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Summary Act II

SCENE 1

Additional character(s): Reynaldo--Polonius' servant

We are in Polonius’ house as Polonius, the busybody, instructs his servant, Reynaldo, on what he--Reynaldo--is to do before delivering the money that Laertes is expecting from his father. Reynaldo, Polonius says, is to dissimulate someone who has a passing acquaintance of Laertes and under that pretext enquire about for Laertes and slander him. Reynaldo is reluctant to do this, but Polonius assures him that slandering his son in public is the only way to a get a true report of his son’s reputation. Reynaldo leaves, acknowledging his duty. Soon thereafter, Ophelia bursts into her father’s room, relating an unsettling encounter she had just had with Prince Hamlet. Apparently, the prince had appeared before her in a state of utter dishevelment, giving her the impression that he was in extreme duress. Although Ophelia avers that she could not determine the cause, Polonius concludes that it could be no other than unrequited love and decides to take up the matter with the king lest the unstable mind of the prince undermines the well-being of the kingdom.


SCENE 2

Additional character(s): Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--courtiers and childhood acquaintances of Prince Hamlet; 1st Player--an actor in a troop of actors who Hamlet recognizes

Claudius and Gertrude, the king and queen, have commissioned courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood acquaintances, to keep Hamlet company. Anon, Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, enters the scene and informs the king and queen that he has found out the cause of Prince Hamlet’s distemper and proposes to give proof, but not before the king and queen give audience to Cornelius and Voltemand who have returned from Norway with good news. The news is good indeed: Fortinbras has turned his aggression against Poland and he only requires that Denmark permit his troops to march through her en route to Poland. Pleased with the news, Claudius dismisses the ambassadors from Norway and turns to the business of his disgruntled nephew. After much beating about the bush, Polonius produces a document. It is a love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia. Polonius avers that the cause of Hamlet’s distemper can be no other than his injunction forbidding Ophelia to reciprocate Hamlet’s affections. To prove it, Polonius proposes to engage the prince directly while the king and queen hide and observe. The scheme is agreed to and is carried out by and by. The desired proof is scarcely produced but there’s no persuading Polonius who will test his theory again, later.

Meanwhile Hamlet finds himself in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whose sudden appearance and over-the-top chumminess strikes the prince as disingenuous. His suspicion proves to be right as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confess that their visit is actually a performance of a duty as commissioned by the king and queen. Without going into specifics, Hamlet expounds on his existential disillusionment, the unhappy tenor of which is interrupted, however temporarily, by the appearance of a troop of traveling actors. Hamlet welcomes the actors. He escorts them to the city gate where they are all greeted by Polonius. Recalling their earlier encounter, Hamlet baits and humors Polonius with a reference to Ophelia when, out of the corner of his eyes, Hamlet sees an actor whose face is familiar. Hamlet accosts the actor and entreats him to recite Aeneas’ speech to Dido, which speech Hamlet had once before witnessed the actor perform. The speech involves the fall of Troy, exemplified by the instant when Pyrrhus slaughters Priam. The actor performing it weeps, so moving is the speech. Polonius finds its length unbearable, however, and as a result he is at odds with Hamlet. It’s not the only thing for which the two are at odds, however. Indeed, Hamlet finds Polonius’ manners and attitude with respect to the actors needlessly condescending and tells him so.

Alone again, Hamlet is incredulous at the discrepancy he had just witnessed. Doesn’t his real-life predicament warrant a passion astronomically more intense than the make-believe passion that was just just demonstrated? The discrepancy is so startling that Hamlet accuses himself of being a coward, a kitchen wench, and whatnot only to compose himself and arrive at a course of action that would erase any doubts as to the ghost’s substantiality. He will stage a play depicting a king’s murder at the hands of the king’s brother. And if uncle Claudius betrays a guilty conscience, vengeance will have its day.

William Shakespeare