman's woes is capable of real emotion. Hamlet is an actor prompted by heaven and hell to seek revenge for his murdered father but is unschooled in his art and hesitates for fear of the consequences. His judgmental conscience stifles his emotions. He cannot sympathize with Gertrude or follow the Ghost's instructions to defend her honor because his fears blind him. His incessant pandering to words emasculates him. "That I . . . must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words." But because he is a man of words, he uses first the words of the play in his plan to strike at the king.
Hamlet ends the scene by revealing his plan to entrap the King by manipulating the play to force the King's conscience to incriminate him. This time the premeditated duplicity belongs to Hamlet. Surrounded by false friends and dubious love, Hamlet recognizes an opportunity to use the honest deception of the stage to illuminate the truth.
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