Summary and Analysis
Critics traditionally regard Scene 2 as more of a glimpse into Shakespeare's theatrical world than insight into Hamlet. Indeed, the first 50 lines do relate how Shakespeare interpreted an actor's job, and what he expected of his actors. We know that he advocated a natural style of acting rather than the declamatory style — a style of acting in which players use large gestures such as "sawing the air" and exagerrated motion in conjunction with consistently loud line readings. We also know that he advocated that actors take their direction from the script.
In addition to a primer on acting, however, Scene 2 reveals a great deal about Hamlet's psycho-emotional makeup. Still imprisoned by words and surrounded by staging, acting, and seeming, Hamlet now directs his own world, if only for a moment. Ensuring that the play be "as 't were the mirror up to nature" is critical so that Claudius will not miss seeing his own reflection in the Player King's murderous nephew. Were the actors to fail to "suit the actor to the word," were they "too tame" or too cruel, then Claudius might dismiss the tragedy as mere melodrama. The "whirlwind of passion" would negate true feeling, and Claudius' conscience would miss its examination.
Hamlet's instructions to the actors also serve to demonstrate how well Hamlet is prepared to play his role, to put on his antic disposition. Hamlet clearly possesses an actor's sensibility and understands that, in order to sell a performance an actor must become his role. This insight into Hamlet's psyche may provide one answer to the question that people most often raise concerning Hamlet's character: Is he truly mad, or is he truly acting? This scene confirms the possibility that Hamlet represents an actor who plays his role so well that he loses himself in the role and becomes what he pretends to be. What begins as an antic disposition becomes his hopeless, true self.
We can see Hamlet's instructions to the actors from a third angle as well. In his world of deception and betrayal, Hamlet recognizes the need to exercise reason and caution, and to remain aloof from blind passion. Thus he can again justify his inaction and validate his slow approach to avenging his father's murder. He must assure himself once more that this is his father's spirit and not a demon from hell. Hence, he informs Horatio of the plan so that he has a man who is "not passion's slave" to observe the King and confirm his reactions. Identifying the Ghost's validity is critical. Should it prove itself a demon, Hamlet's worst fears would be warranted, and Claudius may be blameless.
While waiting, Claudius asks after Hamlet's health, and Hamlet answers in seeming madness: "Excellent, i'faith, of the chameleon's dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so." Claudius is nearly speechless in response to Hamlet's answer. Hamlet has accused him of having emasculated (capons) and disinherited his nephew, and all he can say is, "I have nothing with this answer Hamlet, these words are not mine." He has all but said a childish, "Oh, shut up."
Polonius then diverts all attention with tales of his fleeting career as an actor playing Julius Caesar while at the university.
Besides the obvious thematic threads illuminated by the literary allusion to Shakespeare's earlier play, the reference to Julius Caesar contains theatrical historical merit. An allusion to a play often provides a glimpse into the season during which a play was premiered. The actor playing Polonius was undoubtedly playing Julius Caesar at the same time in a concurrent production of Julius Caesar. By studying the character of Julius Caesar, an actor can extrapolate information helpful for Polonius' character development, and we can learn that Polonius is not merely the buffoon that he is conventionally portrayed to be.
Hamlet sits by Ophelia and asks to put his head in her lap, a request that is demeaning in public while at the same time indicating that the two have a far more intimate relationship than has been indicated thus far. Ophelia seems pleased with his attention and says, "You are merry, my lord." Hamlet's cynicism reemerges, and he again casts aspersions at his mother. Once again he convinces everyone that he is mad.
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