This scene is super long, so here’s Part 1 of the review.
Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They share some surprisingly upbeat banter with Mr Grumpypants – catching up, a bit of innuendo, Hamlet calls Fortune a whore, general schoolboy stuff – before Hamlet returns to form and calls Denmark a prison. Ah, there’s our guy.
Hamlet immediately assumes that R & G have been sent to spy on him, which seems a little paranoid. I mean, he’s right, but can’t someone just drop in for a nice chat? Besides, he has no more evidence than “Denmark sucks so why would anyone want to come here?” The conversation continues in this jolly vein when he admits that he just doesn’t find any joy in life anymore and can’t even muster up enthusiasm for people or sex. Rosencrantz tries to cheer him up by telling him that a troupe of actors are on the way, and they’re Hamlet’s favourites because they do tragedies and it’s suddenly clear that Hamlet’s always been a mopy morbid sod. The actors arrive at court (convenient timing) and Hamlet greets them, interestingly referring to his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” – more indication of his obsession with their ‘incestual’ relationship – and claiming that he’s only mad sometimes.
A quick aside: is what Hamlet’s telling R & G about his mental state the truth? He knows they’re spying on him for the King, so he could very well be lying to them. It does seem to match up with his behaviour though, at least in regards to his depression, but is what he says about being intermittently mad an admittance of his actual mental state or a carefully placed lie so R & G report it to Claudius as part of his plan? When Polonius enters he immediately resumes his crazy-schtick and talks about Ophelia more, so he’s clearly performing to an extent, but it seems weird that he would let R & G see him more lucid.
The actors enter and Hamlet asks them to perform a speech from a play he saw them do based on the Trojan war. In the speech, Phyrrus, son of Achilles, brutally kills the Trojan King Priam to avenge the death of his father as the distraught Queen Hecuba looks on; the parallels with Hamlet/Phyrrus, Hamlet Sr./Achilles, Claudius/Priam and Gertrude/Hecuba are almost too obvious. He then asks them to perform for the Court the next night and requests the play The Murder of Gonzago, but with an additional scene he will write himself. Clearly someone has a plan.
Hamlet’s finally left alone. He bemoans his awful situation but seems awfully aware that despite swearing revenge he hasn’t actually done anything yet. Hamlet’s indecisiveness is a major point in the play, but I can’t say I blame him; killing someone is a major deal, especially if the only reason you know they deserve killing is because a possibly fake ghost told you.
I once heard it said that Hamlet’s indecisiveness is not a ‘fatal flaw’ so to speak (a tradition in tragedy is for the hero to suffer from a major fault that inevitably brings about their own downfall. Eddie from Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge is an excellent example of this.), but that he’s merely in the wrong story. If he swapped places with Othello, for example, Othello’s brash action would have solved Hamlet’s problem immediately, whereas Hamlet’s thoughtfulness and caution would have prevented the tragedy that happens in Othello. As it is though, his insistence on waiting before acting allows events to be set in motion that all culminate in a lot of death at the end of the play.
This soliloquy covers a lot of that material. Hamlet knows that he should act, but there’s always the possibility that Claudius is innocent. Hamlet doesn’t entirely trust that the ghost was actually his father and not just a demon trying to cause trouble, so he needs the confirmation. He decides to use the play to test Claudius’ guilt by having the theatre troupe act out a murder just like the ghost told him Hamlet Sr. was murdered (dripping poison in the ear). He’ll watch Claudius’ reaction and if he flinches then Hamlet will know for sure that he’s guilty. It’s a good idea for finding out the truth, but it’s a pretty specific murder so there’s always the possibility that Claudius will cotton on. Still, at least things are starting to move along…