The King welcomes "dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" (2.2.1), and immediately gets down to business. They, friends of Hamlet, are supposed to hang out with him, so that they can find out what's wrong with him. The King says that he "cannot dream of" what might be wrong with Hamlet, other than his father's death. Of course, we've already learned that the King killed Hamlet's father, so we may suspect that what the King really wants to know is what Hamlet knows or suspects, and what Hamlet might do.
The Queen seconds the King's request by telling them how much Hamlet likes them, and by suggesting that there might be some money in it for them, or--as she puts it--"such thanks / As fits a king's remembrance" (2.2.25-26). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not only agree to do what they're asked, they suck up. They know, and say, that the King could simply command, rather than ask, and so they're glad he asked.
Exeunt Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enter Polonius:
Enter Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]:
Exeunt Ambassadors [Voltemand and Cornelius]:
The King and Queen are almost persuaded, but still doubtful, and so Polonius boasts that "I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the centre." The King asks how his theory may be tested, and Polonius offers to "loose" Ophelia to Hamlet while he and the King hide behind a curtain to overhear their conversation.
Enter Hamlet. Exeunt King and Queen:
Exit Polonius. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
Hamlet greets his old friends heartily, and asks how they're doing, which leads to a good-old-boy off-color joke about "the secret parts of Fortune." Then Hamlet asks, "What news?" He means what we mean when we say "What's up?" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don't have a good answer to that question. They didn't come just to hang out with Hamlet, and they didn't just happen to run into him while they were doing something else. They came to find out what his problem is, but they're not supposed to tell him that. So Rosencrantz answers Hamlet's "What news?" with "None, my lord," which is a little white lie.
Hamlet then invites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be on his side. He asks, "What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?" (2.2.239-241). But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are employed by the King of Denmark, so they can't jump in and agree that Denmark is a prison. When Hamlet insists that "To me it is a prison," Rosencrantz takes that as an opportunity to divert the conversation to an interesting topic: Hamlet's ambition. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could report back to the King that Hamlet's problem is that he wants to be king, that would be news indeed. Hamlet denies that he is ambitious, saying, "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space--were it not that I have bad dreams" (2.2.254-256).
However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don't give up easily, and spar a little over the meaning of ambition, until Hamlet gets tired of the whole thing and suggests that they go "to th' court." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern say "We'll wait upon you," as though they have nothing better to do than just tag around with him. This apparently reminds Hamlet that they never really answered his question, so he asks it again: "But, in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?" Rosencrantz replies with a half-truth: "To visit you, my lord, no other occasion." Hamlet suddenly intuits the truth and asks "Were you not sent for?" (2.2.274). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are surprised, and a little sarcastic brow-beating from Hamlet gets them to confess that they were indeed sent for.
The discovery that his supposed friends are really the king's spies sends Hamlet into a kind of philosophical orbit. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he knows that they were sent for because he has lost all of his "mirth." Not only that, but to him the earth is nothing but a "sterile promontory" within "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors." He goes on, in a passage that is often quoted as an example of the Renaissance belief in the dignity of man:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! (2.2.303-307)This kind of idea about man was one of the inspirations of famous Renaissance artists (think of Michelangelo's statue of David), but Hamlet's conclusion is a question, "and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"
At this point Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lost, or distracted, or feeling smug that Hamlet is talking crazy. Whatever, they are smiling, and Hamlet accuses them of having their minds in the gutter. He says, "man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so" (2.2.309-310). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cover themselves by saying they were only thinking about how disappointed the "players" (a company of actors) are going to be when they show up. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern met them on the road and were told that they were coming to entertain Hamlet, but Hamlet doesn't seem to be in the mood.
The explanation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern give for their smiling seems rather lame, but Hamlet is more interested in the players than in his two "friends." He asks all about them, and finds--in a passage that is often cut from performances--that these "tragedians of the city" are on the road because boy actors have become more popular. This information prompts Hamlet to think about the current situation in Denmark. He reflects that it's not so strange that the public has suddenly taken a liking to the boy actors, because now people buy pictures of Claudius, despite the fact that before he was king, they made faces at him behind his back. But then again, it is too strange, because "there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out" (2.2.367-368).
A flourish trumpets for the players. Enter Polonius:
Now Polonius comes bustling in. Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Polonius is a "great baby," and tells them that he can tell, just from looking at Polonius, that he's come to announce the arrival of the players. Sure enough that's what Polonius has on his mind, and Hamlet mocks him, although Polonius doesn't seem to notice until Hamlet suddenly calls him "Jephthah, judge of Israel" (2.2.404). The story of Jephthah is a cruel tale that can be found in Judges 11. In short, Jephthah, who has only one daughter, promises God that if he is given victory in battle he will sacrifice "whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house" when he returns. He does win the battle. His daughter hears of his victory and comes out to meet him "with timbrels and with dances." He keeps his promise to God. Hamlet's implication seems to be that Polonius, like Jephthah, has one daughter whom he claims to love "passing well," and that Polonius, again like Jephthah, sacrifices her for his own advantage.
Then Hamlet asks for a "passionate speech." In fact, he has one in mind, "Aeneas' tale to Dido, . . . especially when he speaks of Priam's slaughter," and recites the first thirteen lines. Then the First Player takes over, telling a story that we could expect Hamlet to be interested in, since it climaxes in a description of a woman grieving for her husband. Hecuba, the dead man's wife, made a "clamor" that would have made the very stars weep, "would have made milch [milk] the burning eyes of heaven" (2.2.517). By this time the player is himself weeping, and Polonius says "Prithee, no more."
Hamlet agrees to let the rest of the speech wait until later, and he asks Polonius to see to it that the players are "well bestow'd." Polonius apparently thinks it's beneath him to be real nice to a bunch of traveling players, and answers that he will "use them according to their desert." Hamlet gives him a tongue lashing, saying "God's bodykins, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" (2.2.529-530). Polonius has nothing to say to that, and tells the players to follow him. As everyone is leaving, Hamlet announces that "we'll hear a play tomorrow," and then detains First Player to make the arrangements. Hamlet wants a particular play, The Murder of Gonzago, and he asks the player to memorize an extra speech which Hamlet would write and put into the play. (Later, we find that this particular play interests Hamlet because it tells of a king who was, like King Hamlet, poisoned in his garden by his wife's lover.) First Player says that it will be no problem to put Hamlet's speech into the play, but we never learn what speech, if any, Hamlet added to the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still hanging around, but Hamlet coldly dismisses them, and he is alone with his thoughts.
Exit all but Hamlet:
Remember that Laertes has gone to France and Polonius has sent Reynaldo after to spy on him, so some time has passed since Hamlet has promised the Ghost that he would "sweep" to revenge. Yet Hamlet is not blaming himself because he hasn't killed Claudius, but because he hasn't said anything. Half-mockingly, he says that if the player had the same "motive and cue for passion" he would "drown the stage with tears." And then he turns the mockery back upon himself, saying that he is a "dull . . . rascal." The Ghost told him that if he didn't take revenge he would be "duller than the fat weed / That roots itself on Lethe wharf." So Hamlet seems to be accusing himself of not having the player's passion, of not hating Claudius strongly enough, and, above all, of not loving his father strongly enough.
Next, Hamlet asks, "Am I a coward?" But it's not a really a question. He's trying to work himself into a state of passion. He imagines someone insulting him in the most outrageous way, pulling his nose, calling him a liar, and says that he should "take it" because if he weren't "pigeon-liver'd" he would have killed Claudius, gutted him, and fed the guts to the hawks. He flies into a rage at the very thought of Claudius, calling him "bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" (2.2.580-581).
As the words come rushing out, Hamlet hears himself, and is even more disgusted. Instead of doing anything, he feels compelled to"unpack my heart with words, / And fall a-cursing like a very drab [a whore], / A stallion [a male whore]." So now he is cursing because he doing nothing but cursing, and then he suddenly realizes it and says, "About, my brains!" "About" is an order, as you might give to a horse, when you want him to turn around. Hamlet is telling himself to stop, take a breath, and try to take a new look at the situation.
He has heard that guilty people at a play have been "struck so to the soul" that they have betrayed their guilt. That's what he will try on Claudius. He'll keep a careful watch on Claudius during The Murder of Gonzago. Perhaps he suspects himself of just finding another reason to not do anything, because he justifies himself by reasoning that "The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil" (2.2.598-599), and may be misleading him to damn him. He would be damned if he killed an innocent man, but this is the first time that he has shown any doubt that the Ghost is anything but his father's spirit, or any doubt that Claudius is guilty of murder. Nevertheless, he declares that "the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."