Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2 Soliloquy Essay Definition


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ACT II SCENE II A room in the castle. 
KING CLAUDIUSWelcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
Moreover that we much did long to see you,
The need we have to use you did provoke
Our hasty sending. Something have you heard
Of Hamlet's transformation; so call it,
Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was. What it should be,
More than his father's death, that thus hath put him
So much from the understanding of himself,
I cannot dream of: I entreat you both,10
That, being of so young days brought up with him,
And sith so neighbour'd to his youth and havior,
That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
Some little time: so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus,
That, open'd, lies within our remedy.
QUEEN GERTRUDEGood gentlemen, he hath much talk'd of you;
And sure I am two men there are not living20
To whom he more adheres. If it will please you
To show us so much gentry and good will
As to expend your time with us awhile,
For the supply and profit of our hope,
Your visitation shall receive such thanks
As fits a king's remembrance.
ROSENCRANTZBoth your majesties
Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,
Put your dread pleasures more into command
Than to entreaty.
GUILDENSTERNBut we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent30
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded.
KING CLAUDIUSThanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.
QUEEN GERTRUDEThanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz:
And I beseech you instantly to visit
My too much changed son. Go, some of you,
And bring these gentlemen where Hamlet is.
GUILDENSTERNHeavens make our presence and our practises
Pleasant and helpful to him!
[ Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, and some Attendants]
LORD POLONIUSThe ambassadors from Norway, my good lord,40
Are joyfully return'd.
KING CLAUDIUSThou still hast been the father of good news.
LORD POLONIUSHave I, my lord? I assure my good liege,
I hold my duty, as I hold my soul,
Both to my God and to my gracious king:
And I do think, or else this brain of mine
Hunts not the trail of policy so sure
As it hath used to do, that I have found
The very cause of Hamlet's lunacy.
KING CLAUDIUSO, speak of that; that do I long to hear.50
LORD POLONIUSGive first admittance to the ambassadors;
My news shall be the fruit to that great feast.
KING CLAUDIUSThyself do grace to them, and bring them in.
He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found
The head and source of all your son's distemper.
QUEEN GERTRUDEI doubt it is no other but the main;
His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.
KING CLAUDIUSWell, we shall sift him.
Welcome, my good friends!
Say, Voltimand, what from our brother Norway?
VOLTIMANDMost fair return of greetings and desires.60
Upon our first, he sent out to suppress
His nephew's levies; which to him appear'd
To be a preparation 'gainst the Polack;
But, better look'd into, he truly found
It was against your highness: whereat grieved,
That so his sickness, age and impotence
Was falsely borne in hand, sends out arrests
On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys;
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more70
To give the assay of arms against your majesty.
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack:
With an entreaty, herein further shown,
[Giving a paper]
That it might please you to give quiet pass
Through your dominions for this enterprise,
On such regards of safety and allowance
As therein are set down.
KING CLAUDIUSIt likes us well;80
And at our more consider'd time well read,
Answer, and think upon this business.
Meantime we thank you for your well-took labour:
Go to your rest; at night we'll feast together:
Most welcome home!
LORD POLONIUSThis business is well ended.
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?90
But let that go.
QUEEN GERTRUDEMore matter, with less art.
LORD POLONIUSMadam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity;
And pity 'tis 'tis true: a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains100
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. Perpend.
I have a daughter--have while she is mine--
Who, in her duty and obedience, mark,
Hath given me this: now gather, and surmise.
'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most

beautified Ophelia,'--
That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase; 'beautified' is
a vile phrase: but you shall hear. Thus:
'In her excellent white bosom, these, &c.'
QUEEN GERTRUDECame this from Hamlet to her?
LORD POLONIUSGood madam, stay awhile; I will be faithful.
'Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.119
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.'
This, in obedience, hath my daughter shown me,
And more above, hath his solicitings,
As they fell out by time, by means and place,
All given to mine ear.
KING CLAUDIUSBut how hath she
Received his love?
LORD POLONIUSWhat do you think of me?
KING CLAUDIUSAs of a man faithful and honourable.130
LORD POLONIUSI would fain prove so. But what might you think,
When I had seen this hot love on the wing--
As I perceived it, I must tell you that,
Before my daughter told me--what might you,
Or my dear majesty your queen here, think,
If I had play'd the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb,
Or look'd upon this love with idle sight;
What might you think? No, I went round to work,
And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:140
'Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:' and then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;
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,150
And all we mourn for.
KING CLAUDIUSDo you think 'tis this?
QUEEN GERTRUDEIt may be, very likely.
LORD POLONIUSHath there been such a time--I'd fain know that--
That I have positively said 'Tis so,'
When it proved otherwise?
KING CLAUDIUSNot that I know.
LORD POLONIUS[Pointing to his head and shoulder]
Take this from this, if this be otherwise:
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.
KING CLAUDIUSHow may we try it further?159
LORD POLONIUSYou know, sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby.
QUEEN GERTRUDESo he does indeed.
LORD POLONIUSAt such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
Be you and I behind an arras then;
Mark the encounter: if he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters.
KING CLAUDIUSWe will try it.
QUEEN GERTRUDEBut, look, where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.
LORD POLONIUSAway, I do beseech you, both away:
I'll board him presently.
[ Exeunt KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, and Attendants ]
[Enter HAMLET, reading]
O, give me leave:
How does my good Lord Hamlet?170
HAMLETWell, God-a-mercy.
LORD POLONIUSDo you know me, my lord?
HAMLETExcellent well; you are a fishmonger.
LORD POLONIUSNot I, my lord.
HAMLETThen I would you were so honest a man.
LORD POLONIUSHonest, my lord!
HAMLETAy, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.
LORD POLONIUSThat's very true, my lord.180
HAMLETFor if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a
god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?
LORD POLONIUSI have, my lord.
HAMLETLet her not walk i' the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.
Friend, look to 't.
LORD POLONIUS[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my
daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this. I'll speak to him again.
What do you read, my lord?190
HAMLETWords, words, words.
LORD POLONIUSWhat is the matter, my lord?
HAMLETBetween who?
LORD POLONIUSI mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
HAMLETSlanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here
that old men have grey beards, that their faces are
wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of
wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir,
though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet
I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for
yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab
you could go backward.202
LORD POLONIUS[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method
in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
HAMLETInto my grave.
LORD POLONIUSIndeed, that is out o' the air.
How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness
that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity
could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will
leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of
meeting between him and my daughter.--My honourable
lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.
HAMLETYou cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
more willingly part withal: except my life, except
my life, except my life.214
LORD POLONIUSFare you well, my lord.
HAMLETThese tedious old fools!
LORD POLONIUSYou go to seek the Lord Hamlet; there he is.
ROSENCRANTZ[To POLONIUS] God save you, sir!
GUILDENSTERNMy honoured lord!
ROSENCRANTZMy most dear lord!
HAMLETMy excellent good friends! How dost thou,
Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?
ROSENCRANTZAs the indifferent children of the earth.
GUILDENSTERNHappy, in that we are not over-happy;
On fortune's cap we are not the very button.
HAMLETNor the soles of her shoe?
ROSENCRANTZNeither, my lord.
HAMLETThen you live about her waist, or in the middle of
her favours?
GUILDENSTERN'Faith, her privates we.
HAMLETIn the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she
is a strumpet. What's the news?229
ROSENCRANTZNone, my lord, but that the world's grown honest.
HAMLETThen is doomsday near: but your news is not true.
Let me question more in particular: what have you,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?
GUILDENSTERNPrison, my lord!
HAMLETDenmark's a prison.
ROSENCRANTZThen is the world one.
HAMLETA goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.
ROSENCRANTZWe think not so, my lord.240
HAMLETWhy, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.
ROSENCRANTZWhy then, your ambition makes it one; 'tis too
narrow for your mind.
HAMLETO God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.
GUILDENSTERNWhich dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
HAMLETA dream itself is but a shadow.251
ROSENCRANTZTruly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.
HAMLETThen are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and
outstretched heroes the beggars' shadows. Shall we
to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason.
GUILDENSTERNWe'll wait upon you.
HAMLETNo such matter: I will not sort you with the rest
of my servants, for, to speak to you like an honest
man, I am most dreadfully attended. But, in the
beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?261
ROSENCRANTZTo visit you, my lord; no other occasion.
HAMLETBeggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks; but I
thank you: and sure, dear friends, my thanks are
too dear a halfpenny. Were you not sent for? Is it
your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come,
deal justly with me: come, come; nay, speak.
GUILDENSTERNWhat should we say, my lord?
HAMLETWhy, any thing, but to the purpose. You were sent
for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks
which your modesties have not craft enough to colour:
I know the good king and queen have sent for you.272
ROSENCRANTZTo what end, my lord?
HAMLETThat you must teach me. But let me conjure you, by
the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of
our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved
love, and by what more dear a better proposer could
charge you withal, be even and direct with me,
whether you were sent for, or no?
HAMLET[Aside] Nay, then, I have an eye of you.--If you
love me, hold not off.281
GUILDENSTERNMy lord, we were sent for.
HAMLETI will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king
and queen moult no feather. I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
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! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling301
you seem to say so.
ROSENCRANTZMy lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.
HAMLETWhy did you laugh then, when I said 'man delights not me'?
ROSENCRANTZTo think, my lord, if you delight not in man, what
lenten entertainment the players shall receive from
you: we coted them on the way; and hither are they
coming, to offer you service.
HAMLETHe that plays the king shall be welcome; his majesty
shall have tribute of me; the adventurous knight
shall use his foil and target; the lover shall not
sigh gratis; the humourous man shall end his part
in peace; the clown shall make those laugh whose
lungs are tickled o' the sere; and the lady shall
say her mind freely, or the blank verse shall halt
for't. What players are they?312
ROSENCRANTZEven those you were wont to take delight in, the
tragedians of the city.
HAMLETHow chances it they travel? their residence, both
in reputation and profit, was better both ways.
ROSENCRANTZI think their inhibition comes by the means of the
late innovation.
HAMLETDo they hold the same estimation they did when I was
in the city? are they so followed?320
ROSENCRANTZNo, indeed, are they not.
HAMLETHow comes it? do they grow rusty?
ROSENCRANTZNay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but
there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases,
that cry out on the top of question, and are most
tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages--so they
call them--that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.328
HAMLETWhat, are they children? who maintains 'em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players--as it is most like, if their means are no
better--their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?
ROSENCRANTZ'Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and
the nation holds it no sin to tarre them to
controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid
for argument, unless the poet and the player went to
cuffs in the question.
HAMLETIs't possible?
GUILDENSTERNO, there has been much throwing about of brains.
HAMLETDo the boys carry it away?341
ROSENCRANTZAy, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.
HAMLETIt is not very strange; for mine uncle is king of
Denmark, and those that would make mows at him while
my father lived, give twenty, forty, fifty, an
hundred ducats a-piece for his picture in little.
'Sblood, there is something in this more than
natural, if philosophy could find it out.
[Flourish of trumpets within]
GUILDENSTERNThere are the players.
HAMLETGentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Your hands,
come then: the appurtenance of welcome is fashion
and ceremony: let me comply with you in this garb,
lest my extent to the players, which, I tell you,
must show fairly outward, should more appear like
entertainment than yours. You are welcome: but my
uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.
GUILDENSTERNIn what, my dear lord?
HAMLETI am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.
LORD POLONIUSWell be with you, gentlemen!359
HAMLETHark you, Guildenstern; and you too: at each ear a
hearer: that great baby you see there is not yet
out of his swaddling-clouts.
ROSENCRANTZHappily he's the second time come to them; for they
say an old man is twice a child.
HAMLETI will prophesy he comes to tell me of the players;
mark it. You say right, sir: o' Monday morning;
'twas so indeed.
LORD POLONIUSMy lord, I have news to tell you.
HAMLETMy lord, I have news to tell you.
When Roscius was an actor in Rome,-- 370
LORD POLONIUSThe actors are come hither, my lord.
HAMLETBuz, buz!
LORD POLONIUSUpon mine honour,--
HAMLETThen came each actor on his ass,--
LORD POLONIUSThe best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.380
HAMLETO Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
LORD POLONIUSWhat a treasure had he, my lord?
'One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved passing well.'
LORD POLONIUS[Aside] Still on my daughter.
HAMLETAm I not i' the right, old Jephthah?
LORD POLONIUSIf you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter
that I love passing well.390
HAMLETNay, that follows not.
LORD POLONIUSWhat follows, then, my lord?
'As by lot, God wot,'
and then, you know,
'It came to pass, as most like it was,'--
the first row of the pious chanson will show you
more; for look, where my abridgement comes.398
[Enter four or five Players]
You are welcome, masters; welcome, all. I am glad
to see thee well. Welcome, good friends. O, my old
friend! thy face is valenced since I saw thee last:
comest thou to beard me in Denmark? What, my young
lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is
nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the
altitude of a chopine. Pray God, your voice, like
apiece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the
ring. Masters, you are all welcome. We'll e'en
to't like French falconers, fly at any thing we see:
we'll have a speech straight: come, give us a taste
of your quality; come, a passionate speech.
First PlayerWhat speech, my lord?410
HAMLETI heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was
never acted; or, if it was, not above once; for the
play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas
caviare to the general: but it was--as I received
it, and others, whose judgments in such matters
cried in the top of mine--an excellent play, well
digested in the scenes, set down with as much
modesty as cunning. I remember, one said there
were no sallets in the lines to make the matter
savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might
indict the author of affectation; but called it an
honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very
much more handsome than fine. One speech in it I
chiefly loved: 'twas Aeneas' tale to Dido; and
thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of
Priam's slaughter: if it live in your memory, begin
at this line: let me see, let me see--
'The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,'--
it is not so:--it begins with Pyrrhus:--
'The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,430
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear'd
With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
Now is he total gules; horridly trick'd
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and damned light
To their lord's murder: roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.'440
So, proceed you.
LORD POLONIUS'Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and
good discretion.
First Player'Anon he finds him
Striking too short at Greeks; his antique sword,
Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,
Repugnant to command: unequal match'd,
Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage strikes wide;
But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
The unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium,450
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear: for, lo! his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' the air to stick:
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.
But, as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,460
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region, so, after Pyrrhus' pause,
Aroused vengeance sets him new a-work;
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armour forged for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod 'take away her power;470
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!'
LORD POLONIUSThis is too long.
HAMLETIt shall to the barber's, with your beard. Prithee,
say on: he's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he
sleeps: say on: come to Hecuba.
First Player'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen--'
HAMLET'The mobled queen?'
LORD POLONIUSThat's good; 'mobled queen' is good.480
First Player'Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up;
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep'd,
'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have
But if the gods themselves did see her then
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband's limbs,490
The instant burst of clamour that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods.'
LORD POLONIUSLook, whether he has not turned his colour and has
tears in's eyes. Pray you, no more.
HAMLET'Tis well: I'll have thee speak out the rest soon.
Good my lord, will you see the players well
bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time: after your death you were better have a bad
epitaph than their ill report while you live.
LORD POLONIUSMy lord, I will use them according to their desert.
HAMLETGod's bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.
HAMLETFollow him, friends: we'll hear a play to-morrow.
[Exit POLONIUS with all the Players but the First]
Dost thou hear me, old friend; can you play the
Murder of Gonzago?
First PlayerAy, my lord.511
HAMLETWe'll ha't to-morrow night. You could, for a need,
study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which
I would set down and insert in't, could you not?
First PlayerAy, my lord.
HAMLETVery well. Follow that lord; and look you mock him
[Exit First Player]
My good friends, I'll leave you till night: you are
welcome to Elsinore.
ROSENCRANTZGood my lord!
HAMLETAy, so, God be wi' ye;
Now I am alone.520
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,530
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,540
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall550
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,560
A scullion!
Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;570
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Next: Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1


Explanatory Notes for Act 2, Scene 2

From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.


Stage Direction. Rosencrantz, "A Danish nobleman of this name attended the Danish ambassador into England on the accession of James I." (Thornbury).

2. Moreover that, over and above the fact that.

3. provoke, incite, instigate.

4. Our hasty sending, our sending for you in such haste.

5. transformation, complete metamorphosis.

6. Sith, since; from "... A.S. sith than ... after that, since ... a contraction from sith than, put for sith tham, after that; where tham, that, is the dative case masculine of the demonstrative pronoun used as a relative"... (Skeat, Ety. Dict.). Here used illatively; in 1.12 temporarily.

7. that it was, that which it was; for the omission of the relative, see Abb. § 244: What it should be, what it is probable that it should be.

8, 9. that thus himself, that has so completely estranged him from all knowledge of himself; made it impossible for him to recognize what is proper, becoming to him; for put him ... from, cp. below, iii. 1. 182, and H. VIII. ii. 2. 57, "And with some other business put the king From these sad thoughts."

10. I cannot dream of, I cannot conceive in the faintest degree, by the wildest flight of imagination.

11. being ... him, since you were brought up with him from your earliest days; for of, applied to time and meaning from, see Abb. § 167.

12. And sith ... humour, and as you have since then been so intimately acquainted with his youthful disposition, his disposition since he grew up to manhood; youth and humour, a hendiadys; the quartos read haviour.

13. That, redundant owing to the parenthesis; vouchsafe your rest, be good enough to remain.

14. companies, companionship; for the plural, see note on i. 1. 173.

15. pleasures, indulgence in the way of amusements.

16. So much ... glean, so far as opportunity will enable you to pick up stray indications; in a literal sense, to gather what is left of the corn after the field has been reaped and the sheaves tied together.

17. Whether, metrically a monosyllable.

18. That, ... remedy, which, if made known to us, it would be in our power to cure.

21. To whom he more adheres, for whom he has a closer regard: cp. 1. 12, above.

22. gentry, courtesy; cp. v. 2. 106.

24. For the supply ... hope, thereby to furnish us with the means of realizing our hope in regard to Hamlet; thereby to furnish us with a hope which may be converted into a certainty.

25. visitation, visit; now more generally used for the appearance of some affliction, as the verb to visit, in L. L. L. v. 2. 222, "These lords are visited," sc. by the plague [of love]; or for the act of habitual visiting, as in the visitation of the sick.

26. As fits ... remembrance, as it is fitting for a king to show when bearing in mind a service rendered to him.

27. of us, over us; see Abb. § 174.

28, 9. Put your ... entreaty, signified your desires, which are to a subject too awful to be disobeyed, in the shape of command rather than of entreaty: But, though you might have commanded rather than entreated, we are just as ready to obey.

30. in the full bent, with the most thorough bending (of our energies); the figure is that of bending a bow to its fullest extent; cp. below, iii. 2. 367, and M. A. ii. 3. 232, "it seems her affections have their full bent."

32. To be commanded, to be put to such purposes as you may direct.

34. Thanks ... Rosencrantz, the queen inverts the order of the king's form of thanks to show that their gratitude was equally great to each of them.

37. bring, conduct; as frequently in Shakespeare.

38, 9. Heavens ... him! God grant that he may find pleasure in our society and help in our actions on his behalf; cp. Temp. i. 2. 175, "Heavens thank you for 't!"

41. Are joyfully return'd have come back full of joy at the success of their mission.

42. Thou still ... news, you have ever been the author, parent, of good news; cp. A. W. 1. 2. 62, "whose judgements are Mere fathers of their garments"; for still, cp. i. 1. 122.

44, 5. I hold ... king, I keep my duty and my soul as equally things in trust to my God and to my king; my soul to God, my duty to my king; in hold there seems to be an allusion to feudal holdings.

46-8, or else ... to do, unless the brain of mine follows up the trail of policy less keenly than it has been accustomed to do; this brain of mine, said with an affectation of humility which yet does not hide his complacent belief in himself; in trail of policy there seems to be a blending of two ideas, (1) the trail left by events, as an animal leaves a trail behind him either by his foot-marks or by his scent, (2) the clue discovered by sagacious management.

50. O, speak ... hear, let me hear about that first, and leave the subject of the mission, as of much less interest to me, until afterwards.

51. first, "thus Polonius gains the opportunity of studying a brief and pointed exordium, the only fault in which is its being altogether needless and misplaced" (Moberly).

52. the fruit, what we now call the dessert (that which is served apart), i.e. fruits and sweetmeats (formerly) put on the table after dinner, or served in a different room.

53. Thyself ... in, do you pay them the compliment of bringing them in.

54. my dear Gertrude, the folios give 'my sweet Queen,' which Grant White prefers as smacking more of the honeymoon.

55. distemper, here mental derangement; but also used by Shakespeare of physical sickness, Cymb. iii. 4. 194, and of intemperance in drinking, H. V. ii. 2. 54, Oth. i. 1. 99; and below, iii. 2. 288.

56. the main, the principal matter; cp. T. C. ii. 8. 273, "We must with all our main of power stand fast."

58. shall sift him, shall discover by sifting him.

60. Most fair ... desires, most courteous reciprocation of your greetings and good wishes.

61. Upon our first, at our first audience with him to state the object of our mission; sent out issued orders.

62. levies, acts of levying troops.

63. 'gainst the Polack, against the Poles; Polack, used collectively.

64, 5. But, ... highness, but, having looked into the matter more closely, he found that this preparation was in reality directed against, etc.; truly goes with was; cp. M. N. D. i. 1. 126, "Of something nearly that concerns ourselves," i.e. which nearly concerns; and see Abb. § 421.

66, 7. That so ... hand, that he, in the powerlessness to which he had been reduced by sickness and old age, had been so imposed upon; cp. Macb. iii. 1. 80, "pass'd in probation to you How you were borne in hand"; Marlowe, Jew of Malta, iii. 3. 3, "Both held in hand, and flatly both beguiled"; sends out, for the ellipsis of the nominative, see Abb. § 399.

68. in brief, not to enter into details.

69. Receives rebuke, is rebuked by, and loyally accepts rebuke.

71. To give ... majesty, to make an attack upon, etc., to make trial of superiority by first attacking, etc.

73. in annual fee, "the king gave his nephew a feud, or fee (in land), of that yearly value" (Ritson).

74. commission, authority.

75. So levied as before, levied in the manner already mentioned.

76. shown, set forth in writing.

77. quiet pass, a free passage.

78. this enterprise, i.e. the troops to be engaged in this enterprise.

79. On such ... allowance, on such conditions regarding the security of your country and the limits of action to be allowed to them.

80. It likes us well, we are well satisfied; on the frequency of impersonal verbs in Early and Elizabethan English, see Abb. § 297.

81. at our ... time, at a time more suitable for consideration. For instances of an indefinite and apparently not passive use of passive participles, see Abb. § 374.

82. Answer ... business, give our deliberate answer regarding this business. To get rid of what Shakespeare might call the 'preposterous' position of Answer, the hysteron proteron of grammarians, Hanmer would read 'And think upon an answer to,' while another conjecture is 'And think upon and answer to.'

83. well-took labour, service loyally undertaken and successfully carried out.

86. liege, see note on i. 1. 15; expostulate, investigate by means of discussion; in T. G. iii. 1. 251, "The time now serves not to expostulate," the word means simply to enter into discus- sion.

87. should be, ought to be; what its essentials are.

90. soul, essence; wit, wisdom.

91. outward flourishes, mere ostentatious embellishments; as in ornamental writing.

95. But let that go, but let that pass, never mind about further discussion of that point; matter, what is material.

96. art, "the Queen uses 'art' in reference to Polonius's stilted style; the latter uses it as opposed to truth and nature" (Delius).

98. figure, in the sense of a figure in rhetoric; said of his own words "'tis true ... true"; what Puttenham, Art of Poesie, calls the figure of 'antimetavole.'

100. and now remains, and it, or there, remains; for the ellipsis, see Abb. § 404.

103. For this ... cause, for this result which is one of deficiency, is not without its own cause.

104. Thus it ... thus, that is the position of matters so far (i.e. I have stated the case as regards his being mad, and of his madness being due to some cause or other) and now I come to my conclusion (showing what the cause is of the madness which I have demonstrated).

105. Perpend, weigh carefully what I am about to say; the word here used by Polonius in all seriousness, occurs again in the affected jargon of the Clowns in A. Y. L. iii. 1. 69, T. N. v. 1. 307, and of the braggart Pistol in M. W. ii. 1. 119, H. V. iv. 4. 8.

106. have ... mine, I say 'have,' which is true so long as she is mine.

108. gather, and surmise, a further piece of pedantry.

109. the celestial ... idol, the heavenly Ophelia, the object of my soul's worship; beautified, sc. by nature, i.e. beautiful. Dyce says 'the vile phrase' is common enough in our earlier writers, and Polonius's opinion in a matter of taste is certainly not final. Shakespeare uses the word again in T. G. iv. 1. 55.

113. In her ... these, an imitation of the form of address upon letters in those days; i.e.. I send these writings to her hoping they may find a place in, etc., letters being often treasured up in that way; cp. T. G. iii. 1. 250, "Thy letters ... Which being writ to me, shall be delivered Even in the milk-white bosom of thy love."

115. I will be faithful, I will keep nothing back, will reveal to you everything I know myself.

118. Doubt ... liar, suspect even truth itself of being, etc.

120. ill at these numbers, a poor hand at writing verses; art, skill, capacily.

121. reckon, number; his groans being innumerable; Delius takes the word to mean "number metrically"; most best, better than all superlatives can express; cp. Cymb. iii. 2. 58, "O not like me; For mine's beyond beyond."

123, 4. whilst ... him, so long as he lives; machine, the body endowed with life. The Cl. Pr. Edd. point out that the letter is written in the affected language of euphuism.

126, 8. And more ... ear, and over and above this has described to me all his solicitations, specifying when, how, and where they were made

129. What do ... me? said with sorrowful reproach, do you suppose me to be so wanting in wisdom as to allow her to receive proffers of love from one so much above her in rank as a prince?

131. fain, gladly; properly an adjective; what ... think, what might you not think, as we should now say.

132. this hot ... wing, this love borne upon so strong a wing; a figure from birds in full flight.

133. As I ... that, for, I must tell you, I certainly did perceive it.

136. If I had ... table-book, if I had shown myself of no more intelligence than a desk or memorandum-book (which have secrets committed to their keeping, but no power to take any action regarding those secrets).

137. Or given ... dumb, or lulled my heart to sleep, so that my feelings should not trouble me; cp. W. T. i. 2. 317, "To mine enemy a lasting wink," i.e. put him to sleep for ever.

138. Or look'd ... sight, or, recognizing the real importance of his love, had not taken such serious notice of it as I ought. There is a climax here.

139. I went ... work, instead of behaving in such a supine way, I proceeded to act with promptitude and firmness; Abbott, Bacon, Essay of Truth, remarks, "round was naturally used of that which was symmetrical and complete (as a circle is); then of anything thorough. Hence (paradoxically enough) 'I went round to work,' means I went straight to the point."

140. bespeak, address with words of caution; more commonly used of ordering something beforehand. For the use of the prefix be-, see Abb. § 438.

141. oat of thy star, far above you in his fortunes; another allusion to the influence of the stars upon man's destiny; cp. T. N. ii. 5. 156, "in my stars I am above thee."

142. prescripts, instructions to govern conduct; cp. A. C. iii. 8. 5, "Do not exceed The prescript of this scroll."

143. lock ... resort, shut herself up where he could not gain access to her.

144. tokens, sc. of love; presents, etc.

145. she took ... advice, she followed, and profited by, my advice.

146. repulsed, meeting with this repulse from her.

147. Fell into ... fast, first sank into a state of melancholy, which was followed by his abstaining from food.

148. a watch, a sleepless state; cp. Cymb. iii. 4. 43, "To lie in watch there and to think of him"; and the verb, iii. 2. 263, below.

149. lightness, lightheadedness, flightiness; cp. C. E. v. 1. 72, "And thereof comes it that his head is light": by this declension, by these downward degrees, this gradual passage from one state to another.

151. And all we, and which we all; "a feeling of the unemphatic nature of the nominatives we and they prevents us from saying 'all we,' 'all they'" (Abb. § 240).

153. Hath there been ... otherwise? in all the years of my service as lord chamberlain can you call to mind a single occasion when I have made a positive assertion that has afterwards proved to he unfounded? Polonins is deeply scandalized at the idea of his infallibility being called in question.

156. Take this ... otherwise, you may strike my head from my shoulders if what I tell you does not prove to be the fact; said as he points to his head and shoulders.

157. If circumstances lead me, if I have any facts to guide me, any clue to follow up.

159. the centre, of the earth; How may ... further? what further test can we employ in order to arrive at certainty in the matter.

160. four hours, used for a long, but indefinite, time. Staunton and Eltze have shown that in Elizabethan writing four and forty were frequently used in this indefinite way. To Indian students their own panch chahar will at once occur.

161. lobby, hall, ante room, passage.

162. loose ... him, allow my daughter to come out of her room to meet him.

163. an arras, a fold of tapestry; more frequently 'the arras'; so called from Arras, a town in Artois, France, the chief seat of the tapestry manufacture.

164. encounter, meeting.

165. thereon, in consequence of his love.

166. 7. Let me ... carters, let me no longer hold the responsible post I have so long held, but be sent to the country to busy myself with such a degrading pursuit as agriculture.

170. I'll ... presently, I'll attack him (i.e. in speech) immediately; cp. T. N. i. 3. 60, "board her, woo her, assail her"; presently, sometimes used by Shakespeare in the modern sense of 'by and by', 'shortly', but much more frequently as = at once, immediately; give me leave, excuse my interrupting you.

174. Excellent well, thoroughly well; for adjectives used as adverbs, see Abb. 1: a fishmonger, various recondite explanations have been given of Hamlet s meaning here, especially by the metaphysical Germans; the most simple one is Coleridge's, that Polonius is regarded by Hamlet as being sent to fish out his secret — if, indeed, Hamlet meant anything more than to mystify the inquisitive old man.

177. Honest, my lord! Polonius is indignant that his honesty should be doubted.

181, 2. being a ... carrion, though a God, yet stooping to kiss carrion; Malone quotes i. H. IV. ii. 4. 113. "didst thou never see Titan [i.e. the sun] kiss a dish of butter?" and King Edward the Third, 1596, "The freshest summers day doth soonest taint The loathed carrion that it seems to kiss." Possibly, as has been suggested, this obscure speech has reference to something previously passing in Hamlet's mind; more probably, I think, it was intended to contain such an admixture of sense and nonsense as would lead Polonius to the very conclusion at which he arrives in 11. 203, 4, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."

185. look to 't, be cautious in the matter; take care that she does not walk i' the sun.

186. How say you by that? what do you think of that?, said to himself in congratulation upon his own acuteness in divining that Hamlet's love for his daughter was the cause of his madness. For instances of by meaning about, concerning, see Abb. § 145.

186, 7. Still ... daughter, ever dwelling on the subject of my daughter; ever harping on the same string; cp. R. III. iv. 4. 364, "Harp on that string, madam; that is past"; A. C. iii. 13. 142, "harping on what I am, Not what he knew I was."

188. far gone, sc. in love.

189. suffered ... love, suffered the extremest pangs for love's sake; cp. Touchstone's descriptions of his sufferings, A. Y. L. ii. 4. 46-57: very near this, i.e. and was almost as far gone as Hamlet.

193. who, for instances of neglect in the inflection of who, see Abb. § 274. Hamlet pretends to understand Polonius's question as meaning 'What is the matter in dispute?'

197. eyes ... gum, eyes from which the rheum exudes of the colour and consistency of (liquid) amber or the gum of plum trees; cp. H. V. iv. 2. 48, "The gum down-roping from their pale-dead eyes."

198. a plentiful lack, strictly speaking, a contradiction of terms: hams, knee-joints; cp. R. J. ii. 4. 57, "such a case as yours constrained a man to bow in the hams."

199. most powerfully ... believe, most thoroughly believe; the exaggerated language is part of the plan to bamboozle the old man.

200. hold it not honesty, do not consider it a gentlemanly sentiment to give utterance to.

200-2. for yourself ... backward, probably only intended to puzzle the old man. "The natural reason," says Moberly, "would have been, 'For some time I shall be as old as you are now' (and, therefore, I take such sayings as proleptically personal). But Hamlet turns it to the opposite."

203. method, a certain orderliness.

204. out of the air, out into the air.

206. pregnant, full of point.

207. a happiness, a happy, felicitous turn of expression.

208. hits on, lights on by accident.

208, 9. could not ... of, could not manage to express so pointedly and neatly.

210. means ... daughter, measures by which he and my daughter shall be brought together.

216. These tedious old fools! Relieved of the empty verbiage of the old man, Hamlet at once returns to his natural self, though ready to assume his "antic disposition" at the appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

222. 3. Good lads ... both? my fine fellows, how are you both?

224. As the ... earth, as men whose lot on earth is in neither extreme.

225. Happy ... happy, happy in the fact that we are not at such a dizzy height of fortune that we need fear a sudden fall; a button being often placed at the top of the cap where the seams meet.

231. Then is doomsday near, then must the end of the world, the day of judgement lie at hand.

232. more in particular, more closely as to the particulars of your situation.

237. Then is the world one, then must the whole world be a prison, if Denmark, so happy and free, is one.

238. confines, chambers in which the lunatics are shut up; more usually in the sense of boundaries, limits.

239. wards, cells.

242. but thinking ... so, unless it is made so by thinking it to be good or bad.

244. your ambition ... one, it seems to you so because you are too ambitious to be satistied with your own subordinate position; an attempt to sound Hamlet as to the cause of his discontent.

246. I could ... nutshell, I could easily be satisfied with the narrowest limits.

249, 50. for the very ... dream, for that on which the ambitious feed their minds is even less substantial than a dream, it being merely the reflection of a dream.

254, 5. Then are ... shadows, in that case {sc. if ambition is of so airy and light a quality}, since it is only our monarchs and heroes who "bestride the narrow world like a Colossus" (J. C. i. 2. 134), that are ambitious, it follows that our beggars (who are the antitypes of the monarchs and heroes) must be the true bodies (the really substantial existences) of which the monarchs and heroes are but the shadows; shall we to, sc. go; the verb of motion being omitted, as frequently.

256. fay, "a corruption probably of the French foi, which in its earlier forms was feid, feit, fey, fe, or it may be a corruption of 'faith'" ... (Cl. Pr. Edd.). The former seems to be the more probable origin.

257. We'll wait upon you, we will attend you thither.

258. No such matter, I cannot allow of that, sc. of your waiting upon me; taking the words in a more literal sense than was intended by the speakers.

258-60. I will ... attended, I will not put you on a level with the rest of my servants, for, to tell you the truth, I am very badly served, those servants of mine are a bad lot; said as if he were confiding to them some strange and important secret the telling of which needed the assurance that he was speaking the honest truth.

260, 1. But, ... Elsinore? but, to ask you in the ordinary way of friendship, to ask you a question usual among friends, what has brought you to Elsinore?

262. occasion, cause, motive.

263. Beggar ... thanks, so utterly a beggar am I that I have hardly thanks to give you; but I thank you, still I do thank you.

264. 5. my thanks ... halfpenny, the Cl. Pr. Edd. compare Chaucer, C. T. 8875. Also, A. Y. L. ii. 3. 74, "too late a week"; Were ... for? I fancy you were sent for by the king (in order that you, as my old and intimate acquaintances, might find out what was the matter with me).

265. 6. Is it ... inclining? did you come of your own accord?

266. Is it ... visitation? have you come to visit me of your own free will?

267. nay, speak, nay, do not hesitate, but speak out.

268. should we say, ought we to say; do you wish us to say?

269. Why ... purpose, an intentionally enigmatical sentence which might bear either of two meanings, (1) say anything so long as it is to the point, (2) say anything except what is to the point. Hamlet has divined clearly enough the reason of this sudden appearance of his old companions.

270-2. there is ... colour, I can see in your looks a sort of confession which your natural ingenuousness prevents you fiom disguising as you would do if you were more crafty; for colour, cp. below. iii. 1. 45, and i. H. IV. i. 3. 109, "Never did base and rotten policy Colour her working with such deadly wounds."

274. That ... me, nay, that is for you to tell me, not for me to guess.

275-8. by the rights ... no? by the claims which our long friendship give me, by the fact of our having been brought up together in such close companionship, by the ties of affection which have ever bound us to one another, and by anything even more sacred to which a more skilful advocate could persuasively appeal, tell me in plain and straightforward terms whether, etc. For consonancy, cp. T. N. ii. 5. 141, "There is no consonancy in the sequel."

280. Nay, then ... you, ah, if you hesitate and whisper together, I see plainly there is something you wish to hide; my eye is upon you and you cannot deceive me. Steevens explains an eye of you as "a glimpse of your meaning," but surely Hamlet has a good deal more than a 'glimpse.' For of, = on, see Abb. § 174.

281. hold not off, do not keep aloof from me (figuratively), do not hesitate to speak out plainly.

283. I will tell you why, I know that, and will tell you with what object.

283-5. so shall ... feather, by forestalling you in explaining with what objects you were sent for, I shall save you from revealing it yourselves, and your good faith to the king and queen, which binds you to secrecy in the matter, will not suffer in the smallest particular; prevent, go before and so hinder (put behind, stop); discovery, cp. H. V. ii. 2. 162, "Never did faithful subject more rejoice At the discovery (i.e. exposure) of most dangerous treason"; moult no feather, literally lose none of its feathers, as birds do at certain seasons of the year; moult, ultimately from Lat. mutare, to change.

286. forgone ... exercises, completely abandoned all those exercises which were customary with me; such as fencing, horsemanship, etc. For exercises, in this sense, cp. K. J. iv. 2. 60, "deny his youth The rich advantage of good exercise?"

287. it goes ... disposition, it fares so sadly with the tone of my mind, my mood has become so desponding.

288, 9. most excellent canopy, supremely beautiful covering.

290. fretted, ornamented; A.S. fraetwan, fraetwian, to adorn; cp. Cymb. ii. 4. 88, "The roof o' the chamber With golden cherubins is fretted."

292. What a piece, i.e. what a wonderful piece.

293. in reason, in the matter of reason; faculty, mental power, literally, facility in acting.

294. moving, movement, carriage of the body; express, "exact, fitted to its purpose, as the seal fits the stamp" (Cl. Pr. Edd.).

294, 5. the beauty of the world, the supreme excellence of creation; the paragon of animals, peerless among things endowed with life; paragon, "a model of excellence ... A singular word, owing its origin to two prepositions united in a phrase. — Span, para, con, in comparison with ... Span. para, for, to, towards, which is itself a compound preposition answering to O. Span. pora, from at. pro, ad, and con, with, from Lat. cum, with. Thus it was really equivalent to the three Lat. prepositions pro, ad, cum" (Skeat, Ety. Dict.).

297. quintessence, literally the fifth essence, the pure essence of anything. "Aristoteles ... hath put down .... for elements, foure; and for a fifth, quintessence, the heavenly body which is immutable" (Holland's Plutarch, apud Skeat). Cp. P. L. iii. 714-21.

299. no such stuff, nothing of the kind; my mind was not filled with any such thought.

302. To think, at the thought; the indefinite infinitive; see Abb. § 256.

303. lenten entertainment, poor, scanty, welcome; from the spare diet prescribed during the fast of Lent. Cp. T. N. i. 5. 9, "A good lenten answer."

304. coted, overtook and passed; the word in the "technical sense is applied to a brace of greyhounds slipped together at the stag or hare, and means that one of the dogs outstrips the other and reaches the game first"... (Ed. Rev., Oct. 1872).

307. shall have ...me, shall receive from me the tribute of applause, as a king receives tribute of money, etc.; the adventurous knight, the knight-errant who goes in quest of adventures.

308. shall use ..target, shall have full opportunity of displaying his valour; the lover ... gratis, the lover shall be rewarded for playing his pathetic part.

309. the humorous ... peace, the capricious man shall have his full opportunity of venting his spleen.

310. tickle o' the sere. "The sere ... of a gun-lock is the bar or balance lever interposed between the trigger on the one side, and the tumbler and other mechanism on the other, and is so called from its acting the part of a serre, or talon, in gripping that mechanism and preventing its action ... Now ... this sear ... may be so tickle or ticklish in its adjustment that a slight touch, or even jar may displace it, and then, of course, the gun goes off". Hence 'light,' or 'tickle of the sear' ... applied metaphorically, means that which can be started into action at a mere touch, or on the slightest provocation, or on what ought to be no provocation at all" (Nicholson). Here, ready to laugh at the smallest joke. Sere = talon, claw, is common in the dramatists.

311, 2. the lady ... for 't, the lady shall talk as freely as she likes, or the fault of her not doing so shall lie in the halting character of the blank verse.

314. city, by this word "Shakespeare's public at once understood London" (Delius).

315. travel, are 'on a tour in the provinces,' as we should now say.

315, 6. their residence ... ways, it would be better for them, as regards both fame and profit, if they stayed in the capital.

317, 8. I think ... innovation, Steevens explains, "Rosencrantz means that their permission to act any longer at an established house is taken away in consequence of the new custom of introducing personal abuse into their comedies. Several companies of actors in the time of Shakespeare were silenced on account of this licentious practice." This explanation is questioned by the Cl. Pr. Edd., who in a very full discussion of the point (Introduction, pp. xiii.-xv.) show that for a very long period there had been a strong opposition in the city to theatrical performances. Inhibitions, or refusals to license theatres, had occurred in 1573, 1574, 1575, 1581, 1589, 1590, 1597, and other measures to restrain the abuses of the actors had been taken during the period. "It is difficult therefore," continue the editors, "to see at what precise period the explanation offered by Steevens could be true. In 1604 the indulgence of the actors in personal abuse could hardly be called an 'innovation'; on the contrary, it was a practice from which the stage had never been entirely free." They therefore conjecture that the 'innovation' may refer to the authority given to the children to act at the regularly licensed theatres, a permission which might have operated as an 'inhibition' upon the older actors by driving them into the country. They also point out that nothing is said about 'inhibition' or 'innovation' in the quarto of 1603; the first mention of the words being in the quarto of 1604, and "it is to the interval therefore that we must look for the explanation." See also Sidney Lee, Life of Shakespeare, p. 214.

319. do they ... estimation, are they held in the same esteem as, etc.

320. so followed, so much run after.

322. Do they grow rusty? is their acting less sprightly than before? have their powers of acting grown rusty by want of exercise?

323. Nay, ... pace


Scene 1

Act Two begins with Polonius speaking to one of his servants, Reynaldo, about his son, Laertes, who has by this time returned to Paris. We see Polonius in the act of sending Reynaldo after Laertes to inquire into his son’s conduct. He instructs Reynaldo very precisely in the method of obtaining this information. First, Reynaldo is to find out from strangers in Paris about the prominent Danes in the city without revealing that he has any particular attachment to Laertes. When Laertes’ name comes up, Reynaldo is to pretend to have some distant knowledge of him, and is further to suggest that he knows of Laertes as something of a happy-go-lucky youth given to gambling, drinking, fencing, swearing, fighting, and whoring. By this path of insinuation, Polonius explains, Reynaldo will hear from his hypothetical Parisian interlocutor the unvarnished truth about Laertes’ conduct in France. Having thus prepared Reynaldo to spy on his son, Polonius sends him off.

Ophelia enters, distraught. She tells her father that Hamlet has frightened her with his wild, unkempt appearance and deranged manners. After Ophelia describes Hamlet’s behavior, she further reveals that, as per Polonius’ orders, she has cut off all contact with Hamlet and has refused his letters. Polonius reasons, thus, that Hamlet’s madness is the result of Ophelia’s rejection. He had thought that Hamlet was only trifling with her, but it turns out (he now declares) that Hamlet was indeed deeply in love with Ophelia. Polonius hurries off to tell Claudius and Gertrude that he has discovered the reason for their son’s odd behavior.

Scene 2

King Claudius has made plans of his own to discover the reasons for Hamlet’s supposed madness. He has summoned two of Hamlet’s school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, both to comfort his nephew-cum-son and to try to discover the reason for his distemper (so he says). The two scholars are only too happy to oblige in this task.

After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave the royal presence, Polonius rushes in, announcing that he has found the reason for Hamlet’s madness. Before he reveals his news, however, he entreats Claudius and Gertrude to hear from the two ambassadors to Norway, Voltemand and Cornelius, who have just returned. They report that the King of Norway, after looking into his nephew Fortinbras’ actions, found out that he was indeed planning to invade Denmark. The King of Norway then rebuked Fortinbras and ordered him to abandon his plan of Danish conquest, which young Fortinbras agreed to do. Overjoyed at his nephew’s acquiescence, Norway then rewarded Fortinbras with a generous annual allowance. Further, Norway granted Fortinbras leave to levy war against the Polish. Finally, the ambassadors report that Norway seeks Claudius’ permission to allow Fortinbras passage through Denmark in this proposed campaign against Poland. Claudius declares his approval of this message and says that he will consider its details anon.

Polonius steps forward to reveal his discovery. He tells the king and queen, in a very roundabout way, that he has discovered Hamlet’s foiled love of Ophelia, and that he believes this lost love to be the root cause of Hamlet’s madness. Claudius asks how they might prove this to be the case. Polonius has a plan. He offers to loose Ophelia on Hamlet while he is reading alone in the library. Meanwhile, he suggests, he and Claudius could hide behind a tapestry and observe the meeting. Claudius agrees.

Just then, Hamlet enters, reading. Gertrude and Claudius exit while Polonius attempts to speak to Hamlet. Hamlet plays with Polonius, mocking him, evading his questions, and turning his language inside out. Nevertheless, Polonius “reads between the lines,” as it were, and interprets Hamlet’s nonsensical replies as motivated by a broken heart. Polonius leaves to contrive the proposed meeting between Hamlet and his daughter.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, surprising their friend Hamlet. The three friends banter philosophically for a good while before Hamlet asks the two why they have come to Elsinore. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to dodge this question, declaring that they have come for no other reason than to visit him. Hamlet, though, won’t let them off the hook, and makes them admit that the king and queen sent for them. When they admit it, Hamlet also tells them why they were sent for – because he has been deeply melancholy, and has foregone his accustomed behavior. He sinks deeply into a speech detailing this misery.

Rosencrantz changes the subject. He tells Hamlet that he and Guildenstern passed a troop of players on their way to Elsinore. They gossip briefly about the city theaters the troop had left before coming to Denmark (presumably those of London). Soon the players arrive with a flourish. Polonius rushes back into the scene, bearing the already stale news that the players have arrived. Hamlet banters with Polonius in the same mocking vein as before until the players burst into court, at which point Hamlet rushes up to welcome them.

Hamlet insists upon hearing a speech straight away, and in particular requests a recitation based on a scene in Virgil’s Aeneid, as related by Aeneas to Dido, recounting the death of Priam during the fall of Troy. Hamlet himself begins the speech and then cedes the floor to one of the players, who recites a long and fustian description of Priam’s death by Pyrrhus’ hand. The player goes on to speak of the wild grief of Hecuba, Priam’s wife, after her husband has been killed. While speaking of her agony, the player begins to weep and shake. Polonius finally cuts him off and Hamlet agrees.

Before the players retire, however, Hamlet pulls the main player aside and asks him whether the company knows a certain play, “The Murder of Gonzago.” The player says that they do, and Hamlet commissions it for the following night, saying that he will write some speeches of his own to be inserted into the play as written. The player says that this would be fine and then takes his leave.

Left alone on stage, Hamlet muses about the strangeness of his situation. He asks himself, “How can this player be so filled with grief and rage over Priam and Hecuba, imaginary figures whom he doesn’t even know, while I, who have every reason to rage and grieve and seek bloody revenge, am weak, uncertain, and incapable of action?” He curses himself and his indecisiveness before cursing his murderous uncle in a rage. Having regained composure, Hamlet announces his plan to make sure that the ghost of his father is genuine – that the apparition was not some evil spirit sent to lure his soul to damnation. He declares his intention to stage a play exactly based on the murder of his father. While it is played he will observe Claudius. If the king is guilty, Hamlet figures, surely he will show this guilt when faced with the scene of the crime.


This Act begins by establishing the atmosphere of political intrigue at Elsinore. Polonius plots to spy on Laertes by means of Reynaldo; Claudius and Gertrude plot to spy on Hamlet by means of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Norway foils Fortinbras’ plot to invade Denmark, only to assist him in a venture against Poland. It seems that everyone in Elsinore is plotting against everyone else. Significantly, though, these intrigues are represented as very clumsy, if not stupid. Polonius’ instructions to Reynaldo are so comically complex and so circuitously related that he himself loses track of them at one point. And his attempt to relate his great discovery of Hamlet’s broken heart to Claudius and Gertrude in the second scene does not go any better. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” he says (another instance of Polonius getting one of Shakespeare’s most famous and most often decontextualized lines); and he then proceeds to be anything but brief, anything but witty. Rather, he is dull, pedantic, self-important, pompous, flowery – and, more to the point, dead wrong. As in Act One, Polonius obviously fancies himself a great political mind. We might beg to differ.

Claudius, too, shows remarkable political stupidity in trusting to the espionage of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two rather clownish fellows whom Hamlet sees through instantly. Moreover, the Norway episode reveals Claudius’ blunt instincts quite clearly; he appears ready to agree to allow Fortinbras, whom only days before had planned to take over his realm, to march through Denmark on his way to conquer Poland. This is sort of like allowing Canada to march through the United States in order to attack Mexico. In other words, it makes no sense at all, strategically or logistically. Claudius and Polonius, try as they might to play the part of Machiavellian lords of state, are really quite out of their depth.

Hamlet, however, has found his element in Act Two. His language is dazzling, full of wild puns, inventive jokes, and succinct and strong observations – sheer mastery. His repartee with Polonius, for instance, plays brilliantly with the notion of “method in madness” (as Polonius puts it). He plays the role of the melancholic madman almost as though Polonius is a gullible audience member. Hamlet toys with Polonius, leading the old fool to think just what he wants. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, too, are no match for the perceptiveness of Hamlet. He instantly plumbs the depths of their purpose, calling them out for royal spies. In short, Hamlet appears in this Act as the only truly gifted politician, the only accurate reader of men’s minds, in the whole of Elsinore. Why, then, is he so reluctant to act – so incapable, it seems, of action? Why does he not even mention revenge until the very last speech of the Act? It seems that Hamlet is so obsessed with contemplating the meaning of action that he is rendered unable to act himself.

This is the central question of Hamlet, of course, and one that has frustrated and intrigued readers for centuries. The transition from the Hamlet of Act One Scene Five, so willing and eager to kill Claudius, to the Hamlet of Act Two Scene Two, where he is witty and evasive and ultimately impotent, is really quite absurd. It’s almost as though we’ve suddenly landed in another play – one not about revenge, but about something else, about madness or politics or about the very meaning of acting.

This theme comes to a head, of course, with the appearance of the troop of players. The handling of the players in Hamlet places the play firmly in the genre of “metatheater,” or theater about theater. The scenes with the players are full of in-jokes about theatrical happenings in Shakespeare’s own day – the rise in popularity of boy acting troops, for instance. In another winking moment in Act Three, Polonius declares that he was an actor in his younger days. “I did enact Julius Caesar,” he says. “I was killed i’th’Capitol. Brutus killed me.” In fact, scholars surmise, Shakespeare staged Hamlet immediately following his own Julius Caesar. Here are two moments among many, then, where Shakespeare refers outside of the play, to the reality of London stage culture (where, in fact, the play is actually taking place, at the time of its first performances). What is he up to with these references? Are they simply jokes, or do they point to some deeper concerns?

It seems that Shakespeare is blurring the lines between theatricality and reality. He insists that we see his play as occurring at the same time in the fantasy world of Elsinore and in the actual world of the Globe Theater in London in the early seventeenth century (which for us, at our historical remove, is yet another layer of fantasy). He writes elsewhere, in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” In Hamlet, he takes this notion a step farther, giving us a play that presses relentlessly on the primordial relationship between acting in the theater and acting in “real life.” Is there ever a moment when we, as human beings, are not “playing a role” in one way or another? Are the tears that we shed for the loss of our loved ones any more genuine than the tears that an actor sheds for the imaginary death of Priam, the imaginary grief of Hecuba? If so, how? Why?

And this, of course, is the subject of Hamlet’s second soliloquy, which closes the Act. “What’s Hecuba to him or he to her?” he asks of the player who has just wept for his fictional subject. Shakespeare has layered this speech so carefully and so vertiginously that it might be helpful simply to bracket out the several planes of meaning on which it operates. First, Hamlet speaks of the man on stage who has shown such an outpouring of emotion for Hecuba while he, Hamlet, who has every reason to show such grief himself, remains cold and reluctant to act. But on another level, “Hamlet” himself is an actor on stage, and has no more reason to wail and grieve and gnash his teeth than the player who spoke of Hecuba does. While he is philosophizing about the nature of pretend grief versus real grief, all is ultimately pretend. There is no Hamlet. There was no poisoning, not really. On this second level, it seems almost as though Hamlet “knows” that he is in a play. He does not hurry along the revenge because he knows there is nothing really to revenge; nothing really happened; it has all been staged. Of course, he can’t really “know” this, but Shakespeare creates the effect of self-awareness and self-doubt that reaches beyond the limitations of the stage. Somehow he is able to explore these philosophical questions while maintaining a compelling plotline.

By the way, this notion of Hamlet as "metatheater" is explored, among several other places, in Lionel Abel's book, Tragedy and Metatheatre: Essays on Dramatic Form.

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