Hamlet Act 2 Analysis

Main events of the act 2:

  • Ophelia is advised by her father and brother to ignore Hamlet’s advances;
  • Hamlet is acting very strange;
  • Queen and King invite Hamlet’s school friends to spy on him and find out the reason for prince’s insanity;
  • The actors of the theater arrive at the castle, they are to perform a play in front of the court the next day;
  • Hamlet wants to modify the play in order to stage his father’s death in front of Claudius.


Scene 1

Scene 2


Act 2 Scene 1

People present in the scene:

  • Polonius – father of Ophelia and trusted counselor of Claudius;
  • Reynaldo – servant of Polonius;
  • Ophelia – daughter of Polonius and beloved woman of Hamlet.

Place and time of the scene: Polonius house, several weeks later.

Main events of the scene:

  • Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to France to spy on Laertes;
  • Ophelia proclaims that Hamlet is behaving very strange;

Short Summary:

Polonius gives money and a letter to his servant, Reynaldo and sends him to France. The father gives very clear instructions how Reynaldo should spy on his son: he should not reveal his connection to Laertes family, find well-known Danes in the city and get an opportunity to talk to them. He is then instructed to start a conversation saying that he heard about Laertes but not much. This is supposed to lead the other party to speak about Laertes behavior in Paris. Reynaldo is also expected to watch after Laertes and then report back to the lord.

After Reynaldo exits the room, Ophelia enters. She is very worried. She says that Prince Hamlet visited her and looked very disturbed. He was dressed in dirty and undone clothes, his face was pale, his body was shivering, and his eyes were different. The father and the daughter assume that the Prince went insane. Then Ophelia describes in detail the unusual behavior of Hamlet: he grabbed her by the elbow and stared into her face, then shook his head and let out a sad sigh.

Polonius is sure that this behavior is the result of his daughter ignoring Hamlet’s attention. Ophelia did as she was ordered by her father and stopped accepting Hamlet’s letters and meetings. Polonius now thinks that he underestimated Prince’s feelings towards Ophelia and that he is going crazy from unrequited love. He wants his daughter to tell everything to the king.


Act 2 Scene 2

People present in the scene:

  • Gertrude – the Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet;
  • Claudius – the brother of deceased Denmark King and new husband of Gertrude;
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – school friends of Hamlet;
  • Polonius – trusted lord of the king Claudius;
  • Voltimand and Cornelius – two royal courtiers, who returned from Norway;
  • Actors from the capital;

Place and time of the scene: Royal castle lobby.

Main events of the scene:

  • Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to France to spy on Laertes;
  • Ophelia proclaims that Hamlet is behaving very strange;
  • The queen and the king invite Hamlet’s old school friends to come to the castle and find out the reason for his strange behavior;
  • Polonius is confident that the Prince is losing his mind because of love for Ophelia;
  • Hamlet is unsure whether ghost told him the truth about his father’s murder;
  • Hamlet decides to use the traveling theater and stage his father’s death for the sake of watching Claudius’ reaction.

Short Summary:

The queen and the king are determined to discover the reason for Hamlet’s strange behavior. They have called from afar two of Hamlet’s school friends – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The king asks them to stay in the castle and spend some time with Hamlet. He hopes this will bring Hamlet back to light, entertainment and cheer. The queen says that the two will be properly thanked if they agree to spend their time with Hamlet. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agreed.

When the guards take the newly arrived guests to see prince Hamlet, Polonius enters. He says that the courtiers sent to Norway have returned. Voltimand and Cornelius bring good news – the King of Norway prohibited his nephew to gather an army. The king thought that this army was meant to go to war against Poland, not Denmark.

The King of Norway made his nephew promise to stop any moves against Denmark, but allowed him to go to war with Poland. He sent a letter asking Claudius to let this army pass through Denmark on their way to Polish borders. Claudius agrees but says that he will read the letter later, at a more appropriate time.

After the courtiers leave, Polonius tries to explain to the King and Queen why their son is going mad. He reads to the royals a letter to Ophelia written by Hamlet. In this letter, Hamlet reveals that he loves Ophelia. Polonius admits that he prohibited his daughter from making any contact with Hamlet and believes that this is the reason of his unusual behavior.

Polonius is keen to prove his right. For this, he offers to set up a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet, while the trio will observe them. Hamlet used to walk for hours in the castle lobby. At this time Polonius wants to send his daughter there to stage an accidental meeting. The others are supposed to hide behind the tapestry. Polonius is so confident that he got to the bottom of Hamlet’s sickness, that he is willing to give up his post if he were to be proven wrong.

Then comes Hamlet. He is sad and concentrated on his thoughts. The king and queen leave, while Polonius starts to speak to the prince. At first, Hamlet thinks that Polonius is a fisherman. Then he starts talking about honesty, sun, dead dogs and worms – all the things that are difficult to make sense of. At this point, Polonius leaves, on his way to bring his daughter for an “accidental” meeting.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter looking for Hamlet. Hamlet is happy to see them, but asks why they were sent to prison, since Hamlet thinks that Denmark for him is a prison. Rosencrantz voices a thought that the prince might feel this way because he feels trapped here. Hamlet confirms, saying that even if he were in a nutshell, he would feel freer. He complains about the bad dreams he’s been having lately.

When Hamlet asks his friends whether they came on their own or somebody called on them, they deny coming to the castle by the orders of the king and queen. But, finally, they break under the pressure of Hamlet’s questioning.

Friends inform Hamlet that there’s a group of actors coming from the capital to entertain him. Polonius reenters to announce the visit of the actors and Hamlet makes fun of the “old news” he brought. Hamlet is delighted to welcome them, but he keeps his act pretending to be crazy.

Hamlet requests the actors to perform a specific play. It isn’t staged often in front of the general public due to its sensitive content. The play talks about Pyrrhus who came to murder Priam, the King of Troy to avenge his father’s death. Polonius had to stop the performance in the middle because he was bored.

While Polonius take the actors to accommodate them in the castle, Hamlet asks the main actor to perform a play entitled “Murder of Gonzago” tomorrow in front of the court. But he requests to add a couple of lines to it.

After everybody leaves, Hamlet talks to himself. At first, he is unhappy that he still hasn’t completed what the ghost asked for. Yet, he is still in doubt that the ghost told the truth. Therefore, he decided to make the actors perform his father’s death and watch Claudius react to it. If the king is shaken – then Hamlet will be sure Claudius is guilty of his father’s death.


Act 2: Analysis and Interpretation

Act 2 is almost entirely devoted to the secondary family of Polonius. Here the audience must bear in mind that "Hamlet" belongs to the genre of English Renaissance theater plays, or Elizabethan plays - the theater style developed between 1562 and 1642. It was very common for Elizabethan plays to have a subplot, in this particular case focusing on the drama of another family.

Here we find out more about entrusted councilor of Claudius, Polonius and his children – son Laertes and daughter Ophelia. Both Laertes and Ophelia are presented as honorable people, who respect their parents and the customs of their people. They respond very well to the stereotypical model of an exemplary man and woman. Laertes pays tribute to the new king and then leaves for school. The reader should keep in mind that at that time being able to go to school was a privilege. Ophelia is an obedient and pliable young lady – she puts no resistance to her father and brother who prohibit her from seeing the man she loves.

In act 2 the general ambiance of suspicion and mistrust intensifies. This is mainly due to the unfolding of the Polonius Character. In act 2 the audience discovers many wicked traits of his character.

In the dialogue with his servant, we find out that Polonius is a small-minded person, master of intrigues and lies. He doesn't trust anybody, not even his son. And he likes to meddle in other people's affairs. In scene 2 Polonius is willing to play with his daughter's feelings just to prove to the king and queen that he is right (about his idea that Hamlet is insane because of his love for Ophelia).

At the same time, act 2 further dwells upon the character of the young prince Hamlet who keeps digging deeper and deeper into his soul.

On one hand, Hamlet is now actively losing his mind and more and more people notice it. But the audience can’t help but think that he might be faking. For example, in the dialogue with his friends, Hamlet has it much more together – his thoughts are coherent and his choice of words makes clear sense.

On the other hand, scene 2 opens many additional sides of Hamlet’s character. We see that Hamlet is a master of sarcasm and has a sharp character. When Polonius tries to make small talk and asks the prince about the book he’s reading, Hamlet tells him that the book is about how badly old people look and then looks at Polonius and says that it might be true. Then Hamlet mocks the “old news” that Polonius brought about the visiting actors, by citing facts from old Roman times.

In this act, Hamlet is also portrayed as a great art connoisseur. Hamlet knows how to appreciate good play and refers to the actors that “they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time”. The prince knows very well the repertoire of the theater of those times and appreciates the “high art”, not the one that is written for masses. The play he asks the troupe to perform is drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid. Hamlet even recites an abstract of this play by heart, before the actors pick up the performance.

Through Hamlet’s art tastes, Shakespeare translated his own opinions. For example, Hamlet finds so-called child actors, a relatively new movement that competed with the Elizabethan plays of the adult actors, indignant and not worth attention.

Act 2 brings clear message to the audience: ever since the conversation with the ghost, Hamlet realized that his previous life is gone. He didn’t only lose the joy and any hopes of recovering from the grief for his father. He lost his family, his friends and his country. He was happy to see his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern up until the point where they admitted that they had been sent by the queen and king to spy on him. He feels betrayed.

With every day, giving birth to his plan to avenge his father’s murder, he realizes that the death of Claudius will not make a difference. Because people of Denmark rushed so quickly to forget the great king who used to bring this country to glory only to pledge their loyalty to the new king who stole the throne. They all signed up for slavery and there are no more people of values and noble actions left. Denmark is turning into a bad place, a prison – at first, the fact that something is rotting in the state of Denmark is voiced out by Marcellus in Act one, and then Hamlet says himself in Act 2 that he feels like in prison here.

In the end, there’s a hint that the young prince is in doubt and might turn back on his promise to the ghost. He is unsure and the more he thinks, the less resolute he becomes.

Finally, the prince puts his mind at peace temporarily by combining two of the concepts that he likes the most: theater and the chance to be sure that Claudius is the murderer.