Is crafty madness another oxymoron or have Rosencrantz and Gildenstern actually understood that Hamlet is feigning madness? This is an echo of Claudius' "put on this confusion" perhaps acknowledging that he has chosen to seem mad.
Gertrude believes that if love for Ophelia is the cause of Hamlet's madness then it could be cured. Hamlet goes a step beyond the idea of Ophelia's beauty to suggest that beauty should be paired with honesty, and it is Ophelia's lack of honesty or openness, her willingness to spy on Hamlet, like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are doing, which turns Hamlet against her. The art of the prostitute, the way she covers the pock marks on her cheeks, hides her ugliness; similarly Claudius' facility with language hides his ugly deeds.
This is the first aside of Claudius, the first time we see his internal feelings or thoughts. Until this time, we haven't known if Claudius was guilty or not. He doesn't actually confess to the killing of Old Hamlet yet, but he acknowledges his sense of guilt. Actually, this makes Claudius less of a Machiavellian because a true Machiavellian would not allow his conscience to affect him. Claudius also says, "the harlot's cheek . . . is not more ugly to the thing that helps it than is my deed to my most painted word." So what he has done is ugly compared to the kind of things he says. Hamlet in the previous scene said he wanted to catch the conscience of the king; he would not be able to if Claudius was a true Machiavellian, but here Shakespeare shows us that Claudius does have a conscience, and in fact, it has been pricked already by of all people Polonius.
Here is another view of Death as a theme. If we compare this speech to Hamlet's first soliloquy, we see that this is less heart-felt, less depressed, less emotional, and now more intellectual. He is philosophically analyzing the idea of suicide. This is a problematic speech: if it is a soliloquy (in other words, if it represents his inner thoughts and is not meant to be overheard by those on the stage), then it suggests that Hamlet is depressed again, at least thinking about suicide, and since the last time we saw him he was excited and hopeful that he could test the ghost and find out if Claudius really is guilty, if he is now depressed again, then he is like Richard II whose emotions are on a roller-coaster. Those who claim Hamlet is manic-depressive use this contrast as proof (although the change seems to come faster than it would for a manic-depressive). On the other hand, if Hamlet overheard Polonius' plot to "loose [his] daughter to him," and now sees Ophelia in the manner which Polonius said he would set her up, he might assume that Polonius and Claudius are hiding and eavesdropping, which is exactly what is happening. If he can quickly determine this, and if he does not want to give away his excitement about the potential for the upcoming Mousetrap scene, he might deliver this speech as a "set speech" to make Polonius and Claudius think he is still depressed over Old Hamlet's death and comtemplating death. In this case, the philosophical quality of the speech makes more sense, but most critics, editors, and readers have assumed this was a soliloquy.
As a view of death, Hamlet is analyzing the fact that people fear death more than they dislike the sufferings they have in life. It is our doubt about what happens after death which keeps us from killing ourselves. The issue is not whether suicide is a sin, but that emotionally we are afraid. Here is is very rational, but Shakespeare will send him into the emotional side in his interaction with Ophelia.
He compares death to sleep, which is good but which can be uncomfortable if we suffer from nightmares.
We may be understanding a more profound reason for Hamlet's delay; he may be afraid of death and unsure what the result would be if he tried to kill Claudius. Claudius used the word conscience in the moral sense, a sense of guilt. Hamlet here really means consciousness, our awareness, makes us cowards. We can imagine our own death. In fact, Hamlet can imagine not only earthly possibilities, but also that his killing of Claudius might result in an eternity of hell if Claudius is not guilty and the ghost is trying to snare his soul with a lie.
Is Hamlet feeling guilty, that he has sins that need the prayers of Ophelia or anyone else? Later he confesses to several sins. However, it is the moral people who have consciences, those who are striving to become their ideal Self; the Machiavellian characters, since they do not believe in a morality established by a Supreme Being, have no use for guilt either, and thus would only request prayers by others as an outward show or pretence of belief.
Again, Hamlet tests everyone. This is the first time he has really talked to Ophelia, supposedly since Act 1, and if he has overheard the plot, he would want to know if she is willingly a part of that plot. Hamlet may be talking about his mother when she talked about beauty corrupting honesty as a paradox which he now understands because he sees it in his mother.
This is an important speech and an ambiguous one. Does he mean that the rest of the world is so corrupt that for Ophelia to remain pure, she must withdraw form the world in a nunnery, so he wants to protect her. Or if he is critical of her, aware that she is being used by her father against him, he could be angry at her and calling her a whore for allowing someone else to use her, and then his reference to a "nunnery" can be seen as "brothel" which was a slang interpretation of the word in the Renaissance. This view would fit Hamlet's treatment of Polonius in 2.2, his calling Polonius a "fishmonger" or pimp.
Would Hamlet say these things if he knows he is being overheard? Has he forgotten that Polonius and Claudius are there or is just becoming suspicious? Sometimes this is played where there is some noise behind the arras and suddenly Hamlet remembers or becomes aware of the fact that someone is there.
Hamlet asks a direct question and Ophelia lies to him. If he knows that Polonius is behind the arras, then this test of Ophelia means that he will lump her with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and other "friends" who are willing to join with the king to spy on him.
[This is the answer to the question.]
[This is the answer to the question.]
Hamlet could be directly threatening Claudius here. Who else would be the "one" he would not want to live. Claudius may understand this, and thus determines to send Hamlet away from the court.
Ophelia tells us what Hamlet was thought to be before the play began. This is the only lyrical speech in the entire play. Hamlet may even have thought himself to be this paragon of perfection, but realistically noone is that perfect and those who think they are, like Richard II and King Lear, are usually painfully disabused of that belief.
[This is the answer to the question.]
Claudius immediately decides what should be done with Hamlet. He gives as a reason to Polonius the change of place and healthy sea air may help Hamlet regain his wits, but he may already be planning to have Hamlet killed. Or he may be planning to send Hamlet away and not deciding to include the request to England to have Hamlet killed, but by the time Hamlet has killed Polonius, Claudius has decided to have Hamlet killed. Claudius does not delay at all when he formulates a plan. Claudius knows that Hamlet knows about the murder before the Mousetrap scene. So it will be harder for the play-within-a-play to "catch" Claudius.
Once again, Polonius' solution is to spy on Hamlet. Though he says "all alone," he expects to be able to eavesdrop on this conversation. Since Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Hamlet's old friends, have not been able to ascertain satisfactorily whether Hamlet is mad and/or dangerous, and since the Ophelia plot does not clearly support Polonius' view that Hamlet is mad for love of Ophelia, Polonius wants to test it again. Claudius is convinced that Hamlet is a danger. Whether at this point he is plotting Hamlet's death or just his banishment for a time is unclear.
Claudius probably does not still believe Hamlet is mad, but since Polonius does, he uses this belief as an excuse to send Hamlet away. This is ironic because he could better "watch" Hamlet's madness if he were still in Elsinore.
Copyright © Chris Barkley. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 15, 1999 .