Disillusionment. Depression. Despair. These are the burning emotions
churning in young Hamlet's soul as he attempts to come to terms with his
father's death and his mother's incestuous, illicit marriage. While
Hamlet tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered idealism, he
consciously embarks on a quest to seek the truth hidden in Elsinore;
this, in stark contrast to Claudius' fervent attempts to obscure the
truth of murder. Deception versus truth; illusion versus reality. In the
play, Prince Hamlet is constantly having to differentiate amongst them.
However, there is always an exception to the rule, and in this case, the
exception lies in Act 2, Scene 2, where an "honest" conversation (sans
the gilded trappings of deceit) takes place between Hamlet and
Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Via the use of prose and figurative
language, Shakespeare utilizes the passage to illustrate Hamlet's view
of the cosmos and mankind.
Throughout the play, the themes of illusion and mendaciousness have
been carefully developed. The entire royal Danish court is ensnared in a
web of espionage, betrayal, and lies. Not a single man speaks his mind,
nor addresses his purpose clearly. As Polonius puts it so perfectly:
"And thus do we of wisdom and of reach^Å
By indirections find directions out"
Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 71-3
The many falsehoods and deceptions uttered in Hamlet are expressed
through eloquent, formal, poetic language (iambic pentameter),
tantamount to an art form. If deceit is a painted, ornate subject then,
its foil of truth is simple and unvarnished. Accordingly, when the
pretenses of illusion are discarded in Act 2, Scene 2, the language is
written in direct prose.
Addressing Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet pleads with them to
deliver up honest speech about the intent of their arrival:
"[offer up] Anything but to th' purpose."
Act 2, Scene 2, Line 300
In a gesture of extreme significance, in a quote complementary to
Polonius' aforementioned one, Hamlet demands:
"Be even and direct with me whether you
were sent for or no."
Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 310-11
Being the bumbling fools they are, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern
disclose their intentions and purposes to Hamlet, revealing the King and
Queen's instructions. Thus does truth prevail in this passage. For this
reason, the whole passage is devoid of the "artful" poetic devices that
are used in the better portion of the play.
The recurring motif of corruption also appears in the passage. Due to
the wicked internal proceedings in the state of Denmark (e.g. murder,
incest), Shakespeare implies that the whole state is "soiled", which in
turn has a direct negative consequence in the grand universal scheme of
things. Imagery of warped and distasteful plants, in place of the
traditional "aesthetically correct" beautiful flowers in a garden,
serves to further reinforce the degeneration theme:
"'Tis an unweeded garden that grows
to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
possess it merely."
Act 1, Scene 2
Essentially, all of life, and all that was good and beautiful in life
(e.g. the garden) is sullied.
Hamlet, the disillusioned idealist, continues with the motif when he
"the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory^Å"
-Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 321-2
[the air] "why, it appeareth nothing to me
but a fouled and pestilent congregation of vapors."
-Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 325-6
The above lines represent Hamlet's cosmic view on the planet. He finds
the world to be empty and lifeless, dirty and diseased, and his
particular place in it to be desolate and lonely. Indeed, he feels so
isolated and entrapped in his native land that he says:
[the world is a prison] "A goodly one, in which there are many confines,
wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst."
-Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 264-6
This view of the world exemplifies the micro/macro concept, where
Denmark is the "micro" manifestation of a prison for our hero. The taint
of "micro" Denmark leads to repercussions that in turn affect the whole
universal order, leading to the consequence of the world itself becoming
the "macro" manifestation of a prison in Hamlet's eyes.
Further along in the same paragraph, Hamlet offers up his opinion on
man, extolling his virtues and excellent qualities ("what a piece of
work is man^Å"). Yet, it is tremendously ironic, that the ideal type of
man Hamlet is describing is nowhere to be found in the play. Hamlet
himself is indecisive, unable to take action, Claudius is a slave to his
lusts and passions, Polonius is a simpering, servile old fool, and
Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are mindless ninnies. Quite simply, no
"true man" as Hamlet describes him exists in the play.
As a result of this dismal realization, and because of his inability to
adapt to the "unnatural state of things in Denmark", Hamlet has lost the
love for life he once had. This loss of enthusiasm also stems from the
fact that he intrinsically knows there is more wickedness brewing under
the superficial illusionary surface of calm that Claudius is trying to
promote. As a culmination of all these factors, Hamlet loses all faith
"And yet, to me, what is this
quintessence of dust?"
Scene 2, Act 2, Lines 332-3
Drawing on Biblical allusions, Hamlet redefines the position of man as
simply "that which came from dust". From this stance, it is inferred
that solely God is Truth. Man, coming from the lowly earth, cannot be
depended upon to deliver pure and true thoughts, as his source of origin
itself is impure and unclean. If one establishes this rationality for
mankind's nature, then all the characters in the play can be accounted
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