Claudius and Gertrude warmly welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s childhood friends, to Elsinore. Claudius explains that in light of Hamlet’s recent “transformation” in the time since his father’s death, the purpose of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s visit is to spend time with Hamlet, “draw him on to pleasures,” and report back to Claudius and Gertrude about whether there’s anything more sinister bothering Hamlet. Gertrude speaks up and promises to reward the two friends handsomely for helping her and Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to help the king and queen, and say they hope they’ll be able to be “pleasant and helpful” to Hamlet. An attendant escorts them from the room to go find the prince.
Though Gertrude and Claudius insist they have brought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore in hopes of cheering Hamlet up, it’s clear that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are pawns in Claudius’s paranoid attempts to figure out whether Hamlet is onto him. The fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern eagerly agree to this bribery suggests that they are not Hamlet’s true friends, after all.
Polonius enters with two pieces of good news. He tells Gertrude and Claudius that the ambassadors from Norway, Voltemand and Cornelius, have returned safely and in good spirit—and then goes on to tell them he has “found the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.” Claudius asks for Polonius to tell them both what’s wrong with Hamlet, but Polonius suggests they meet with the ambassadors first.
Polonius knows how to keep Claudius wrapped around his finger, and this passage shows that Polonius is good at securing the king’s attention in pursuit of his own designs. It’s clear that, unbeknownst to Claudius, the company he keeps is just as underhanded and dishonest as he has proven to be in his schemes to find out what’s wrong with Hamlet.
Polonius fetches Voltemand and Cornelius and brings them into the hall. Claudius asks them for the latest news from Norway. Voltemand reports that the king has put a stop to Fortinbras’s schemes. Fortinbras has sworn to keep the peace with Denmark, and as a reward for his loyalty, Fortinbras’s uncle has rewarded him with money—and the opportunity to use the soldiers he originally gathered against Denmark to invade Poland instead. Voltemand produces a letter from the king of Norway asking Claudius to allow Fortinbras’s army to pass through Denmark on the way to Poland. Claudius thanks Voltemand and Cornelius for their service and sends them away, promising to read the letter, consider it, and reply.
Claudius has successfully stopped Fortinbras from invading Denmark, but it’s clear from Cornelius and Voltemand’s report that Fortinbras does not stop moving when he meets an obstacle. He is a man of action through and through, determined to conquer lands for his kingdom and make use of himself.
With Voltemand and Cornelius gone, Polonius moves onto the next topic at hand: Hamlet’s madness. Polonius produces a letter given to him by his daughter. In the letter written by Hamlet, the young prince professes his intense love for Ophelia. Polonius admits that when he discovered the affair between Hamlet and Ophelia he grew worried, and ordered Ophelia to reject Hamlet’s advances. Polonius confesses to the king and queen that he fears he himself has brought on Hamlet’s madness by urging Ophelia to deny him.
Claudius asks if there’s a way they can test Polonius’s theory. Polonius suggests “loos[ing]” Ophelia onto Hamlet during one of the prince’s long, pensive walks through the main hall of the castle—while Polonius and Claudius watch from behind a tapestry to see how the two interact. As Hamlet approaches, reading a book, Polonius hurries the king and queen from the hall, telling them he’ll talk with Hamlet alone right now.
Polonius knows that nothing bonds people together like a common enemy—and by aligning himself with the king and queen and against Hamlet, he can maneuver his way even further into their good graces.
Claudius and Gertrude leave, and Polonius greets Hamlet. Hamlet’s demeanor towards Polonius is cool and removed, and in response, Polonius asks Hamlet if he knows who he is. Hamlet replies that Polonius is a fishmonger. Polonius says he is not, and Hamlet retorts that he wishes Polonius were as honest a man as a fishmonger. Polonius agrees that honest men are rare in the world. Hamlet asks Polonius if he has a daughter, and Polonius says he does. Hamlet urges Polonius to keep an eye on his daughter, lest she “walk i’ th’ sun” and “conceive.”
Hamlet’s wordplay in this scene is meant to prove his intellectual superiority over Polonius, and remind the man that if he’s going to toy with Hamlet, things will not be easy for him. Hamlet also gets in a dig at Ophelia, again using the play on the words “sun” and “son” he used in the last act to suggest that if Polonius doesn’t keep a close eye on Ophelia, she might get too close to the “sun” (or the “son” of the king) and wind up pregnant.
Polonius is puzzled by Hamlet’s strange demeanor and aggressive conversational style, and decides to try asking him what he’s been reading. Hamlet takes the opportunity to talk about how the “satirical rogue” who wrote the book he’s reading writes about the irrelevance and physical repulsiveness of old men. Hamlet says though he believes everything written in the book, he doesn’t necessarily agree with it being written down—if time flowed backwards, he says, Polonius could be just as young as Hamlet himself. In a brief aside to the audience, Polonius remarks that though he is startled by Hamlet’s madness, he can’t deny that “there is method in’t.”
Hamlet continues to toy with Polonius, mocking his age and his inferior intellect. Polonius seems genuinely bewildered by Hamlet’s words, even as he tries to parse them to determine just how “mad” Hamlet has really become.
Polonius continues trying to talk with Hamlet, asking if he plans to walk through the gardens or inside “out of the air.” Hamlet replies that he will walk out of the air and “into [his] grave.” Polonius, in another aside, theorizes that Hamlet’s obscure and macabre answers are symptoms of his madness. Polonius resolves to leave Hamlet, and go off to find Ophelia so that he can put the plan he formulated with Claudius earlier into action. Polonius bids Hamlet farewell and exits. As he does, Hamlet calls him a “tedious old fool.”
Hamlet’s responses to Polonius’s questions serve as reminders that Hamlet does not value his own life—and perhaps actively yearns for death. This attitude is synonymous with madness in Elsinore—however, Hamlet’s existential bent and gloomy demeanor are, Shakespeare suggests, the only natural response to a true reckoning with all the intricacies, absurdities, and obscurities of life.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and greet Hamlet. He receives them happily, seemingly excited by their presence, and the old friends catch up and discuss how their lives have been going. Both Hamlet’s old friends state that while they aren’t as well off as they could be, neither are they faring as poorly as some fare, either. Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what has landed them back in the “prison” that is Denmark. The men say Denmark isn’t a prison, but Hamlet insists it feels like one to him—they suggest that his ambitions and dreams are what make Denmark feel small.
Hamlet acts happy to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at first—but as the scene progresses, it becomes clear that he wants to confuse, mislead, and toy with them just as he did to Polonius. Hamlet is onto them, and refuses to be made a fool of by any of the courtiers at Elsinore.
Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to answer him plainly, as friends, and tell him why they have returned to Elsinore. Rosencrantz they have come for no reason other than to visit Hamlet. Hamlet asks them if they were sent for, urging them to be honest—he says the two of them are not “craft[y]” enough to lie about having been summoned by the king and queen. Rosencrantz attempts to play dumb, but Hamlet begs him to answer him with the “even and direct” truth. Guildenstern quickly caves and admits that the two of them were sent for.
Hamlet knows what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are really here for—and is just as disgusted by their fealty and loyalty to the king and queen as he is by Polonius’s. Whereas Hamlet is motivated by his search for the truth of his father’s death, it seems that everyone else around him is driven by dishonesty and hidden agendas. Hamlet, then, may have to resort to schemes of his own in order to guard himself against the duplicity of others.
Hamlet cheekily offers to tell the men the reason for which they’ve been sent. Dramatically and sarcastically, he begins describing what the king and queen have no doubt told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about him: that he has “lost all [his] mirth,” fallen into a depression, lost all interest in socializing, and become unable to see the gorgeous halls of Elsinore and even the majesty of the natural world beyond it as anything other than a “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” As Hamlet waxes poetic, he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that, judging by the smiles on their faces, he’s hit the nail on the head.
Hamlet’s florid speech in this passage seems to overdramatize his own existentialism and misery—but at the same time, there is a seed of truth in everything Hamlet is saying. He has actually lost his mirth in the midst of his grief over his father’s death, and thus he is having trouble seeing the beauty around him or the point of living on in the first place.
Rosencrantz suggests that if Hamlet has lost the ability to enjoy the company of real people, he might be charmed and brightened by a troupe of actors. Rosencrantz says that he and Guildenstern passed a troupe of players on their way to Elsinore, and have invited them to come perform at the castle. Hamlet says the actors will be welcomed—if they play their parts well. Rosencrantz tells Hamlet the troupe is one that Hamlet used to love and visit often in the city.
The impending arrival of a troupe of actors foreshadows a deepening of the play’s theme of appearance versus reality—with hired players on the scene, the lines between what’s real and false stand to blur even further.
Hamlet wonders aloud why they’re traveling when the pay is better in the city, but Rosencrantz implies the group has fallen on hard times and slid backwards in terms of popularity as child actors have begun to win the public’s favor. Hamlet says he thinks it’s ridiculous that child actors have become popular—but laments that just as the children have surpassed the professionals, so too has Claudius surged in popularity within the walls of Elsinore now that he is the King. His uncle’s popularity is “more than natural,” or unnatural, just as that of the child actors.
This passage serves a dual purpose: in Shakespeare’s time, it would have served as a commentary on the state of modern theater, but it also works in service of Hamlet’s mounting anger over Claudius’s ascension to the throne in place of the rightful king. Both child actors and Claudius as king are unnatural in Hamlet’s view.
A trumpet sounds—the players are arriving. Hamlet exuberantly shakes the hands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, insisting on giving them as warm a welcome as he’s about to give the players. Before the troupe enters, Hamlet warns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they can expect to see Hamlet’s “uncle-father and aunt-mother deceived” and confused to boot. Hamlet cheekily suggests that he is only mad on occasion—in other words, his craziness and melancholy are an act.
Hamlet continues to toy with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—but also seems to suggest that they are not intelligent or bright enough to interpret his braggadocious claims about his abilities to deceive those around him.
Polonius enters and greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet introduces Polonius to his friends as a “great baby” still in “swaddling-clouts.” Polonius tells Hamlet that the actors have arrived. Hamlet mocks everything Polonius says as Polonius formally introduces the troupe as “the best actors in the world,” capable of handling any kind of material. Hamlet continues teasing Polonius and engaging him in obscure wordplay until the players make their way into the hall.
Hamlet knows that because he is royalty, he can, for the most part, say and do what he wants with impunity—plus, he has the added advantage of being naturally good with wordplay, able to quickly outwit those around him.
Hamlet graciously welcomes the players, and as he greets them it becomes clear that he knows several of them individually by their appearances. He invites the company to perform a speech that will give him “a taste” of what they’ve been working on lately. The First Player—the leader of the troupe—asks Hamlet what speech he’d like to hear. Hamlet says he remembers, years ago, hearing the First Player recite a speech from an obscure play based on a Greek myth that was poorly-received by the masses. As Hamlet struggles to remember the speech, he ends up piecing it together and reciting it most of it himself.
Hamlet’s ambitions as an actor—and his skill with remembering and delivering long pieces of text—further lend to the play’s examination of appearance versus reality. Hamlet is skilled in being able to appear other than as he is, and put on a believable front for other people.
The First Player commends Hamlet on his good memory and then starts reciting the rest of the speech. The monologue tells of young warrior Pyrrhus attacking the elderly King of Troy, Priam, whom Hamlet refers to as “grandsire Priam”—pointedly mocking Polonius’s age. In the tale, Pyrrhus kills the old Trojan king while the king’s wife, stripped of her crown and robes, watches and screams in horror. The First Player delivers the monologue with such emotion that Polonius comments on how pale the man has gone.
As Hamlet has the First Player recite a monologue which tells of circumstances that echo what’s happening in Elsinore—one king usurping another’s throne, and taking the first man’s wife—Shakespeare shows Hamlet getting the idea to use the actors in his plot against Claudius.
Hamlet tells the First Player he can stop, then charges Polonius with finding comfortable rooms for the entire troupe and making sure they’re treated well. Hamlet bids the players to follow Polonius to their lodgings, and asks the First Player to ready a performance of The Murder of Gonzago for the following evening. The First Player agrees to do so. Hamlet asks if the First Player would insert an additional short speech into the play—a speech written by Hamlet himself. The First Player tells Hamlet he’ll do whatever the prince asks. Polonius and the players leave, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follow them out of the hall.
Hamlet begins putting his plan into motion. He has the good favor of the actors, and knows that they’ll unwittingly help him in putting on a play that will, perhaps, expose Claudius’s true motives and help Hamlet determine whether the man is truly guilty of the crimes of which the ghost has accused him.
Alone, Hamlet begins a lengthy monologue in which he laments that while even an actor reciting a work of drama could rouse in himself such emotion and feeling, Hamlet himself can feel—and do—nothing in the face of his own father’s murder. Hamlet calls himself names, curses himself, and berates his own cowardly inaction. He resents himself for being unable to stir up the anger and vengefulness he would need to man up and murder Claudius.
As Hamlet calms down a bit, he is struck with an idea. He decides that perhaps, if the actors “play something like the murder of [his] father before [his] uncle,” he’ll be able to judge, by Claudius’s reaction to the material, whether the man is really guilty of murder. Hamlet is worried that the ghost he saw may have been the devil trying to tempt him into evil—but the play could be “the thing” that “catch[e]s the conscience of the king” and allows Hamlet to determine whether his father was indeed murdered—and whether that murder must be avenged.
In these famous lines, Hamlet finishes devising a plan that will allow him to feel as if he’s taking action, even as he allows others to do all the work for him. This is another tactic by which he can stall making a decision about what to do with Claudius—even as he tells himself that he’s still following the ghost’s orders.