Analysis of Hamlet Act II.2

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Comment on the Presentation of Hamlet in Act 2 Scene 2

Act 2, Scene 2 is an important scene for the audience's impressions of Hamlet, as it is the first time we can see the "antic disposition" of which he has previously spoken. He enters the scene on page 50, and immediately enters into conversation with Polonius. We can see that the act of his madness relies upon rhetoric devices such as puns and double meanings, which are deliberately intended to confuse. On page 51, for example, when Polonius asks him what matter he reads, he replies:

HAMLET: Between who?

In this, Hamlet is playing on the double meaning of the word "matter"- although Polonius intends it to mean his reading matter, Hamlet knows it could also mean personal matters, and picks the wrong interpretation, intending Polonius to think that his mental instability is such that he cannot follow the conversation.

Although there are these occasions upon which Hamlet seems to be truly mad, the audience can see that he is being rather clever in constructing his act. When Polonius clarifies the meaning of the word "matter" which he intended, Hamlet responds with a thinly veiled attack on him:

HAMLET: The satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, (...) and that they have a plentiful lack of wit.

Here, Hamlet pretends to discuss the "slanders" of which he reads, but the audience can see that he is commenting on Polonius as an old man. By mentioning the "plentiful lack of wit", he recognises how obvious Polonius' motives are in conversing with him, and attacking his methods. Although Polonius does not pick up on this, he does see that there is more to the "madness" of Hamlet than is seen, commenting "there is method in't."

While Hamlet's act here seems rather convincing, as soon as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter his madness begins to slip. His conversation with the two is coherent, as he directly questions them to see how honest they are. For example, on pages 53-54:

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HAMLET:Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation?

This short, direct questioning shows his cynicism of the two- he knows that they did not come of their own free will, and is simply testing them to prove their honesty. When they are hesitant to answer, he decides they have not passed his test, and afterwards treats them with a contempt or disregard. This wariness in his personality will become important later in the scene when he contrives a means of testing Claudius.

Furthermore, the coherency with which he asks these questions ...

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