Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University




Polonius instructs, indeed micromanages, his henchman Reynaldo regarding espionage -- tactics for spying on Laertes in France. After being so concerned with matters of reputation, Polonius seems quite willing to sully his own son's for the sake of sleazy surveillance. At one moment, Polonius seems to lose his train of thought (II.i.49f). This may show his age and a tendency towards befuddled dotage, or it may be a tricky way of testing the attention of his instructee. In any case, Shakespeare offers us a detailed exposé of a sleazeball's tactics.

Polonius then pumps Ophelia for information. She reports that Hamlet has been acting like totally major weird. "In its way this is very like the first mysterious appearance of the Ghost: pale, silent, beckoning, waving his arms, disappearing into darkness. Hamlet has in effect become a ghost" (Garber 498). Polonius will continue to insist that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia, but we find out that she has started playing stupid games against Hamlet on Polonius' instructions, refusing Hamlet's letters and remaining inaccessible to him (II.i.105f). Hamlet is no dummy, so presumably he has recognized the influence of Polonius and he knows Ophelia will report his actions back to Polonius. Ophelia undergoes the agony of having a brilliant, dramatic, suicidal boyfriend who is always ten steps ahead of her and everyone else.


Claudius has sent for Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who will also spy on Hamlet and report back. These obsequious morons are all too happy to comply with Claudius' "need we have to use you" (II.ii.3). They brown-nose: "we both obey, / And here give up ourselves, in the full bent, / To lay our service freely at your feet, / To be commanded" (II.ii.29-32). Yours truly, two obsequious toadies. They have "the combination in them of the sinister and the commonplace" (Van Doren 166).

Encouraging news that we are apt to distrust comes regarding the Fortinbras situation. The uncle found out that Fortinbras was indeed preparing to attack Denmark instead of Poland. After a good talking to, Fortinbras insisted he was ever so sorry, and with the extra money from uncle he really will focus on slaughtering the Polish. So may he please march his army safely through Claudius' kingdom? Claudius is delighted with the belief that young Fortinbras seems to have mastered his vengeful passions.

Polonius resumes his claptrap with the royal couple:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. (II.ii.86-92)
This is the kind of self-contradictory occupatio familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to have to attend business meetings and hear, "We don't have a lot of time this afternoon so I'm going to get right to it here ... blah blah blah blah." Polonius is an ass. He blabs on like this despite Gertrude's call for "More matter with less art" (II.ii.95). Polonius has gotten one of Hamlet's supposed love letters from Ophelia, reads it aloud, and even critiques it, gilding over any matters of ethics and responsibility about this offensive practice. For more investigation, Polonius proposes that they use Ophelia as bait, to "loose" her, "as if Hamlet were a stallion and Ophelia a mare" (Garber 484), and hide themselves behind an arras to spy. Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of the tactics of the "Elizabethan spy network" (Garber 484).

Hamlet is reading a book and puts on a show of madness: he calls Polonius a "fishmonger" (II.ii.174), and, when asked what he's reading, says simply, "Words, words, words" (II.ii.192). But actually Hamlet is mocking Polonius cleverly. Polonius thinks, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't" (II.ii.205-206). When he says, "My lord, I will take my leave from you," Hamlet's answer is, "You cannot take from me any thing that I will not more willingly part withal" (II.ii.213-216).

Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, blithely acknowledging that they aspire to mediocrity. Amid the banter, Hamlet quickly realizes they were sent for by the King. "We might argue that the word 'ambition' is a red flag to him. Instantly, he shifts in the direction of madness" (Asimov 111). Hamlet's claim that he is "most dreadfully attended" (II.ii.271) reflects Oxford's reduced state of having only a few remaining servants in the 1580s (Ogburn and Ogburn 652).

His speech concerning "What a piece of work is man" (II.ii.303ff) may represent the Renaissance attitude, or it may reflect the disillusioned idealist in Hamlet. The dominant Renaissance notion was that of an ordered moral universe in which humankind, endowed with reason, is the noblest creature, above the beasts and nearer to the angels. Hamlet effectively questions all this. He also utters the weird and memorable line, "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hand-saw" (II.ii.378-379). [A peculiar reference to Venus being north-north-west (which it never was from England) appears in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles.] "At this time, when he was bedevilled by lack of money, it no doubt tormented Oxford to think of all he had invested and lost in the expeditions to find a 'northwest' passage to China" (Ogburn and Ogburn 688-689).

Hamlet runs a few more circles around Polonius. The list of play genres, "so pedantically offered, is a deliberate parody of the mixed modes that were beginning to appear on the stage, and the academic, comically Aristotelian desire to classify them" (Garber 472).

Travelling players arrive and Hamlet is overjoyed. He shows respect for them, and "Never does the dramatist Earl of Oxford give a more realistic vignette of his own personality than in Hamlet's speech to the Players. He has greeted them ... with the courtesy of the true aristocrat: his friendliness is easy and spontaneous wthout descending to familiarity, his graciousness is never patronizing" (Ogburn and Ogburn 689). Hamlet even begins one of their orations, turning it over to the senior player, who recites Aeneas' account of the fall of Troy, particularly the murder of King Priam. Hamlet says regarding his recollection of this scene, "'twas caviary to the general" (II.ii.436-437), a statement that has been thought to mean something akin to pearls before swine, the "general" being the general public. But the "general" was the Polish Palatine, Albert Laski, who visited England in 1583 on a diplomatic mission and was entertained with a tragedy focused on Dido, in which Aeneas' narration of the destruction of Troy was included (Gretton, in Clark 671). The scene related here is emblematic, and Hamlet particularly seems to want to hear about a queen, Hecuba, who is actually devastated by the murder of her husband. "Troy emerges from this speech, one Hamlet so fondly remembers, as a picture of what might have been, an epic ideal" (Garber 499). Afterwards, Polonius will escort away the players, but he is a dolt and will "use them according to their desert" (II.ii.527). Hamlet tears into him: "God's bodkin, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity -- the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty" (II.ii.528-531). "Here is Hamlet's version of the Golden Rule" (Garber 490). This is the guy I want as king!

Hamlet wants the players to perform "The Murther of Gonzago" with a 12-to-16-line insert composed by him (II.ii.541f). They agree to do so. Hamlet's next soliloquy here -- "O , what a rogue and peasant slave am I" (II.ii.550ff) -- addresses the ability for the player to evoke emotion from fiction vs. his own failure to act despite real motivation.

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
Compared to such passion, he feels "pigeon-liver'd" (II.ii.577), responding not in vengeful action but in "words" (II.ii.585). The odd reference to "region kites" means regina's crows, the Queen's courtiers (Ogburn and Ogburn 663). Despite this railing at himself, it occurs to him that signs of guilt can be drawn forth from plays. Hamlet will tamper with the play to test Claudius' reactions: "the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (II.ii.604-605).

Biographical Notes

Like Polonius at the start of this act, William Cecil Lord Burghley had one of his agents, Thomas Windebank, spy on his own son Thomas Cecil while the latter was overseas (Ogburn and Ogburn 658). But there are indications that he also had placed a spy in de Vere's household too, so the playwright is especially motivated to reveal such espionage tactics and political manipulations (Ogburn and Ogburn 634). Among the many casual topics that the spy might introduce to gather information is a mention of a "falling out at tennis" (II.i.57) -- an oblique reference to the incident between de Vere and Philip Sidney (Farina 199).

Including the famous "To be or not to be" speech, Hamlet's soliloquies draw upon and paraphrase "another well-known work, even referr[ed] to ... as 'Hamlet's book' which he holds while feigning madness to Polonius": Girolamo Cardano's De Consolatione (Farina 197). "In 1573, the 23-year-old de Vere personally sponsored the first English translation by Thomas Bedingfield, known as Cardanus Comforte. This work was dedicated to Oxford, who wrote another lengthy introduction and prefatory poem, both filled with Shakespearean turns of phrase" (Farina 197).

When Hamlet calls Polonius "a fishmonger" (II.ii.174), the playwright may be referring to Burghley's persistent sponsoring of a law attempting to make Wednesday a meatless day in addition to the traditional Friday -- a move designed not so much to legislate piety as to support the fishing industry. "To Cecil's wards, children, family, servants, and even guests, who eyed fish day after day, Cecil must truly have seemed the nation's number one fish-monger" (R.L. Miller, in Clark 676).

Hamlet reads an unidentified book, but scholars deduce that it sounds like Cardanus Comforte, due to the book's philosophy being reflected in the play. Oxford commissioned this book and wrote a long preface to the man who translated it from Italian. Oxford's name, not the translator's, appears on the title page. "It is possible that, although Cardano died in 1576, Oxford may have met him in Italy in 1575" (Pearson 137).

Anne Cecil, daughter of Burghley, was betrothed to Oxford before she was fifteen. The marriage was postponed once, we don't know why, but it happened. The plays often contain young girls under the sway of powerful rulers in court, daughters of commoners destined by the elders for marriage to young aristocrats of noble blood. Oxford broke off all relations with his wife and her family for several years starting in the mid-1570s on his return from the continent.


Shakespeare Index