Hamlet: Act II

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13352

Act 2 of Hamlet is full of intrigue and wit. Continue exploring this famous play, discover the difference between verse and prose in Shakespeare's work, and make the casting decisions for your play!


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Is Hamlet crazy?

That's what everyone is wondering as the prince begins to display strange behavior in Act 2.

In this act, we'll be introduced to new characters as we try to figure out if Hamlet has lost his mind, or if he's faking it as part of a larger plot.

You should have already completed the first Related Lesson in this series on Hamlet, found in the right-hand sidebar.

You should also still have your copy of the play, or continue using William Shakespeare's Hamlet courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library.

When we left Prince Hamlet at the end of Act 1, he had just told his friends:

"How strange or odd some'er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on)" (1.5.190-92)

This part of the speech hints that we may see some odd behavior from him going forward, though it's unclear what his larger plan is.

In Act 2, we do see some odd behavior from Hamlet, and we hear even more about his antics from other characters.

Act 2, Scene 1

The act opens with Polonius giving orders to Reynaldo to go and spy on Laertes in Paris. He gives Reynaldo specific instructions on how to inquire about Laertes and explains his strategy for obtaining accurate information by utilizing gossip.

  • What unconventional tactic does Polonius ask Reynaldo to use to get information about Laertes' behavior?
  • What does Polonius mean when he says, "Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth" (2.1.70)? Explain the metaphor he uses.

After Reynaldo leaves for Paris, Ophelia enters. In this short scene with her father, Ophelia confesses that she had a disturbing interaction with Hamlet.

  • How does Ophelia describe Hamlet's appearance in this scene?

She describes a frightening and wordless interaction where Hamlet grabs her wrist and holds her in place, then lets her go with an enormous sigh. He then leaves the room, and the end of her speech describes the odd way Hamlet exited:

"He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out o' doors he went without their helps
And to the last bended their light on me." (2.1.110-12)

  • What do these lines mean? What was strange about Hamlet's exit?

When he hears Ophelia's story, Polonius is convinced that Hamlet has been driven mad with love for her. He exits to find the king and queen and inform them of the reason for Hamlet's odd behavior.

Act 2, Scene 2

The scene starts in the king's court with the introduction of two new characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Prince Hamlet's friends whom Claudius has summoned.

  • Read Claudius' first speech of the scene. Why has he summoned Hamlet's friends?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exit to find Hamlet, and Polonius enters. He promises to tell the royal couple why Hamlet is acting strangely, but first he brings in Voltemand, an ambassador with news of the Fortinbras problem in Norway.

Keep in mind as you read this section that a king is sometimes referred to as the name of their country, so "old Norway" refers to the Norwegian king, Fortinbras' uncle.

  • What does Voltemand say Fortinbras has sworn not to do?
  • What request is in the document that Voltemand gives to Claudius?

Voltemand exits and Polonius begins to tell the king and queen his theory about Hamlet's madness. Polonius serves as the comic relief in Hamlet, especially in Act 2.

It's a common literary tactic to have a humorous character to keep a tragic play like this one from getting too heavy and one-noted, and Shakespeare does this consistently in his tragedies often with an older, bumbling character that talks too much for their own good.

If you've read Romeo and Juliet, the nurse in that play serves the same purpose as Polonius does in Hamlet.

  • Read the beginning of this interaction between Polonius and the royal couple. What is comedic about this scene? Why is Polonius' line, "brevity is the soul of wit," ironic in this scene? (2.2.97)
  • What is Polonius' plan to confirm that Hamlet is lovesick?

Hamlet comes in reading a book, and Polonius asks the king and queen to exit so that he can speak privately to Hamlet. In the scene between Hamlet and Polonius, we get our first glimpse at the madness everyone has been talking about.

Hamlet seems not to recognize Polonius as himself, but instead thinks he is a fish salesman. He says he is reading a satire on the failings of old men, which is an insult to the old Polonius.

One of the most striking changes in Hamlet, though, is that he no longer speaks in verse. Up until this point in the play, characters have spoken in iambic pentameter - lines of verse with 10 beats to each line, which is the form Shakespeare usually writes in. Now, in his madness, Hamlet speaks in prose, which doesn't have a form and is written like a regular paragraph.

Often in Shakespeare's work, lower-class characters speak in prose, so this change of form could suggest that Hamlet is no longer acting princely. It could also convey that Hamlet is rambling like a madman.

  • What does Hamlet say that confirms Polonius' theory that he is lovesick?

As Polonius exits and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, Hamlet has an aside. Like a soliloquy, an aside is directed to the audience and is not meant to be heard by any other characters onstage.

When Hamlet breaks away from the rest of the characters, we can tell that he may not really be mad. In his conversation with his two friends, Hamlet forces them to admit that they were sent by the king to observe him.

  • In what parts of the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does Hamlet seem mad? In what moments does he appear sane?

A company of actors is introduced next. We learn that adult acting troupes are losing patrons in Denmark because of the new popularity of plays performed by children.

  • How does Hamlet compare this phenomenon to the change of power from his father to Claudius?

When Hamlet meets the actors, he asks for a speech about the fall of Troy, where Pyrrhus kills the old king Priam. This story draws a parallel to Hamlet's plot for revenge on Claudius.

When the actor skips to a speech about Priam's wife, Queen Hecuba, the actor tears up and becomes very emotional, and his audience is touched by the speech.

When the actors leave with Polonius, Hamlet gives another soliloquy berating himself for his failure to act against Claudius. In this soliloquy, he returns to speaking in verse.

Again, this indicates that his "madness" is put upon and he hasn't actually gone crazy, because he loses his rambling speech pattern when he is alone.

Continue to the Got It? section to test your understanding of the second act and to study Hamlet's soliloquy more closely!

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