Two months have passed since the events at the end of Act I. Polonius instructs a servant to spy on Laertes in Paris and "by indirections find directions out" (II.i.64). This turns out also to form the basis of Hamlet’s assumed madness. The light-hearted meddling in Laertes’ life prepares the audience for the serious consequences of meddling in Ophelia and Hamlet’s. Further, it demonstrates the suspicious and conniving nature of Polonius, emblem of the devious corruption that rules Denmark. Ophelia runs onto the stage. Seeing Hamlet so altered terrifies her:

"Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,

No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,

Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,

And with a look so piteous in purport

As if he had been loosed out of hell

To speak of horrors he comes before me."


Notice, of course, that Ophelia is judging Hamlet’s outward appearance: the madness is only on the surface. Polonius asserts that Hamlet’s state is caused by unrequited love for Ophelia. The King is worried and suspicious of Hamlet’s strange behaviour. He asks the prince’s old friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) to discover the cause of Hamlet’s eccentric behaviour. This is similar to Polonius’ spying on his son but our response is different because whereas Polonius uses a servant, Claudius exploits the position of his nephew’s old school friends. Claudius is not convinced by Polonius’ theory about love-madness and when he attempts to talk to Hamlet, he is confronted with nonsensical speech that has sense behind it but is symbolic of internal conflict. It prompts Polonius to observe famously, "though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t" (II. ii 205). Hamlet’s speech can be understood on different levels, suggesting an assumed level of madness. He uses prose instead of verse, with irony residing in the fact that it is usually verse that is seen to contain ambiguities and symbolism. Language has been set out of kilter as much as Denmark has been. By exploiting others’ intellect, the prince assumes control over the conversation, a control that he does not have over anything else.

Hamlet sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and makes them admit that they are spying for the king, emphasising the point that nobody is who they seem to be. Pointedly, he admits to them:

"I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."


They are interrupted in their own performances by the arrival of a company of actors to the castle. Hamlet persuades the players to perform the following night a play entitled ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ but with the addition of a speech written by himself. Left alone, he laments his inaction in a rage ("Am I a coward?") but, in choosing a play implicative of the murder of the late king, Claudius’ guilty reaction will prove him the murderer. As the sweeping heroic couplet at the end of the long scene declares:

The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.


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