The Plot of 'Hamlet' is intriguing and confusing.
Polonius dispatches Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in On the one hand, if Pyrrhus' actions are supposed
Paris by indirect means, using a 'bait of falsehood' to to be a representation of Claudius' crime, then Hamlet
discover the truth. Ophelia enters in a panic, reports may want the speech in order to stir up his feelings
that Hamlet, in a distracted state, has visited her while of pity for his father and hatred for Claudius. This
she was sewing in her closet. Both are convinced that interpretation is supported by the fact that Hamlet
Hamlet is 'mad for [Ophelia's] love' and decide to tell bewails his lack of passion in the soliloquy which
the king. immediately follows this section.
Claudius enlists the help of Rosencrantz and On the other hand if we take Pyrrhus to represent
Guildenstern, Hamlet's friends from Wittenburg Hamlet, then the prince may want the speech in order
('Denmark' is also acceptable: we are told they are to be inspired by it. He may want to become the cold-
Hamlet's schoolfellows and that he's been brought up blooded, conscienceless killer that Pyrrhus is presented
with them since early youth), to discover the cause of as. This would be for similar reasons as the first
Hamlet's madness. Polonius introduces the interpretation: he feels he is making no headway in his
ambassadors returned from Norway who have bid for revenge and that his strong feelings have ebbed
succeeded in alerting the King of Norway to his away.
nephew's behaviour. Fortinbras is now to prove Fans of the idea that Hamlet is a doubter who is
himself against the Poles. Polonius then explains his troubled by his conscience may read this section in a
third or fourth way. Pyrrhus is presented as 'hellish',
discovery of the relationship between Ophelia and
Hamlet, his honourable motives for stopping it and a terminator without remorse or pity. Hamlet wants
Hamlet's subsequent decline into madness. He reads a the speech because he is dubious about the morality of
letter he has been given from Hamlet to Ophelia to revenge and the speeches' portrayal of Pyrrhus helps
him to confirm these doubts in his mind.
prove his case.
Alternatively, he may remember the speech well (as
Hamlet enters reading a book about old men, and
indeed he seems to) and have realised that the
the court disappears to allow Polonius to try to draw
Pyrrhus figure resembles both himself and
out the prince. Hamlet acts as though he is insane and
his remarks encourage Polonius in his beliefs about Claudius. He may feel that to take revenge would
Hamlet's madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have reduce him to Claudius' level. His call for this speech
a go at finding out the reasons for Hamlet's madness, helps him confirm his doubts about his task of revenge.
suggesting he is ambitious. Hamlet denies this, tells It is impossible to be sure of a true interpretation
them he is melancholy but does not know why, and here. I personally favour the first because it is
quickly detects his erstwhile friends' duplicity. The supported both in the way Pyrrhus is portrayed and in
conversation is diverted onto the topic of the Players the way it tallies with the feelings in the soliloquy which
who are about to arrive in Elsinore. Polonius re-enters follows. The second two readings, which suggest that he
to introduce them and Hamlet calls for a passionate wants the speech in order to explore or confirm his
doubts about revenge, depend upon an assumption that
speech. The sad tale of Priam's death at the hands of
Hamlet doubts the morality of revenge. People who
Pyrrhus and Hecuba's woe reduces the actor who favour this reading of the Prince often want to see the
recites the speech to tears. prince as thoroughly noble.
In his third soliloquy Hamlet bemoans his lack of A slightly more sophisticated reading of this section
passion in comparison to the player, tries to stimulate is also possible, which takes account of the idea that the
his feelings through passionate speech and berates difficulty in deciding whether Pyrrhus more resembles
himself for having done so. He then decides to put on a Hamlet or Claudius. The play may well br inviting us
play: all that has stopped him, he suggests has been the to see Pyrrhus as similar to both Hamlet and
possibility that the ghost may be a devil. A play Claudius. This line of reasoning would suggest that
depicting his father's death may move Claudius to Hamlet and Claudius are both like Pyrrhus. Both would
confession, or at least look guilty. With this evidence, take the law into their own hands to achieve their aims.
Hamlet will 'know [his] course'. The revenger becomes the mirror of his enemy. It is
not unreasonable to combine this sort of reading with
What? Why? How? any of the above explanations. The play invites
1. In what ways is the Pyrrhus character similar to different understandings which can be held
Hamlet? and to Claudius? simultaneously. The search for a meaning is usually
Pyrrhus resembles Hamlet in that his mission is to pretty futile in Shakespeare.
kill a king in revenge for his father's death. (Pyrrhus'
father was Achilles who famously died from an arrow 2. How might the answer to (1) above help to
wound in the ankle). He also resembles Claudius in that explain Hamlet's desire to be reminded of this speech 'in
he is the murderer of the rightful king of Troy. particular'?
This double application of the Pyrrhus story to that I hope that the previous answer does enough to
cover this point. Briefly, either: (a) he wants to be that can be proven on the basis of this act.
worked up to act like Pyrrhus; or (b) he wants to be There are plenty of possibilities here, most of them
worked up to kill the Pyrrhus in his own plot (i.e. negative, including:
Claudius); or (c) he wants to explore his doubts about • Suspicious: Polonius believes that it is likely
revenge. I personally prefer the second explanation. that his son is up to no good in Paris, hence his plan to
find out the truth through his agent, Reynaldo.
3. How might we connect the content of Hamlet's • Forgetful: Polonius forgets his plan to trap
supposedly crazy remarks to Polonius to what the his son halfway thorough explaining it to Reynaldo.
prince is actually feeling? • Servile: Polonius is terrified by the King,
These lines are obviously pretty bizarre and can, leading to his longwindedness at the start of II.ii. when
again, be interpreted in more than one way. I think that he tries to explain away the fact that he has (he believes)
the thing to watch out for is Hamlet's fear of and driven the King's nephew mad.
fascination with death and his repulsion from • Gullible: Polonius is completely taken in by
sex. This attitude towards death has been present since Hamlet's act of madness when he attempts to 'board'
the start of the play, but his mission to kill Claudius, a him in the second part of II.ii.
mission which will quite possibly result in his own death • Arrogant: Polonius believes himself to be a
is likely to have made death far more of a real concern genius. He is extremely proud of his plan to entrap his
to the prince, less of an academic interest. son in II.i. and his plan to ensnare Hamlet in II.ii. by
The 'Fishmonger' line at II.ii.172 has got nothing to spying on a meeting between the prince and his
do with death or sex, though. With this greeting, daughter.
Hamlet is telling Polonius he is mad. He no longer • Callous: Polonius is perfectly happy to expose
speaks the 'proper' decorous language of the court (for his daughter to the 'mad' prince in order to curry
example, he says 'y'are' instead of 'you are') and does favour with the King. He even uses the word 'loose',
not recognise people. The idea of Polonius as a saying 'I'll loose my daughter to him'. This expression
fishmonger is simply 'wacky'. You may come across the would only usually be used in an agricultural context, as
ingenious interpretation that 'fishmonger' is Elizabethan in loosing a cow to a bull. Its use here may suggest that
slang for a pimp. Unfortunately, 'juicy' though this he expects Ophelia to be sexually assaulted by Hamlet.
theory is, it hasn't really been adequately proven.
Then Hamlet talks about the lack of honesty 5. Why might one suspect that Hamlet's theory that
(honour) in the world, simultaneously insulting Polonius the ghost may be devil is not what has actually stopped
with the suggestion that he is not as honourable as a him from taking action?
fishmonger. This quite clearly follows Hamlet's own When Hamlet says that he thinks the ghost that he
opinion, recalling his observation that the world is like has seen 'may be a devil' in the last lines of this act, the
an "unweeded garden" in I.ii. audience may be justifiably surprised. Nowhere
The question 'For if the sun ... a daughter?' (179) previously in the act has Hamlet doubted the ghost's
seems calculated to feed Polonius' fears. Hamlet knows words or identity. In a way, it is convenient for
how wary Polonius is about his daughter's chastity Hamlet to believe that the ghost is a devil. In the
from hard experience. Here he seems to imply that the soliloquy at the end of II.ii., Hamlet has been criticising
'son' (himself) may breed with Polonius' daughter. The himself for failing to take action against the King. He is
line is also an image of death, decay and unlicensed disgusted that the player manages to summon up more
breeding which might again recall Hamlet's impression feeling for the fictional sorrow of Hecuba than he
that the world is an 'unweeded garden' from the first himself is able to summon for the real death of his
soliloquy (I.ii.135). father. All of a sudden, he suggests that the ghost may
Hamlet then tells Polonius not to let his daughter be a devil. This gets him out of his problem. Now, it is
out, since she may become pregnant (conceive a child) sensible not to have killed Claudius, rather than
with the 'sun' (son) if she does so. This is another line
cowardly. The devil might be trying to get Hamlet to
which seems to be intended to increase Polonius' fears
commit a mortal sin in order to win his soul. Isn't it
about his daughter's chastity. It is also another image
essential, he suggests, to obtain certain proof of the
of unlicensed "breeding".
King's guilt before he proceeds?
Determined to draw Hamlet out, Polonius asks
This explanation helps to explain the suddenness of
about the book he is reading. This allows Hamlet to
Hamlet's doubt. But it is by no means flawless. First,
insult Polonius again and to annoy him with his
these words are spoken in soliloquy. In soliloquies,
contrary misinterpretations of the latter's questions.
according to Elizabethan custom, characters do not lie.
Finally, Hamlet suggests that Polonius would lead
They offer immediate access to the character's world
him into his grave and refuses him his life, two lines
view. This does not mean that characters cannot be
which suggest Hamlet's awareness that his mission may
attempting to justify themselves to the audience, or
be the death of him.
themselves, but they do not lie about their feelings.
Second, this explanation seems to depend on the
4. Name FIVE different characteristics of Polonius
common assumption that Hamlet does not want to kill Hamlet during this act?
Claudius, which would be very difficult to prove. I can When he visits Ophelia shortly before II.i.,
believe that he doesn't want to die and that he doesn't Hamlet's madness is supposedly that of melancholy
want to go to hell, and both of these can be easily unrequited lover. He is pale, mournful and silent,
proven. But there is no proof that Hamlet doesn't seemingly driven to distraction by the loss of
want to kill the king or that he doesn't accept this as his Ophelia, according to Polonius.
duty. Then, when meets Polonius in the lobby in II.ii.,
Hamlet plays the lunatic clown. Satirical and irreverent,
6. What reasons for not acting are suggested by incapable of ordered speech or understanding the most
Hamlet himself? straightforward questions, Hamlet's madness has
Hamlet says to Polonius: 'Use every man after his completely changed.
desert and who shall 'scape whipping' (II.ii.485). This is On meeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet
a casual remark and is in part an insult to Polonius, drops the clown act and switches to the melancholic. He
suggesting that if he were treated according to what he tells them of his misery and jadedness, but says that he
deserves then he would be whipped. However, it may is unable to understand its cause.
contain more possibilities. It is a remark which brings to Three different acts of madness within the course of
mind Hamlet's religious views and the doctrine of a few hours would suggest that Hamlet is either very
Original Sin. For Hamlet, we've all got it coming. bad at acting or doesn't really care whether anyone
How can you be a revenger with beliefs like this? To be believes it. I think that Hamlet's inability to sustain a
a successful revenger, you have to believe that you performance of madness is very curious. Perhaps he is
have got the moral higher ground; you have to believe unable to control himself, being madder than he
you are better than your enemy. Hamlet thinks we're all imagines. Perhaps he is simply using the appearance of
sinful. How, then, can he be the judge of another? madness in order to be able to express his contempt for
However, this is something of a "throwaway" comment everyone he sees.
and though it certainly reflects Hamlet's background
and education, it may not provide an accurate measure 8. What do each of the main characters feel to be
of his attitude towards his task. the cause of Hamlet's madness?
In his soliloquy at the end of the act, Hamlet When the King greets Rosencrantz and
accuses himself of lacking the strong feelings required of Guildenstern at the start of the act, he says he isn't sure
a revenger. He also accuses himself of cowardice. The of the reason for the prince's madness. What he is sure
first of these explanations seems plausible. Hamlet's of, however, is that there is something more than his
hatred of Claudius seems to have more to do with the father's death. Typically, he suspects a secret cause
fact that he married his mother than that he murdered and wants to know what it is as soon as possible.
his father. Hamlet feels contempt towards Claudius, Gertrude suspects that the cause is 'his father's
certainly, but does he hate him enough to kill him? death and [her] o'erhasty marriage' to Claudius. This is
Additionally, Hamlet's feelings for his father are far interesting on two counts.
from simple. Whenever he speaks about him, it is in First, she is very close to the truth. Of course, she
abstract terms of respect and awe. When he meets his does not know that Hamlet is acting, but she does
father's ghost, there is little tenderness in Hamlet's recognise the causes of his melancholy with complete
responses to it. If we compare Hamlet's description of accuracy.
his father in the first soliloquy in which he compares his Second, it signals some guilt on Gertrude's part at
attributes to those of Greek gods with his tender- her quick remarriage. Gertrude is not completely
hearted description of Yorick in V.i., it seems likely that immoral or insensitive, I would suggest, though she still
he preferred Yorick to his father. might be viewed as weak-willed for having married
The idea that Hamlet is a coward is initially when she knew it was wrong. The critic A.C. Bradley
appealing because it explains the prince's failure and fits said Gertrude was "sheep-like". A.C. Bradley is very
in with the idea of him being meditative and melancholy, out-of-date in many respects, but this remains a very
more used to silent contemplation than action. provocative observation.
However, I'm not entirely convinced. In Act One, scene Polonius, like the King and Queen, has also come
four, Hamlet says he'll follow the ghost even though it up with a theory about Hamlet's madness. Unlike
may be a devil and threatens to kill his friends if they theirs, however, his theory is miles away from the
try to stop him. Later in the play, in Act Four, scene truth. He has decided that Hamlet is 'mad for
six, we learn that Hamlet boarded a pirate ship single- [Ophelia's] love' (II.i.). This reflects his jealousy of his
handed in an attempt to subdue the attackers of his ship daughter's chastity and intellectual arrogance.
to England. These are not the actions of a Hamlet, divining Polonius' ideas, is happy to play
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are determined that
7. What different types of madness do we see in Hamlet is mad because his ambitions have been foiled.
In their discussion of dreams with the prince, they congregation of vapours (II.ii.285)
continually try to force Hamlet to admit to ambition, a
point he flatly denies. Their theory reflects their own Themes
cutthroat ambition, which has allowed them to sell their 1. Who is acting a part in this act? In what ways?
schoolfriend for the price of royal favour. Appearances being at odds with reality is a
In each case, the theory of madness suggested by a major Shakespearean theme appearing in nearly all of
character tells us more about that character than it tells the plays. The answer to the question is, of course,
us about Hamlet. As the gentleman in Act Four, scene nearly everyone.
five says, mad speech is 'nothing'. But in its Claudius is obviously covering up the fact that he's
nothingness, it acts as a kind of mirror, reflecting a murderer and is pretending to be the concerned uncle.
on the observers' temperaments and concerns. Polonius pretends that he stopped the relationship
between Hamlet and Ophelia out of respect for the King
9. Why might we agree that Claudius is a good and because Hamlet was out of his daughter's social
king? class. Then he humours Hamlet, pretending the prince
As noted above, Claudius has intuitively divined makes sense to him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
that there is more to Hamlet's madness than meets the pretend to be Hamlet's loyal friends anxious for his
eye. There is a hidden secret which needs to be 'opened' health. Finally, Hamlet is pretending (variously) to be
if Claudius is to rule safely. He knows that the Prince mad.
will not talk to him and so he dispatches Rosencrantz Interestingly, the only other major character in Act
and Guildenstern to spy on the prince. He has Two, the player, is a professional pretender. And he
overestimated their guile and underestimated Hamlet's doesn't act at all. His speech is a narrative rather than
perceptiveness, however. Nonetheless, at this juncture, a dramatic monologue and his feelings for Hecuba are,
he comes up with the best plan possible. Once as the prince realises, quite genuine.
he is sure that Hamlet is a danger, he will make plans This play has more to say on the subject of Acting
to eliminate him swiftly and secretly. and Truth in Act Three. Suffice to say here, that only
It is also worth noting that his deflection of the the professional player's performance is truthful. Acting
threat from Young Fortinbras has been entirely might hide the truth in the hands of amateurs. But in
successful and has led to the strengthening of the the hands of professionals, it enlightens and
peace between Denmark and Norway. creates truth.
10. How does the Polonius and Reynaldo scene in 2. 'The time is out of joint'. In what ways does
II.i. contribute to the effect of the play as a whole? Hamlet discover this to be the case during Act Two?
This is an odd section of the play and one which Hamlet's friends have turned out to be the King's
is very frequently cut from performances. There is no spies.
consequence of this scene: Reynaldo never comes back The tragedians of the city, actors of genuine skill
from France and so directors need fear no loose ends if according to Hamlet, have been banned from the city.
they do cut it. They are, in any case, happy to move on because their
In terms of character, the scene enhances our place has been taken by child performers.
understanding of Polonius. He is shown to be suspicious People who used to make faces at Claudius will now
and cynical, even regarding his own son. This pay a fortune for a miniature of the King.
reinforces the suspicion and cynicism suggested by his
attitude towards the relationship between Hamlet and 3. Find THREE references to remembering or
Ophelia in I.iii. forgetting our feelings.
Thematically, this is a scene about the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been brought
relationship between sons and fathers, and is, like every up with Hamlet since early youth, but immediately
scene in the play so far, a scene of instruction, each of forget their friendship when offered a king's bounty.
them paralleling the central instructions of the ghost to Fortinbras happily gives up his plan to regain his
Hamlet and showing us the very different ways in father's lands when he is given a commission by the
which instructions may be given and received. king of Norway.
Finally, the atmosphere of the play is enhanced In his letter, Hamlet swears that his love for
Ophelia will never waver.
by the addition of an extra spying plot which increases
Hamlet reminds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
our sense of the claustrophobic nature of the Danish
rather bitterly, of the 'obligation of our ever preserved
The players have lost their popularity in the city.
Imagery and Symbolism Claudius has become popular with people who used
1. Find TWO references to disease or decay. to scorn him.
maggots in a dead dog (II.ii.179) Hamlet suggests he has lost his passion to avenge
the air ... appeareth ... to me ... a foul and pestilent
his father's death.