Claudius questions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about whether they've gotten any closer to figuring out why Hamlet "puts on" this madness.
The two friends say that Hamlet admits he's been out of sorts, but he won't tell them why. If anything, they say, Hamlet's been pretty good at not saying much.
He was full of (nonsensical) answers to their questions, but he was pretty excited about the players—and wants to make sure that the King and Queen come to the play.
They'll be there!
As planned, Claudius and Polonius set a trap for Hamlet, with Ophelia as the willing bait. The two men will hide and wait to see what happens when Hamlet encounters Ophelia, hoping they'll be able to judge from Hamlet's interaction with the girl whether he's been driven mad by love, or by something else.
Gertrude hopes it's Ophelia, since her virtues will bring Hamlet back around to his senses.
Ophelia, ever pliant, hopes so too.
Polonius then instructs Ophelia to walk around reading a prayer book, which will seem a reasonable excuse for her to be alone. (Also a good way to fall flat on your face, but whatevs.) Always ready with a moral lesson, Polonius quips that piety and devotion are often a good cover for wicked deeds.
Claudius says in an aside that Polonius's words are like a whip to his conscience: he's covered over his wicked deed, but it doesn't make his deed any less ugly.
Guess that ghost wasn't lying, then.
Hearing Hamlet approach, everybody clears out so Hamlet can privately deliver one of the greatest speeches of all time. Seriously, guys, you have to see this one.
What's the question? "To be, or not to be."
He compares death to a little sleep, which wouldn't be so bad. The only catch is that we might have dreams—bad dreams.
Of course, we'd escape a lot by being dead, like being spurned in love, except that maybe it's better to put up with the bad things you know about in life than to run off into death's "undiscovered country."
Anyone else get chills?
Hamlet then spots Ophelia reading her religious book, and closes his speech by saying he hopes she'll pray for him.
After a little small talk, Ophelia tries to return the letters and presents Hamlet gave her when they were hanging out.
Hamlet insists that he never gave her anything, and asks if she's honest (playing on the meaning of "honest" as "chaste"). He suggests if she is honest and beautiful, then she shouldn't let the traits mix, as beauty corrupts honesty faster than honesty can influence the beautiful.
(Basically, he's saying that pretty girls are easy to have sex with, and chaste girls aren't very attractive. Nice, Hamlet.)
Sure, he loved her once, though she shouldn't have believed it, because he claims that he actually didn't love her. (What, what? Their Facebook status is clearly "It's complicated.")
Hamlet then tells Ophelia to "get thee to a nunnery"), since it unwise for her to love him. (Fun fact: "nunnery" was 16th century slang for whorehouse, so…)
He then pats himself on the back for being fairly virtuous, although he could be rightfully accused of all sorts of awful things, like being "proud, revengeful, and ambitious." (Get your highlighter on that one —it's important.)
Things would be way worse if he had the thoughts, imagination, and time to make real all his darkest desires. Such men should have no place in the world, except that all men are such men. Thus, Ophelia really had better get herself off to a convent, where it's safe.
As a parting shot, he points out that even if Ophelia is a regular girl, marriage would still be awful. Actually, he says, if she has to marry, Ophelia should marry a fool, as wise men know that women only make men into "monsters."
Note: That's a reference to the idea that all women turn men into "cuckolds" (men who are cheated on by their wives), who grow horns, like monsters.
After all, Hamlet says, women are monstrous anyway, painting their faces and frolicking about so men think they're cute, when really they're just going to ruin everybody's life. Women pretend to be dumb, he says, when they're really in it for the sex. And that is why he's crazy.
… which makes us wonder: does he know he's being watched?
Now that Hamlet has dismissed half the planet as faithless (because they're women), he suggests that there be no more marriage, ever. "Those that are married already—all but one—shall live, the rest shall keep as they are," he says.
Hamlet exits, and Ophelia essentially throws her hands up. Though she had once "suck'd the honey of [Hamlet's] music vows," he now sounds out of tune.
Claudius and Polonius enter the scene. Claudius announces that actually Hamlet isn't lovesick: his ranting doesn't sound like lunacy.
So, maybe this is a convenient time to send Hamlet off to England. The change of scenery might do him good, right?
Polonius wants to try something first: leave Hamlet alone with his mom after the play, and see if she can convince him to reveal the true source of his grief. (He'll spy on them, of course.) If Gertrude doesn't get any good information out of him, well, then it's off to England for the silent son.