Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern gather in the hall of Elsinore. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Claudius that though they’ve tried to talk to Hamlet about the root of his madness, he’s unwilling to answer them and remains “aloof.” Gertrude asks if the two of them have at least been able to engage Hamlet in some fun, and Rosencrantz happily says that they’ve brought a group of players to the castle to give a performance later that evening. Claudius says he’s happy to hear that Hamlet is excited about something—and urges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make sure he stays that way. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hurry off to find Hamlet.
Everyone is concerned about Hamlet—though whether they are genuinely concerned or merely affecting concern changes from person to person. The constant scheming and plotting in the play underscores the theme of appearance versus reality—with everyone pretending all the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s really thinking what, and who’s responsible for which actions.
Claudius tells Gertrude to leave so that he and Polonius can enact their plan of getting Hamlet to meet with Ophelia while Claudius and Polonius hide to observe the young lovers. Gertrude bids the rest of the group goodbye, telling Ophelia that she hopes the young woman can help Hamlet find his way back to sanity.
This passage again underscores how Ophelia and Gertrude must exist only as pawns controlled by the men around them, made to do their bidding and heed their orders.
Polonius hands Ophelia a prayer book and orders her to pretend to read it while he and Claudius hide. Polonius notes that pretending to do “pious action” is something of a sin, but should be okay just this once. In an aside, Claudius remarks that he is familiar with pretending to be something other than what he is—he is carrying a “heavy burden” of lies. Polonius pulls Claudius off to the side of the hall to hide.
This passage marks Claudius’s first admission of guilt in the play—he is clearly triggered or affected by the piles of lies building up all around him. Polonius’s comment about false displays of piety again underscores the Christian morality in Elsinore that makes the dishonest, manipulative, and even murderous actions of its inhabitants all the more dishonorable.
Hamlet enters, speaking to himself. “To be, or not to be,” he asks—he is pondering suicide aloud. In a lengthy monologue, Hamlet wonders whether it is “nobler” for one to fight against what life throws at them, or to refuse to fight off such troubles and instead die. Hamlet is worried that in death’s “sleep” he might dream, but he longs for complete oblivion from all the horrible things in life: pain, oppression, corruption, and exhaustion. He laments that his fear of all the unknowns of death has made a “coward” of him. Hamlet stops himself, however, when he sees Ophelia. Observing her with her prayer book, he asks her to absolve him of his sins through her prayers.
This monologue is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most well-known soliloquies—and most controversial, as well, considering its levelheaded inquiry into the merits and morality of suicide. Hamlet is tortured by his own existence and longs to escape it—but given the stigmas against suicide at the time (which have endured to the present day), he knows that there are religious, moral, and social risks associated with taking control of his own fate. Hamlet cannot decide whether he should kill Claudius—and can’t even decide whether he should kill himself. He is a man of inaction who has been pressed to go against his very nature, and longs to escape the task laid before him—but can’t even bring himself to undertake the action that would be required to extricate himself from the situation.
Ophelia greets Hamlet and asks how he’s been doing. He tells her he’s been well. Ophelia tells Hamlet she has some “remembrances” to give back to him. Hamlet doesn’t even see what it is she has to give to him before insisting he never gave Ophelia anything. Ophelia insists that Hamlet gave her many gifts and sweetly-composed letters—but says that the joy they once brought her is gone, and she doesn’t want them anymore. Hamlet asks Ophelia if she’s being “honest,” or pure. Ophelia is taken aback by the invasive question, but Hamlet continues asking Ophelia if she is “honest and fair.” She is beautiful, he says, but her beauty has no correlation to her “honesty.”
Hamlet has attacked Polonius, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern with his well-considered and condescending wordplay. Now he turns words, the only weapon at his disposal, against Ophelia as well. Hamlet's questioning of Ophelia's "honesty" works on many possible levels. First, it can be taken as meaning that he doesn't believe that she no longer loves him, that she isn't currently being honest. Second, though, it could be taken as him questioning whether she was honest when she previously told him that she did love him—that she wasn't honest with him in the past, and told him she loved him then as some ploy or strategem. Third, "honesty" at the time the play was written was closely tied to the concept of purity and virginity, so he may be questioning whether she is a virgin—which he may in fact be in a position to know. More broadly, in tying all these accusations together Hamlet is suggesting that Ophelia is or was in some way using her beauty and sexual allure to entice or manipulate Hamlet. Given Hamlet's anger about his mother's marriage, he seems to think all women behave this way, that none are "honest" or pure in the way he wants.
Ophelia retorts that beauty and purity are, in fact, intimately connected. Hamlet suggests that beauty can transform honesty into a “bawd,” but honesty cannot make a sinful woman pure once more. “I did love you once,” Hamlet tells Ophelia, and she retorts that Hamlet only made her believe that he did. Hamlet recants and says Ophelia’s right—he never really cared for her.
Hamlet and Ophelia clearly resent each other, and Hamlet uses sexist and vile language to assault Ophelia’s integrity—even though it’s possible that he was the one who stripped her of her “honor.”
Hamlet tells Ophelia she should get to a nunnery, or convent, quickly—she shouldn’t bring any more sinful people into the world. Hamlet states that he himself is a sinner, like all men—it would be better if he had never been born, and even suggests that the world is full of “arrant knaves, all” who should be washed from the earth. Hamlet asks pointedly where Polonius is. Ophelia answers that her father is at home. Hamlet says he hopes Polonius gets locked inside, so that “he may play the fool no where but in ‘s own house.”
Hamlet’s existentialism and frustration with the world around him is leading him to believe that all men are sinners—and that there is no point in furthering life on Earth when everything ends in deception, pain, and loss. At the same time as Hamlet airs these thoughts—which would be considered “mad” by many—he shows that he’s in control of the situation by indicating that he’s aware of Polonius’s scheme and knows the old man is listening to every word. This casts into doubt whether anything Hamlet is saying—or has said—in this entire scene is real or false, furthering the play’s blurring of appearance versus reality.
Ophelia cries out for God and the “sweet heavens” to help Hamlet. Hamlet, in return, puts a “plague” on Ophelia, predicting that even if she remains “pure as snow,” no one will ever believe that she is truly righteous. He urges her, again, to enter a convent and shut herself away from all men. Ophelia cries out to God once again, begging for Hamlet’s sanity. Hamlet cruelly retorts that women like Ophelia hide their true faces under makeup, “jig and amble” suggestively, and make sinners and idiots of men. Hamlet says that women’s “wantonness” is what has made him mad. He says he wishes there would be “no more marriages” before telling Ophelia, for a third and final time, to get to a convent. He leaves the hall.
Even as Hamlet is, very possibly, engaging in a large spectacle of deceit, he accuses Ophelia—and all women like her—of being the ones conning humanity through false appearances and performances. Hamlet disregards that women of his era are made to behave in ways that conceal or make more attractive their true selves in order to secure the sociopolitical stability necessary for their survival.
Alone, Ophelia laments that Hamlet’s “noble mind is here o’erthrown.” All of Hamlet’s potential as a scholar, a soldier, and the leader of Denmark has been lost. She is devastated that Hamlet has gone mad and fallen so far from grace and nobility. Claudius and Polonius come out of hiding to comfort Ophelia. Claudius states that whatever is going on with Hamlet portends “some danger,” and resolves to send him away to England on a diplomatic mission—both to get him away from Elsinore for a while and to hopefully allow him to rest, recover, and see more of the world.
Even though Hamlet has behaved hideously towards Ophelia, she doesn’t lament his cruelty towards her—and actually absolves him of it. She instead expresses sadness and pity for Hamlet, demonstrating that in spite of what he believes (or what she has pretended), she does truly have feelings for him.
Polonius obsequiously agrees with Claudius’s plan, but suggests that before sending Hamlet to England, Claudius should make one final attempt to get to the root of Hamlet’s madness by having Gertrude confront her son. Claudius agrees with Polonius’s advice, stating that Hamlet must be closely observed.
Claudius and Polonius know they must be careful—if they upset Gertrude by taking Hamlet away, their plans could backfire on them.