Hamlet by William Shakespeare is set in Denmark and widely regarded as one of the greatest plays ever written in English. Act 2 is a pivotal point in the play because it sets the stage for the tragic events that follow.
In this act, we see Hamlet grappling with his indecision and the nature of man, which eventually leads to his plan to use a play to confirm his uncle’s guilt. The arrival of the players, Polonius’ spying, his death, and Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother are also featured in this act.
In this article, we will provide a summary of Act 2 as well as an analysis of the key themes and motifs that propel the story forward. We’ll also talk about the significance of Act 2 in the context of the play, as well as its relevance to modern audiences.
Characters in Act 2
- Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, son of the recently deceased King Hamlet, and the play’s protagonist. He is deeply troubled by his father’s death and the hasty remarriage of his mother to his uncle, King Claudius.
- Claudius and Gertrude: They are the King and Queen of Denmark. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle and the new King of Denmark, he is the main antagonist of the play. He is responsible for the murder of King Hamlet and later marries Queen Gertrude who is Prince Hamlet’s mother. Gertrude is torn between her love for her son and her loyalty to her new husband.
- Polonius: Lord Chamberlain and advisor to King Claudius, he is a meddling and overbearing father to Ophelia and Laertes.
- Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius, she is in love with Hamlet, but is warned to cut contact with Hamlet by her father who is not impressed with the idea of Hamlet and Ophelia being together.
- Reynaldo: Servant to Polonius, he is sent by Polonius to spy on Laertes in France.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter the Act: Courtiers and two of Hamlet’s school friends, they are sent by King Claudius to spy on Hamlet.
- Players: Travelling actors who are brought to the court by Hamlet to perform the play-within-a-play.
- Marcellus and Barnardo: Guards who witness the ghost of King Hamlet.
- Horatio: Hamlet’s friend, he is the only one who believes Hamlet’s account of the ghost and becomes an important confidant for Hamlet throughout the play.
- Ghost of King Hamlet: The ghost of Hamlet’s father, he appears to Hamlet and reveals the truth about his murder by Claudius.
- Lucianus: A character in the play-within-a-play, he is the one who pours poison into the ear of the King, mirroring Claudius’s actions in killing King Hamlet.
Hamlet Act 2 Summary
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 2 begins with Hamlet’s soliloquy on the nature of man and his own indecision, which sets the tone for the events that follow. He reflects on the fact that man is “the essence of dust” and that we will all die. He also wrestles with his own inability to act, pondering “to be or not to be.”
The arrival of the players, a traveling theater troupe, allows Hamlet to put his plan into action because Hamlet believes his uncle is responsible for his father’s death. So he devises a scheme to use a play that closely resembles the circumstances of his father’s murder to prove his uncle’s guilt. He directs that the play be performed in front of his uncle, King Claudius, in the hopes that it will reveal his true feelings.
The King’s advisor, Polonius, continues to spy on Hamlet and his son, Laertes. Polonius decides to confront Hamlet because he believes his madness is caused by his love for Ophelia. He hides behind an arras in Gertrude’s chamber and, when Hamlet enters, he kills Polonius by mistake, mistaking him for a rat.
The conflict between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, occurs after Polonius’ death. Hamlet accuses her of complicity in his father’s murder and of betraying his father’s memory. He also chastises her for marrying Claudius so soon after the death of King Hamlet. Gertrude is shocked and terrified by Hamlet’s behavior and begins to wonder if he is truly insane.
The cause of Hamlet’s madness (as perceived by others) is his grief over his father’s murder and his disgust at his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle, King Claudius. He is also troubled by the moral corruption he sees in the court and his own inability to take immediate revenge for his father’s murder. Hamlet’s feigned madness is a way for him to investigate and gather evidence of Claudius’s guilt, as well as to protect himself from suspicion while he plots his revenge. It is also a way for him to express his feelings and thoughts that he can’t express in normal circumstances.
The Act concludes with Hamlet concealing Polonius’s body and the King and Queen dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to observe Hamlet and determine what is causing his strange behavior.
Act 2 Analysis of Key Themes
The Play-within-a-Play and Vengeance
In Act 2, the theme of vengeance is prominent. Hamlet is consumed by the desire to avenge his father’s death, but he is plagued by indecision and self-doubt. He muses on the morality of vengeance and the consequences it may bring.
In Act 2, Shakespeare introduces the concept of the play-within-a-play as a means of revealing Claudius’s guilt for the murder of King Hamlet. The play, which is performed by a group of traveling players at the request of Hamlet, is called “The Murder of Gonzago.” The play closely mirrors the circumstances of King Hamlet’s murder and serves to mirror the actions of Claudius.
The play-within-a-play is a crucial moment in the play, as it is the first time that Hamlet has concrete evidence of Claudius’s guilt. It is also a turning point in the play, as it sets the stage for Hamlet’s eventual revenge.
The play-within-a-play also serves as a commentary on the nature of theater and performance. It highlights the power of art as a means of revealing the truth and serves as a reminder that things are not always as they appear. This motif is an important theme throughout the play and serves to question the audience’s perception of reality.
Appearance vs Reality
Additionally, the play-within-a-play highlights the theme of appearance vs. reality. Claudius, who puts on a façade of innocence and mourning for his brother, is revealed as the guilty party. This motif is an important theme throughout the play and serves to question the audience’s perception of reality.
Disease and Corruption
This act also features recurring imagery of disease and corruption. It conveys the moral decay and corruption that afflicts the court, as well as the negative consequences of Claudius’ actions.
The Human Condition
Another theme addressed in this act is the human condition. The nature of man soliloquy by Hamlet reflects on the fragility of human life and the inevitability of death. He questions the purpose and meaning of existence, emphasizing the universal human experience of grappling with life’s meaning.
In conclusion, the play-within-a-play is a significant moment in Act 2 of Hamlet. It serves as a means of revealing Claudius’s guilt, sets the stage for Hamlet’s eventual revenge, serves as a commentary on the nature of theater and performance, highlights the theme of appearance vs reality, and is a pivotal moment for Hamlet’s character development.
The Importance of the Soliloquy
Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which he reflects on the nature of man and the inevitability of death, is one of the most famous and significant moments in Act 2. This soliloquy is known as the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy and is considered one of the most famous and well-known in literature.
In this soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his disdain for the world and his own existence, questioning the meaning of life and the wisdom of living. He considers suicide as a means of escaping the pain and suffering of life, but ultimately decides against it due to his fear of what comes after death.
The soliloquy is significant because it provides the audience with insight into Hamlet’s inner thoughts and struggles. It’s also a commentary on the human condition, as it delves into universal themes like the meaning of life and the fear of death.
The soliloquy is also significant because it establishes Hamlet as a complex and multifaceted character. He is not only the vengeful prince, but also a man going through his own existential crisis. This complexity gives the character depth and nuance, making him relatable to audiences.
Finally, Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 2 is a pivotal moment in the play, serving as a commentary on the human condition, providing insight into Hamlet’s character, and establishing him as a complex and multifaceted individual.
Conclusion of Summary and Analysis
Shakespeare sets the stage for the tragic events to come in Act 2 of Hamlet by introducing key themes and motifs that will be explored throughout the play. The theme of appearance vs. reality is highlighted by the use of a play-within-a-play to reveal Claudius’ guilt and the moral decay of the court. The theme of vengeance is also explored as Hamlet wrestles with his desire for vengeance and the moral ramifications of acting. Furthermore, the human condition is a central theme, as Hamlet contemplates the nature of man and the inevitability of death.
Act 2 motifs, such as the play-within-a-play and recurring imagery of disease and corruption, advance the plot while also commenting on the nature of theater, performance, and truth.
Act 2’s importance in Hamlet’s overall narrative cannot be overstated. It is a watershed moment in the play, laying the groundwork for Hamlet’s ultimate vengeance and the tragic events that follow. Furthermore, the themes and motifs explored in this act are universal and continue to resonate with modern audiences.
Overall, Hamlet’s Act 2 is a complex and thought-provoking exploration of key themes and motifs that propel the play forward and continue to captivate modern audiences.