Read my summary of Act I Scene I first!
A lot of important character and plot building in this scene, so buckle up.
Scene II sees all of our major players gathered together and Claudius calls together his court. Present are – are you taking notes? – all of the lords, including Polonius with his children Laertes (finally, a child not named after his father! Points to Polonius for original thinking!) and Ophelia, and Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is also with them, but he’s off in a corner doing what he does best – sulking and wearing black.
Claudius mourns the passing of his brother, Hamlet Sr., for all of about thirty seconds before saying “Oh well, life goes on” and getting on with the running of the country. After a vaguely shifty defence of his decision to marry his sister-in-law in that suggests he totally knows that it’s kind of weird he reassures the nobles that Fortinbras – that’s the Norwegian prince trying to avenge his father from the previous scene – isn’t going to be a problem. He’s written a letter to Fortinbras’ uncle telling him to get his nephew under control, which is the King equivalent of running crying to someone’s mother because they threatened to beat you up in the playground.
Claudius does a bit more king-ing, giving Laertes permission to return to his university in France, and then turns to Hamlet (who is still sulking in the corner) and addresses him as his nephew and son. This familiarity pisses Hamlet off no end.
Gertrude can’t seem to understand why Hamlet is still upset about the death of his father after a whole two months. Not everyone can move on as fast as you Gertrude. Claudius joins in, telling Hamlet that everyone’s fathers die eventually and that it’s silly – sinful, even – to get too hung up about it. He tells Hamlet to think of him as his new father, which is something that step-fathers should never say unless they definitely want their kids to hate them. Claudius wraps up this example of A+ parenting by refusing to let Hamlet return to university in Wittenberg because he wants to keep him close by.
So now we have:
- A suspiciously dead father.
- An uncle who has gained a throne and a wife out of the aforementioned suspiciously dead father.
- Some excellent parenting skills.
- The ‘call me Dad’ speech.
- A whole load of resentment.
Prepare for the fun.
Hamlet is the only one less than thrilled about their current situation. He’s finding no joy in life since his dad’s death and is hanging on to the memory of how great and loving his father was. We don’t really hear from anyone else what kind of a king Hamlet Sr. was, so it’s entirely possible that Hamlet Jr. is idealising him just a little, comparing him to a god against his uncle: “as Hyperion to a satyr”.
What particularly upsets him is that Gertrude remarried only a month after his father’s death. He attributes her flakiness to her sex: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Ouch. He’s also very unhappy with the fact that the marriage is to his uncle, which he considers incestuous. Why this particular point is important will require a brief history lesson, so bear with me.
Most people are probably familiar with Henry VIII and the divorce debacle. Henry wanted to get rid of his first wife Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, giving the reason that his marriage to Katherine was unlawful because she had previously been married to Henry’s brother Arthur before his death, making her marriage to Henry, according to the scripture he provided, incestuous. Whether Henry actually believed his argument or if he just wanted to marry the younger woman he was infatuated with is up for debate, but Henry used it as a reason to break away from the Catholic Church, marry Anne and have a child. Why is this important? Well, Elizabeth I was the daughter Henry and Anne had, and she also just so happened to be Queen while Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. She needed people to believe her father’s argument because otherwise his divorce was invalid, making his marriage to Anne unlawful and Elizabeth a bastard and therefore unable to rule. Shakespeare was probably inspired by these events while writing, but carefully stayed on the side of the argument that would allow him to keep his head.
Hamlet really hates his current situation but because he can’t do anything about it he’s just going to stay quiet and monologue about how sad he is, making him relatable to pretty much every teenager out there.
Horatio and the guards from the previous scene arrive and Hamlet is happy to see Horatio – or as happy as Hamlet is capable of being – who is his friend from university in Wittenberg. Hamlet shows a spark of wit in this conversation, albeit a slightly macabre one; he jokes that the wedding came so soon after the funeral so they could use the leftovers from the funeral dinner for the wedding feast. It makes a refreshing change after the downer soliloquy he just delivered and shows that he has more emotions than “sad”, such as “slightly sad” and “sad with a hint of melancholy”.
The topic of Hamlet’s father comes up because that’s Hamlet’s favourite topic, besides slut-shaming his mother, and Horatio brings up the ghost they saw the previous night. Hamlet is understandably concerned by this news. The fact that the ghost is armed suggests another worrying omen for Denmark, and dead fathers appearing is generally never a good sign. Hamlet decides to stand watch with the guards that night in case his father shows up again because he wants to talk to it.
I get that Hamlet is probably desperate to talk to his father, but I can’t help but wonder if he should be more careful; ghosts don’t usually show up for anything good. Demons and evil spirits run rampant through Elizabethan literature and a suspicious ghost turning up would probably have been shorthand for Trouble. Hamlet himself seems at least vaguely aware that this could be something demonic, briefly mentioning Hell, but doesn’t seem to care much. He needs to remember that just because something looks like your father and dresses like your father does not make it your father. A dead father by any other name would not be called Dad, or something like that.
To wrap up: Hamlet hates Claudius, his mother, the court, life in general, Denmark and fun, but he kind of doesn’t hate Horatio.