Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

Page Index:
  • Enter Claudius, King of Denmark; Gertrude the Queen; and others, including Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet, Voltemand, and Cornelius.
  • Exeunt all but Hamlet.
  • Enter Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo.
  • Exeunt all but Hamlet.

Enter Claudius, King of Denmark; Gertrude the Queen; and others:
As the scene opens, we see a party and a party-pooper. There are a lot of people dressed in finery and one person dressed in black. That person is Hamlet.

Perhaps everyone else is dressed as for a wedding, because the first thing that the new King does is justify his marriage to Gertrude, his brother's widow and Hamlet's mother. The marriage needs some justification because it has taken place less than two months after the death of old Hamlet, and also because it might be incestuous. The King tells the court he is sad, and everyone should be sad, at his brother's death, but it's best to think of the dead king with "wisest sorrow." That is, life goes on, and doesn't stop for a single person's death. Therefore, the King has married Gertrude "With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage" (1.2.12).This is one of the many paradoxes in this paradoxical play, but the King doesn't mean it as a paradox. He wants everybody to be happy and calm. They have all, he reminds them, "freely gone / With this affair along" (1.2.15-16). In other words, no one has offered any objections to the marriage, and now is not the time to rock the boat.

One of the reasons they shouldn't rock the boat is that the country is facing a danger: young Fortinbras. The King, showing how capable he is, says that Fortinbras is fooling himself if he thinks that Denmark will be weaker now that King Hamlet is dead. He also says that Fortinbras has had the gall to "pester us" with demands for the return of those lands that King Fortinbras lost to King Hamlet. But he, the king, has a plan. "Norway"--that is, the present King of Norway--who is sick, "scarcely hears / Of this his nephew's purpose" (1.2.29-30). But King Claudius has prepared a message to Norway that will make him take notice, and then Norway will make Fortinbras stop what he's doing. The King hands the message to Voltemand and Cornelius, telling them that they don't really have much to do, because they have no authority to negotiate anything that's not in the King's message. Apparently Voltemand and Cornelius start to make polite noises, but the King cuts them short, saying "let your haste commend your duty"; in other words, they should, if they really want to show how dutiful they are, not make polite noises, but get on with their job.

Now, after justifying his marriage, and showing that he is a capable defender of Denmark, the King shows that he can be kindly, too. He turns to Laertes, a young man who is the son of the old man at the King's side, Polonius. Polonius is the king's advisor and flunky, and proud of it. Laertes has a "suit" (a request); he wants to return to France. The King tells him, "You cannot speak of reason to the Dane / And lose your voice" (1.2.44-45). (Notice that the King not only says that he is reasonable, but also he asserts that he is the King, "the Dane.") In addition, he and Polonius are very close, so Laertes should speak up. Laertes makes his request in most polite terms, and Polonius gives his genially reluctant approval, and everything's fine.

After this show of kindliness, it's now time for the King to deal with Hamlet.

The King starts by saying, "But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son," again asserting his new position. Before, he was Hamlet's "cousin" (we would say "uncle," but the word "cousin" covered a lot of territory then), and now he is still Hamlet's uncle, and also his father, because the King is married to Hamlet's mother. Hamlet replies, "A little more than kin, and less than kind" (1.2.65). Most editors put in a stage direction, "Aside," at this point, apparently because they believe that no one would say anything so insulting to the King's face. What Hamlet means is that although the King is now "more than kin" because he is kin both as uncle and as father, he is less than "kind." "Kind" means "kindly," "caring," as it does now, but it also means "kind" as in our "kind of person." In other words, Hamlet is saying that the King, though "more than kin," is not kind, and not related to him at all, maybe even--as we might say--not even from the same planet. Whether the King hears this insult or not, his next speech is insulting to Hamlet. "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" he asks. It's obvious that Hamlet is still in mourning for his father, so the real meaning of the king's question is: "Forget your father, and quit being a wet blanket."

Hamlet's punning retort, "Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun," quite clearly tells the king that he doesn't like being called "son." At this point, the Queen, Hamlet's mother, tries to intervene. She wants Hamlet to be a "friend" to "Denmark," by which she means her new husband, the King of Denmark. And she wants him to quit walking around as though looking for his "noble father in the dust." He should know, she says, that "all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity" (1.2.72-73).

This statement by the Queen is echoed throughout the play. Hamlet says it in different ways to the King and to the skull of Yorick; Ophelia sings about it; the Player King philosophizes about it. However, at the moment, it arouses Hamlet's sarcasm. He doesn't think that the fact that everyone dies should be reason for his mother to rush from his father's grave to his uncle's bed. In explaining why he wears black, he points out that no one will see in him "windy suspiration of forc'd breath / No, nor the fruitful river of the eye" (1.2.79-80). This overly elaborate language has the effect of strongly implying that those who did sigh and weep for his father's death were faking it. He's not faking it, but he thinks his mother may have been.

Now it's the King's turn to try to bring Hamlet around, and to show everyone else what a kind and caring person he is. The King begins with seeming gentleness, saying "'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, / To give these mourning duties to your father" (1.2.87-88). But the King also wants to make it clear that Hamlet is being a jerk, and his kindliness soon evolves into fairly transparent insults: Hamlet's grief is "obstinate," and "unmanly"; Hamlet is displaying "A heart unfortified, or mind impatient, / An understanding simple and unschool'd" (1.2.96-97). The King concludes by showing how much Hamlet has to be grateful for: He wants Hamlet--and "the world"--to know that Hamlet is "most immediate to our throne," which sounds like a promise that Hamlet will be the next king. Furthermore, he loves Hamlet like a son, and he wants him to stay at the castle, "Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye." So, rhetoric aside, even though Laertes was allowed to return to France, Hamlet is strongly urged (not quite ordered) to stay in Denmark, and not return to the university at Wittenberg. The King probably doesn't like Hamlet any more than Hamlet likes him, but the King may feel a need to have Hamlet where he can keep an eye on him.

Before Hamlet replies to all of this, his Mother adds a bit of guilt to the mix: "Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet: / I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg" (1.2.118-119). Hamlet's reply, "I shall in all my best obey you, madam," would require only the slightest emphasis on the "you" to make it an insult to the King, as in "I shall obey you, not him." Nevertheless, the King is cool. He proclaims that Hamlet's reply is "gentle and unforc'd," so that he and the rest of the court can now go and celebrate by drinking and shooting off cannon. It appears that Hamlet is not invited.

Exeunt all but Hamlet:
After Hamlet agrees to stay in Denmark, everyone else leaves, and Hamlet is left alone with his thoughts.

Every thought in this, Hamlet's first soliloquy, is painful. He wishes that he could just evaporate into the thin air, and begins by saying, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!" (1.2.129-130). (A textual note: In Q2, the most authoritative text for the play, the word "sallied" takes the place of "solid," which appears in the First Folio. "Sallied" doesn't make good sense, but editors commonly interpret it as "sullied," which would indicate that Hamlet feels his own body to be "sullied," or made dirty, by his mother's marriage to King Claudius.) Hamlet wishes that God didn't have a rule against suicide. He sees the whole world as "an unweeded garden."

The rest of the soliloquy is about what is agonizing to him: his mother's marriage. She married less than two months after the death of Old Hamlet. And while Hamlet's father was "Hyperion," a sun-god, King Claudius is another kind of mythical creature, a "satyr," an oversexed half-goat. It looked like she really loved Hamlet's father; "she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on" (1.2.144-145). That is, she treated her husband as though being with him only made her want to be with him even more. And she was "all tears" at her husband's funeral, but "within a month" she had shown "wicked speed: to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets" (1.2.156-157). "Post" means to go really fast, as in what the Post Office should do. And "dexterity" suggests that the queen is some sort of cunning sexual athlete.

His mother's sexuality clearly disgusts Hamlet, but is her marriage "incestuous"? Church law said that a widow's marriage to her brother-in-law was incestuous, but that doesn't mean that everyone automatically shared Hamlet's disgust at such a marriage. For instance, King Henry VIII of England thought his marriage to his dead brother's widow was OK until the moment when he wanted to get rid of his wife; then he decided that the marriage was incestuous and ought to be annulled. For Hamlet, his mother's marriage is as disgusting as incest, and he is sure that "it is not, nor it cannot come to good." However, perhaps because no one else sees it his way, he says "I must hold my tongue."

Enter Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo:
As Hamlet is agonizing over his mother's marriage, Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo find him, and they have news.

Horatio takes the lead, saying "Hail to your lordship!" (1.2.160). At first, Hamlet is so preoccupied with thoughts of his mother's marriage that he is merely polite, saying "I am glad to see you well," but then he recognizes his old friend from the university at Wittenberg, and greets him warmly. (He also greets Marcellus and Barnardo, even though they're only common soldiers.) Hamlet wants to know what Horatio is doing away from Wittenberg. Horatio, who has big news, is cautious at first, and says that he's only goofing off, that "a truant disposition" brought him here. Hamlet answers that he knows that isn't true, and promises him he'll learn how to drink in Denmark, and asks again what Horatio is doing here. Horatio then eases into his subject, saying that he came to "see your father's funeral."

At this point Hamlet says something that is a kind of test for Horatio: "do not mock me fellow student, / I think it was to see my mother's wedding." It looks like Hamlet wants to know if Horatio, like himself, thinks that having a funeral and a wedding so close together is some kind of dumb, nasty joke. If this is a test, Horatio passes. Ever cautious, he says, "Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon"; he means that the wedding certainly did come very quickly after the funeral. This reply allows Hamlet get his feelings into the open. First he makes a bitter joke, saying "Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (1.2.180-181). In other words, his mother and step-father were only trying to save money by serving left-over food from the funeral at the wedding. Following that, Hamlet declares that he would sooner be dead and find his worst enemy in heaven than have to remember that marriage. Finally, he bursts out with "My father--methinks I see my father."

This must startle Horatio, who has seen Hamlet's father recently--or at least his ghost--and he asks, "Where, my lord?" Hamlet explains, "in my mind's eye," and Horatio edges closer to his news by saying, "I saw him once, 'a was a goodly king." Hamlet replies with a heartfelt tribute from father to son: "'A was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look on his like again" (1.2.187-188). This gives Horatio his chance to break his news to Hamlet, by saying, "My lord, I think I saw him yesternight."

Hamlet is amazed, as anyone would be. (People of Shakespeare's time believed in the existence of ghosts, but they didn't expect to see one every night, no more than we expect to see a alien spacecraft every night, although we all believe that it's possible that one could show up.) Hamlet excitedly checks out the story, asking exactly how the ghost looked and what it did. After he is sure that he can believe what he's being told, Hamlet declares that he will come to see it this very night, "between eleven and twelve," and asks the men not to tell anyone else about what they've seen. They agree, then leave.

Exeunt all but Hamlet:
Hamlet is again alone with his thoughts, and he already has an idea of what the ghost's business is, saying "I doubt [i.e., suspect] some foul play" (1.2.255) But now he doesn't seem depressed, as during his first soliloquy. If he finds that his uncle killed his father, then he will have something against a man that he already hates.