This scene opens in the court of King Claudius. The king is engaged in preaching ethics to his family members and courtiers regarding balancing life between sorrows and everyday preoccupations. He vows to combine and sustain the grief he feels for his brother’s death, and joy for his marriage. However, despite his efforts, all the impression of merriment seems superficial.
This is largely because Claudius’ idea that all will follow his example proves hollow, as it is not possible to maintain a balance between the death of his brother and his joy of getting married to his deceased brother’s wife. Also, his own logic defies his morality when he says, “Therefore, our sometimes sister, now our queen,” which points to an irreligious element in the play (8). That is the very reason that this seems deceptive to others, specifically to Hamlet.
Furthermore, the scene also portrays a dreadful situation in his country, just as it happened in the first scene. It is, in Claudius’ words, a “warlike state,” where preparations are underway (9). This scene also points towards the weakness and corruption of King Claudius, as is pointed out in his own moral treatise in which he is engaged, giving to others.
This scene also presents Polonius and his son Laertes, who is foil to Hamlet throughout the play. Laertes comes to the king to demand his permission to leave for France. The king asks him to seek permission from his father, but Laertes informs the king that he has already sought permission from him. The king also sends his emissaries to the old Norway, to stop his nephew’s preparations for war.
Prince Hamlet, on the other hand, who is overwhelmed with his father’s death, and his mother’s betrayal by marrying his uncle, is introduced as a character that is not willing to play along with the king’s gaudy attempt to follow commands of the happy royal court. Queen Gertrude also joins him, but Hamlet starts playing upon words with both of them. This flabbergasts both the king and the queen. Although King Claudius praises his mourning, at heart he is feeling discomfort. On the other hand, Hamlet is comparing the king to his father, King Hamlet, and generalizing his mother’s marriage with “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (146).
When all go out of the court, Hamlet is left alone. In his loneliness, he delivers his first soliloquy. His soliloquy opens up the central idea of the play, that the world is a painful place to live in – where even suicide is not possible. It is because within the religious framework, if a person commits suicide, he will be eternally damned. Hamlet says,
“Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
Meanwhile, Horatio enters along with his colleagues Bernardo and Marcellus. Horatio is a very close friend of Hamlet at University in Wittenberg, so Hamlet is glad to see him in the court. Horatio tells him that he has come to attend his father’s funeral in Denmark, but Hamlet sarcastically replies that he has arrived to attend his mother’s wedding instead, which he admits. Then Horatio tells him that Bernardo and Marcellus have seen his father’s Ghost. Hearing that, Hamlet is stunned saying, “My father’s spirit—in arms! All is not well” (254). This is the place where Hamlet becomes certain that there is something wrong. He agrees to stand watch with them at night, hoping that he might be able to talk to his father’s Ghost.
The central figure of the play, Hamlet is introduced as a downcast person, busy in mourning the death of his father, and fond of talking to his friend, Horatio. However, his conversation with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude demonstrates that he has a good command over himself, as well as his use of words.
Hamlet plays upon words when talking to the king, as well as the queen. He speaks his first famous soliloquy in this scene in which he spouts the now-famous generalization about women, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (146). Hamlet then reprimands his mother in his imagination, and compares King Claudius with his murdered father.
In the meanwhile, his friend Horatio appears with his guard colleagues. They inform Hamlet that they have seen the Ghost of King Hamlet, which astounded him. He questions them about the appearance, and Horatio convinces him that it is the Ghost of King Hamlet. He then senses immediately that “All is not well” (255).
King Claudius is the villain of the play. This scene opens up with his long dialogue, in which he expounds upon the sorrow over the death of King Hamlet, his brother, the morality of balancing the sorrow and everyday life, and his own marriage. He further discusses the situation in which he has married, the preparations of war, and his strategy to deal with it by bribing the old Norway, Fortinbras’ uncle.
King Claudius seems to be showering his favors on others. He is also shown speaking with Hamlet, advising him to abandon his mourning and take part in real life. The conversation shows that King Claudius is a very shrewd person, and an astute politician. When Hamlet uses bitter words, he does not show that he has felt its bitterness. Rather, he commends him and advises him, “We pray you thrown to earth / This unprevailing woe” (106-107). Then he leaves it to the queen to pacify him.
In this scene, Queen Gertrude is shown as a simple and innocent woman. She tries to pacify Hamlet, but Hamlet confounds her by playing upon words. Therefore, the king leaves them after giving permission to Laertes to leave for France.
Polonius is King Claudius’ trusted aide. He talks too much in a circumlocutory way. In this scene, he is shown with his son Laertes, who is departing for France. When the king asks him about permission, he says that his son has also obtained it from him.
Laertes is the son of Polonius, and a foil to Prince Hamlet. In this scene, he is departing to France, and come to the king to seek permission to leave.
Horatio, a philosopher and friend of Hamlet, has arrived in the court to meet Prince Hamlet. He is with his colleagues, Bernardo and Marcellus. They have come to inform Hamlet about the appearance of the Ghost.
Marcellus and Barnardo
Marcellus is a guard who appears in this scene to make Hamlet believe that indeed they have seen the Ghost of King Hamlet. Barnardo is his colleague. They are both witnesses to the Ghost. Therefore, Horatio has brought them to make Hamlet believe their story.
Voltemand and Cornelius
Both of these characters appear only in this scene for a very short time. They are being sent to Norway for some official duty that they agree to perform.
Allusion means comparing something to something else that has a significance in history. For example,
“Let me not think on’t—Frailty, thy name is woman!”
…she follow’d my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears.”
In the first line, Hamlet has used allusion by making comparison between his father and uncle. Here, he refers to the Greek mythical figure, Hyperion, who is a Titan god of light, while Satyrs are used as half beast / half men, normally depicted as men above the waist, and a goat or horse below the waist. Here it implies that Claudius is below the waist, meaning that he is a beast — a comment on the lecherous nature of the king.
In the second and third lines, Hamlet again uses allusion by comparing the mourning of his mother to Niobe. This refers to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the story of Anfione and Niobe, who ruled Thebes. In fact, Niobe angered the gods, and lost her fourteen children. She kept on crying until she was transformed to a stone. Similarly, in this scene Hamlet feels disgusted with his mother’s grief, which he believes is false, and that her tears are just a show. Simply, he no more trusts his mother.
“Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
That we with wisest sorrow think on him.”
For creating musical effect and enhance reading pleasure, Shakespeare has used alliteration in these lines. The repetition of the “d” sound in first line, and the “w” sound in the second line, create pleasing effects.
Apostrophe means a call to a dead or an alive person, or an abstract idea, for example:
“Frailty, thy name is woman!—”
Hamlet also calls “frailty” saying “Fraily, they name is woman.”
The atmosphere outside the King’s court is murky and dark, with an impression of anxiety and dreadfulness prevalent everywhere. The rooms inside his castle, however, are full of energy in an attempt to remove that mournful aura. The atmosphere of conversation and discussion is full of mystery and suspense. Specifically, the dialogues spoken by Hamlet are full of meaning, while he also plays upon words, or in other words uses puns. This further adds to the mystery, while suspense is intensified with the mention of the Ghost at the end.
An Aside is a literary devoice in which a character speaks something when others are not listening, or he moves a bit away from them, or they go out. Shakespeare uses aside for Hamlet when all go out at the end of this scene.
“My father’s spirit—in arms! All is not well,
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come!”
This aside serves to inform the audience that Hamlet has sensed that there is something wrong; otherwise, he does not know anything about the murder of his father, but he doubts his mother for marrying hastily.
The repeated sounds of vowels in conjunction with consonant sounds is used for musical effect, in which Shakespeare is a master. He has used assonances and consonances both sparingly in this scene. Here are some of examples of assonance.
- To be contracted in one brow of woe (4)
- That we with wisest sorrow thinl on him (6)
- With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage (12)
- that this too too sullied flesh would melt (128)
- My father’s spirit — in arms! All is not well (255)
All the vowel sounds in these lines have been highlighted. These vowel sounds have occurred in repetition, creating a musical quality to the lines. These assonances have also stressed upon the specific issues presented by the characters – the reason that their significance has increased in the scene. The sounds of “o” in the first line, “i” in the second and third lines, and then again “o” in the fourth line have been highlighted.
Consonance is another literary device used recurrently in this scene. In this device, consonant sounds are used in a quick succession to create musical quality. Here are few examples from this scene.
- Therefore our sometimes sister, now our queen (8)
- In equal scale weighing delight and dole (14)
- Giving to you no further personal power (36)
- We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart. (175)
- But even then the morning cock crew loud (218)
In these selected lines, the sounds of “s”, “d”, “p”, “d,” and then “c” have been highlighted. These are all consonances, and along with the use of assonance, Shakespeare has heightened the musical quality of the dialogue.
Shakespeare has used all forms of contradictions. Here is the example of simple contradiction:
“Though yet of Hamlet our late brother’s death
The memory be green”
Claudius uses contradictory ideas, phrases, and words in his speech. Starting with the following lines, he has combined the idea of death and decay with an idea of growth, renewal, and greenery.
As has been the fashion, the diction of this scene is also full of archaic words. This is the specific Elizabethan type of flowery language in which the use of literary and rhetorical devices is abundant. However, still this language is every effective and full me meaning. Specifically, the dialogues used by Hamlet are predictive in nature. In short, this diction suits the Elizabethan audience.
Deus Ex Machina
As the name suggests, it is some supernatural or unexpected power that saves, or intends to save, the situation or the hero. In this scene, although the Ghost does not appear formally, its mention at several places makes it an important character of the play. Hamlet himself states:
“My father’s spirit—in arms! All is not well,
I doubt some foul play.”
In these lines, after discussion with Marcellus and Horatio, Hamlet thinks that if it is, indeed, the ghost of his father, there must be some foul play. The ghost appears to inform Hamlet about something that he does not know. Therefore, this ghost is deus ex machina in Hamlet.
Dramatic irony means what the character says come to haunt him later. For example, the king says to Hamlet:
“Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried.”
This is dramatic irony, because the king knows that he has committed a murder, which is a fault if compared to what he states about the mourning of Hamlet, which is not. Therefore, this haunts him throughout the play.
Pun means a play upon words. Hamlet is a master in playing with words throughout the play. For example, when King Claudius asks him:
“How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” he says, “I am too much in the sun.”
He, in fact, refers to the sun as well as his being “son” of the king that he dislikes.
Foreshadow is a literary device that shows a warning or sign of something sinister to come. The appearance of the Ghost, and its news and the behavior of Hamlet, are both foreshadowing in this scene. For example, Hamlet says:
“My father’s spirit—in arms! All is not well”
This line clearly shows that something is going to happen shortly. Secondly, his way of responding to the king and the queen also shows that there is something going to happen that may not be good.
Foil is a character who acts to support the main character. For example, Horatio is always with Hamlet, when Hamlet is in an intellectual difficulty. Even Hamlet selects Horatio to make his case just before the eyes of the people at the end of the play. Secondly, Laertes is introduced here as the son of Polonius, but he is actually a foil to Hamlet, who makes Hamlet prominent as he kills him for revenge, while Hamlet asks Horatio to present justification of his actions. Therefore, he is a foil to Hamlet, as Horatio is also a foil to intellectual Hamlet.
This scene also shows the best use of metaphors. For example:
“Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature…
that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr. So loving to my mother…”
By comparing his father’s kingdom to an “undweeded garden,” that no one now is taking care of, and by calling Claudius and his team nasty weeds that are growing in this kingdom, Hamlet has used an apt metaphor.
“Frailty, thy name is woman!”
In fact, frailty is a quality, not a woman. However, it has been given the quality that it seems like a woman alive and kicking. Therefore, it is a personification.
“with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage”
In this line, two contradictory ideas have been juxtaposed together.
Plot of the Scene
In this second scene, the plot of the play moves forward toward confrontation of the villain, King Claudius, and hero, Hamlet. However, whereas the villain is aware of the fangs of the hero, the hero is in a confusion to pinpoint Claudius’ villainy. He still has doubts about the murderer of his father. However, when the news of the appearance of the Ghost arrives at the end, the dialogues become short and crisp. This shows that the plot is taking its pace and entering into the third scene, after introducing two major, and some minor, characters.
Repetition is another literary device that is used for the purpose of reminding the audience of certain events or things, and stressing them.
But you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his –
And now, Laertes, What is the new with you?
You told us of some suit: what’s it, Laertes?
What wouldst though beg, Laertes?
What wouldst thou have, Laertes?
In both of these extracts, two words – “father” and “Laertes” – have been repeated. This is for effect. In the first, the stress is upon father, while in the second case, the stress is on the importance of the person, who is Laertes.
Similes are used to compare and contrast two characters or things, to make one significant or prominent. For example,
“My father’s brother – but no more like my father than I to Hercules.”
Hamlet compares his father and uncle, as both are different. However, this also reveals that he has little respect for his uncle.
Soliloquy is a literary device that refers to dialogue spoken by a character when he is alone. Shakespeare has written several famous soliloquies in Hamlet. The example of a soliloquy in this scene is:
“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d”
Synecdoche means to use small parts to represent the whole, or use the whole to represent few parts. For example:
“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew”
In Hamlet’s soliloquy, here flesh stands for physical life. The flesh of Hamlet is melting and thawing, and “resolving it into dew” is an example of metaphor for dying, which is apt to be called synecdoche.
The tone of this scene is tense and strained. However, it shifts from very pleasant and cordial to tense and strained slowly. When King Claudius and Queen Gertrude speak with Hamlet, it seems that all is well, with nothing to worry about. However, when it comes to Hamlet, it seems that everything has lost its worth. For example, while delivering his soliloquy, Hamlet takes us into morality, futility of life, disloyalty, betrayal, and a deceptive view of this world. This means that the tone has changed. We notice a gradual crumbling of beliefs on which the worldview of Hamlet is based.
Having established the ghostly and dark atmosphere in its first scene, Shakespeare takes the audience in the second scene in ostensibly a jovial court of the new King Claudius. However, his court, in fact, presents unnatural and superficial joy. This is to show that though King Claudius has taken control of everything, as he is ordering his courtiers about different tasks, yet he is not feeling well. There is something to worry about that is not clear in the setting.