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Free MonkeyNotes-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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ACT II, SCENE 2

Summary

King Claudius welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into his chambers. He mentions Hamlet's melancholic and strange transformation and attributes it to the late King's death. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Hamlet's childhood friends, Claudius and Gertrude ask them to investigate the Prince's strange conduct so that he can be brought back to normalcy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree and go in search of Hamlet.

Polonius enters with the news that the emissaries to Norway have returned with favorable news. Polonius further tells Claudius that he has found the cause of Hamlet's madness. Claudius is eager to hear this, but Polonius insists on bringing the emissaries in first. Although Claudius is excited that Polonius seems to have discovered the "head and source" of Hamlet's "distemper," Queen Gertrude very much doubts it. She attributes Hamlet's strange behavior to grief over his father's death and her overhasty marriage.

Polonius enters with Cornelius and Voltimand, the emissaries. They tell Claudius that his appeal to Norway has been successful; the bed-ridden King of Norway has restrained his nephew from proceeding against Denmark. The Norwegian monarch had been under the impression that the military preparations of his young nephew were against the Poles. When he found out that his nephew intended to march against Denmark, he reprimanded him and made him promise he would never attack Denmark. The armies mustered by Fortinbras now plan to march against Poland. Additionally, the emissaries tell the King that Fortinbras requests permission to march through Denmark on the way to Poland. Claudius responds that he will think about it. He graciously thanks the courtiers for their good work in averting a war and dismisses them.

Polonius now shares his certainty that Hamlet's insanity is the "very ecstasy of love" for his daughter Ophelia. He confesses that he has forbidden Ophelia from reciprocating Hamlet's overtures, due to her social position, and that her rejection must certainly be the cause of Hamlet's insanity. While Claudius and Gertrude agree that unrequited love could be a probable reason, they are not sure that this alone accounts for Hamlet's madness. Nevertheless, they agree to go along with a plan suggested by Polonius. The Lord Chamberlain says that he will contrive to have Hamlet meet Ophelia in the lobby, where he and the King can then spy upon the couple from behind a wall. As they make their plans, Hamlet approaches. Polonius asks Claudius and Gertrude to leave so that he can talk to the Prince alone.

Hamlet enters reading a book, and Polonius questions him about his madness. The Prince's answers and references to Ophelia convince Polonius that his guess has been correct. He does not realize, however, that Hamlet's answers are carefully constructed to ridicule him, making constant references to old men. Polonius decides that this is an opportune time to set up a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. After it is arranged, Polonius departs.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive on the scene. Hamlet is surprised to see them and asks what they are doing in Denmark. His suspicions are aroused when they reply evasively. Hamlet then tells them he knows they are present to find out the reason for his strange conduct. He explains that great changes have occurred recently that have led him to think more about death. Rosencrantz remarks that under such circumstances Hamlet is unlikely to obtain pleasure from the company of actors, who are on their way to the castle. Hamlet at once shows an interest in the actors when he learns that they are the same "tragedians of the city" whose performances he has enjoyed in the past. Obviously planning something, Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the King and Queen are deceived about his insanity. Polonius then enters with the news that the players have arrived. Hamlet makes fun of Polonius and further convinces him that Ophelia is the source of his madness.

Hamlet greets the players warmly, full of memories about their last meeting. He asks them to recite some lines from a play that he likes particularly well. Then he asks them to recite a speech from Virgil's Aeneid, in which Pyrrhus kills the aged King Priam. Next Hamlet tells Polonius to see that the players are comfortably lodged at the castle. All leave with Polonius except the first player. Hamlet asks him whether his troupe can enact "The Murder of Gonzago." When the first player says that it is possible, it is decided the performance will take place the following night. Hamlet tells the actor that he plans to insert into the play a short speech of ten to twelve lines that he will write. The first player, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern leave the stage, and Hamlet is left alone again.

Once again, Hamlet expresses his thoughts aloud. He is amazed by the skills of actors, who can so realistically portray grief over the death of fictional characters. He is also astonished at their abilities to rouse in themselves such a state of passion that tears flow from their eyes and their voices tremble with tender emotion over characters who do not even exist. Hamlet reflects that the passion of the players would surely be aroused if they had a genuine cause, such as his. Hamlet then curses himself for having failed so far to take any action against Claudius; he feels he has failed in his plans for vengeance. He is, however, encouraged by his plan to test Claudius' conscience. "The Murder of Gonzago" contains an incident similar to the alleged murder of his father. When it is performed on the following night by the players, Claudius' reaction will hopefully tell Hamlet all he needs to know about the new King's guilt in the death of his father.


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