Hamlet And II The King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to investigate Hamlet’s madness . . Polonius’s theory of Hamlet’s madness . . . Polonius examines Hamlet . .
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern examine Hamlet . . . The players arrive . .
Hamlet’s second soliloquy. Enter King and Queen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: The King welcomes “dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” (2.2.1), and immediately gets down to business. They, friends of Hamlet, are supposed to hang out with him, so that they can find out what’s wrong with him. The King says that he “cannot dream of” what might be wrong with Hamlet, other than his father’s death. Of course, we’ve already learned that the King killed Hamlet’s father, so we may suspect that what the King really wants to know is what Hamlet knows or suspects, and what Hamlet might do. The Queen seconds the King’s request by telling them how much Hamlet likes them, and by suggesting that there might be some money in it for them, or–as she puts it–“such thanks / As fits a king’s remembrance” (2.2.25-26). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not only agree to do what they’re asked, they suck up.
They know, and say, that the King could simply command, rather than ask, and so they’re glad he asked. Exeunt Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Polonius: As soon as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave to seek out Hamlet, Polonius comes bustling in with two pieces of news: The ambassadors to Norway have had success, and he has discovered “the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (2.2.49). The King wants to hear what Polonius has to say about Hamlet, but Polonius insists on bringing in the ambassadors, and saving the news about Hamlet as “the fruit [i.e., the dessert] to that great feast.” Polonius steps out to fetch the ambassadors, and the King and Queen are alone for a moment. The King wonders aloud if Polonius really has found the “source and head” of Hamlet’s “distemper.” The Queen replies with a bit of common sense: “I doubt [suspect] it is no other but the main; / His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage” (2.2.56-57).
Enter Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]: The King and Queen’s moment alone is soon over. In comes Polonius, with Voltemand and Cornelius in tow. Voltemand tells the King that the King of Norway, who was sick, thought that Fortinbras was raising his army to fight the Poles, but when he received the letter from the King, he called Fortinbras in, learned the truth, and gave him a “rebuke.” Now Fortinbras has promised never to direct any hostilities toward Denmark, and to use the army only to attack Poland. The King of Norway is happy with this, and wants the King’s permission for Fortinbras to pass through Denmark on his way to Poland. All this may sound fishy, but the King seems satisfied and says he’ll think about it. Later in the play, he has given the requested permission, because Fortinbras briefly appears, leading his army across the stage toward Poland. The King thanks Voltemand and Cornelius, and they exit, never to be seen again. Exeunt Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]: As soon as the ambassadors are gone, Polonius, saying he will not expostulate on the obvious, expostulates.
And after he says that “brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes” 2.2.90-91), he proceeds to be very tedious as he explains his theory of Hamlet’s madness. He makes his case by reading a love-letter written by Hamlet to Ophelia, and then explaining how he, “faithful and honorable,” got Ophelia to “lock herself” away from Hamlet. He concludes in his windy way: And he, repulsed–a short tale to make– Fell into a sadness, then into a fast, Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness, Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension, Into the madness wherein now he raves, And all we mourn for. (2.2.146-151) The King and Queen are almost persuaded, but still doubtful, and so Polonius boasts that “I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the centre.” The King asks how his theory may be tested, and Polonius offers to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet while he and the King hide behind a curtain to overhear their conversation. Enter Hamlet.
Exeunt King and Queen: The King agrees to Polonius’ plan for spying on Hamlet, but just then Hamlet himself comes wandering into the room, reading a book. Polonius is eager to examine Hamlet for himself, and he shoos away the King and Queen, so that he can “board” Hamlet. He starts right in, saying “Do you know me, my lord?” as though Hamlet is so far gone that he can’t recognize Polonius. Hamlet replies, “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger” (2.2.174). And so goes the rest of the encounter, with Polonius asking more dumb questions and Hamlet replying with insults which Polonius doesn’t understand because he thinks they only show just how crazy the prince is. In the course of the conversation Hamlet mocks Polonius’ attitude towards Ophelia, telling him that “conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive” (2.2.184-185).
And Hamlet also mocks Polonius’ appearance and lack of self-knowledge by pretending to read a passage from his book that describes old men as having wrinkled faces and a “plentiful lack of wit”; of course, he is really describing Polonius. Polonius sort of gets the idea that something is going on, but all he can figure out is that “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (2.2.205-206). Exit Polonius. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Baffled, Polonius takes his leave of Hamlet, and just as he does, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up, so that they, too, can take a shot at finding out what’s wrong with Hamlet. Hamlet greets his old friends heartily, and asks how they’re doing, which leads to a good-old-boy off-color joke about “the secret parts of Fortune.” Then Hamlet asks, “What news?” He means what we mean when we say “What’s up?” osencrantz and Guildenstern don’t have a good answer to that question. They didn’t come just to hang out with Hamlet, and they didn’t just happen to run into him while they were doing something else.
They came to find out what his problem is, but they’re not supposed to tell him that. So Rosencrantz answers Hamlet’s “What news?” with “None, my lord,” which is a little white lie. Hamlet then invites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be on his side. He asks, “What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?” (2.2.239-241). But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are employed by the King of Denmark, so they can’t jump in and agree that Denmark is a prison. When Hamlet insists that “To me it is a prison,” Rosencrantz takes that as an opportunity to divert the conversation to an interesting topic: Hamlet’s ambition.
If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could report back to the King that Hamlet’s problem is that he wants to be king, that would be news indeed. Hamlet denies that he is ambitious, saying, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space–were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.254-256). However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t give up easily, and spar a little over the meaning of ambition, until Hamlet gets tired of the whole thing and suggests that they go “to th’ court.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern say “We’ll wait upon you,” as though they have nothing better to do than just tag around with him. This apparently reminds Hamlet that they never really answered his question, so he asks it again: “But, in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?” Rosencrantz replies with a half-truth: “To visit you, my lord, no other occasion.” Hamlet suddenly inuits the truth and asks “Were you not sent for?” (2.2.274). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are surprised, and a little sarcastic brow-beating from Hamlet gets them to confess that they were indeed sent for. The discovery that his supposed friends are really the king’s spies sends Hamlet into a kind of philosophical orbit.
He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he knows that they were sent for because he has lost all of his “mirth.” Not only that, but to him the earth is nothing but a “sterile promontory” within “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” He goes on, in a passage that is often quoted as an example of the Renaissance belief in the dignity of man: What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! …