Study Guide

Hamlet Act I, Scene ii

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Act I, Scene ii

    • Claudius, the new King of Denmark, gives his inaugural address to the court. He manages to explain away the fact that he has married his brother's widow, Gertrude, only a month after her husband's death. No one has any issues with this.
    • Conveniently, marrying the Queen also meant that Claudius got to become King.
    • No one has any issues with this either, and especially not courtier Cornelius, who kisses up to the new king.
    • Claudius sends Voltimand (also a courtier) and Cornelius to Norway with the following message to young Fortinbras' uncle, the King of Norway: "How about telling your bratty little nephew to quit thinking about attacking Denmark?"
    • King Claudius then turns to Laertes and asks what would make him happy. Laertes wants to go to France, and Claudius says he'd better check with Laertes' father, Polonius.
    • The response from Polonius: Sure.
    • With all that out of the way, Claudius gets down to business: dealing with Hamlet, his nephew and his son. He thinks this is pretty funny. LOL!
    • Hamlet makes a snarky comment under his breath remark about being more than "kin" (because of the double relationship of nephew/son) but less than "kind." Kind is K-I-N + D, so it's more than kin, but Hamlet isn't particularly fond of his uncle, so he doesn't feel very kindly toward him. Now that's some pretty witty snark.
    • Since Hamlet's been moody lately, Gertrude tells him to cut it out already. Everybody dies, and Hamlet should really ditch his all black get-up for some more cheerful clothes.
    • Hamlet responds tensely and sarcastically and makes a big deal about how his inner grief and anguish is more intense than any outward "show" (dark clothing, somber behavior, etc.).
    • Claudius basically calls him a sissy.
    • Both Claudius and Gertrude, for some reason, declare that they would rather Hamlet stay and chill with them than go back to school in Wittenberg, Germany.
    • Hamlet says fine, and the King and Queen exit with their courtiers, leaving the moody and depressed Prince alone.
    • Hamlet reveals that he is contemplating suicide and wishes that his "flesh" would "melt." Yep, he's serious.
    • Time for a history snack: If Hamlet were a real person and alive today, he'd probably be diagnosed with clinical depression. In Shakespeare's day, there was another term for this: melancholy. Elizabethans thought that melancholy was brought on by too much "black bile" in the body, which caused lethargy, irritability, distorted imagination, and all kinds of unpleasant symptoms. "Black bile"? Elizabethans believed the human body was made up of four basic elements, called humors, which affected your mood: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile.
    • Now, back to the play.
    • Hamlet's thoughts go something like this:
    • His mother's hasty marriage to his uncle has ripped apart the foundations of his universe. She seemed like she really loved his father and acted heartbroken when he died, but she must have been faking it. How else could she have remarried so quickly?
    • If his own mother is selfish and deceitful, then obviously the world and all the people in it suck.
    • Since everything and everyone is corrupted, Hamlet thinks suicide would be a good idea.
    • We interrupt this program for another History Snack: While marrying your dead spouse's sibling would be considered unusual today, it was considered a major sin against God in Shakespeare's time. In 1563, Queen Elizabeth I asked Archbishop Parker to come up with a list of rules about marriage (just in case anyone forgot to read Leviticus 18.6-18. The Archbishop drew up something called a "Table of Kindred and Affinity, Wherein Whosoever Are Related are Forbidden in Scripture and Our Laws to Marry Together." (That just means it's a list of relatives who couldn't marry.) This "Table" eventually made its way into the Book of Common Prayer (a compilation of services for the Church of England that made its debut in 1549.) Guess what's on list? A big "don't even think about marrying your brother- or sister-in-law."
    • Back to business: Enter Horatio, one of Hamlet's buddies from Wittenberg and the guy we saw earlier on the battlements. He's accompanied by Marcellus and Bernardo, whom we also saw on the battlements.
    • Horatio explains that he's in town for King Hamlet's funeral.
    • Ah-ha-ha, says Hamlet; don't you mean Gertrude's wedding? But really, same difference. In fact, they used the leftover snacks from the funeral wake at the wedding reception. (Hamlet actually says this).
    • Important line: Hamlet says he sees his father —in his mind's eye. Just go ahead and dog-ear this page of your text. (Unless you're borrowing it, in which case use a sticky note.)
  • But forget Hamlet's clever wordplay; Horatio does what any typical pal would do —he distracts Hamlet from his misery by telling him about his father's ghost.
  • Whoa! Hamlet has a bunch of questions (obviously), including: Did the Ghost look mad?
  • Nope, its expression was closer to an "I'm so sad" look than an "I'm going to kill you!" face.
  • Hamlet decides to check it out for himself.
  • He tells the other guys to keep quiet about the dead-dad sighting, and plans to meet them at 11:30pm on the designated ghost-meeting platform area.
  • Once everyone is gone, Hamlet indulges in some genius observations: His dad's ghost showing up armed is probably a bad sign. He suspects foul play and pledges that truth of the crime will rise to the top in this matter, though the earth tries to hide it from men's eyes.
  • If this scene's got you befuddled, let Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude break it down for you.

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