Inside Elsinore, Polonius gives his servant Reynaldo money and notes to take France. Polonius tells Reynaldo what he expects him to do on his mission abroad—Reynaldo is to gather information on what Laertes is up to in Paris by infiltrating the fringes of Laertes’s social scene and finding out, from young Danes and Parisians in his orbit, what kind of man Laertes is turning out to be.
Polonius is clearly uncomfortable with his son living abroad and unobserved. From Laertes having to secure Claudius’s blessing to leave Denmark to Polonius’s longwinded advice to Laertes in the last act to his plan to spy on him now, it is clear that Polonius is both untrusting and devious.
Polonius suggests that Reynaldo pretend to be a casual acquaintance of Laertes and try to gossip with his friends about Laertes’s problems with drinking, gambling, and women in order to gauge their responses to these assertions and discern whether Laertes really does have problems with these vices. Polonius is proud of his clever scheme to spy on his son, though the old man seems to have trouble keeping track of his own logic as he lays out the plan for Reynaldo.
Polonius is a schemer, and this passage makes it clear that there’s no one he won’t spy on or plot against—even his own family. This foreshadows his use of Ophelia as a pawn in a scheme against Hamlet, as well as Polonius’s own fatal nosiness later on in the play.
Just as Reynaldo exits to board a ship to France, Ophelia enters looking pale and in a state of fright. Polonius asks her what has happened, and she tells him that just now, as she was sewing alone in her room, Hamlet entered unannounced and uninvited with his shirt unbuttoned and his stockings hanging around his ankles. Ophelia remarks that Hamlet looked “as if he had been loosed out of hell.”
Ophelia’s frightful encounter with Hamlet shocks and upsets her. This seems to be the first instance of Hamlet acting mad in order to throw the courtiers at Elsinore off the scent of his plan—but given the passion of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship, Shakespeare also allows for the possibility that Hamlet really is unable to control himself when it comes to his love and lust for Ophelia.
Ophelia goes on to state that Hamlet grabbed her by the wrist and stared at her for a long while before gently releasing her with a sigh and departing her room without dropping his eyes from her face. Ophelia says she fears Hamlet really is in love with her. Polonius suggests Ophelia go with him to see Claudius, so that they can inform him of the “violent” affection Hamlet has developed for Ophelia.
Polonius loves drama, schemes, and plots—so he takes the bait Hamlet has laid and begins developing a plan of his own. Polonius stands as a contrast to Hamlet’s hesitance and inaction, as Polonius is eager to scheme and manipulate in order to achieve the outcome he wants.
Polonius asks if Ophelia has done anything to upset or offend Hamlet, and she replies that she took Polonius’s earlier advice to heart—for the last several days, she has been sending back Hamlet’s letters and refusing to speak with him. Polonius fears that being rejected by Ophelia has driven Hamlet mad. Polonius curses his own advice and hurries Ophelia away to go meet with the king.
This passage adds yet another layer of complexity into what’s happening, effectively obscuring the difference between appearance and reality. If Ophelia really has been spurning Hamlet, it’s possible he really is distraught—and that his madness is genuine, not for show. Shakespeare leaves things ambiguous, further blurring the line between what’s real and what’s not.