In Act II of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet’s language and behaviour provide an apparent insight into his contrasting feelings of confidence and motivation, and anger and depression. Hamlet’s anger and depression are due to his previous inability to avenge his father’s murder and the corruption in the kingdom. The gradual increase in the intensity of these emotions comes through in the few instances in Act II where Hamlet appears to be conveying his emotions sincerely. Hamlet’s level of confidence and motivation seem to increase when he realises that he would have an opportunity to clear up the matter of Claudius’ guilt through the use of a play, and when he uses this uncertainty to justify his previous lack of action and to regain his motivation. The strong culmination and apparent resolution of Hamlet’s conflicting emotions occurs in his only soliloquy, at the end of Act II. Hamlet’s sadness and anger at the corruption he sees in Denmark, early in the second scene, is the first glimpse the audience has of his apparently sincere emotions in Act II. He expresses these feelings to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern who appear to be the only people Hamlet is willing to be relatively open to. This may be because he has known them since childhood and he is aware of how to manipulate them not to reveal his feelings to anyone or undermine his plans. Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison. Rosencrantz: Then is the world one. Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’th’worst. (II.2.243-246) Hamlet views the world as a prison, in a very depressed manner, and Denmark as being the worst “confine” on earth. He may feel trapped as if in “a prison” because he is surrounded by people who are corrupt and dishonest, unlike him. He sees the King and Polonius as two corrupt and powerful men in the Royal Court and his depression leads him to view the world as a very corrupt and confining space. Hamlet’s depression intensifies as the second scene progresses due to his inability to avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet’s depression has now become more central to the issue of his state of mind and he again reveals his feelings to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet explains to the two men why he had been acting strange: Hamlet: I have of late…lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises. And indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory. (II.2.295-299) The striking image of “a sterile promontory”, a barren and unfertile high point of land jutting out into the sea, rather than an image of the fertile Danish countryside as representing the earth and nature emphasises the extent of Hamlet’s depression. Whereas previously in this scene Hamlet only mentioned society as corrupt, he now seems to believe that the earth has changed into something much more corrupt and impure. Hamlet has developed into being more depressed, and obsessed, about his inability to avenge his father. During the despair Hamlet feels throughout Act II, there is one particular moment where his language suggests a gaining of motivation and composure. This occurs around the middle of the second scene where Hamlet is informed of the players coming to perform. His reaction suggests a lifting of spirits and motivation. Hamlet: What, are they children? Who maintains ‘em? How are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no (II.2.344-346) longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards…? Hamlet, after his previous feelings of depression and anger now seems curious and this curiosity is highlighted by Shakespeare through Hamlet’s constant questioning. The focus of the play, as far as Hamlet’s state of mind is concerned, is briefly now on his newfound motivation. This motivation can be seen in the dialogue which suggests that Hamlet’s mind is working to assess a forthcoming opportunity. It is only later, in his soliloquy, that the audience is informed of Hamlet’s plan. Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of Act II sees the culmination of his emotions and ends with an apparent resolution of his previous depression. This soliloquy is the only point in Act II where the audience can be certain of Hamlet’s sincerity and the emotional phases he goes through in the soliloquy show his true mental state. The soliloquy begins with Hamlet making a very derogatory remark about himself.
Hamlet: O what a rogue and peasant slave am I. (II.2.547) This very degrading remark is used as an opening to this soliloquy in and shows the extent to which his depression has developed in Act II. For him as a prince to place himself among the “peasant slaves” and “rogues” in this highly ordered society is a good indication of the immense anguish he feels as a result of not acting like a ‘noble’ son would and avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet’s depression because of his lack of motivation is highlighted in his soliloquy when he speaks of the motivation actors can get only for the sake of acting. His sadness also comes through clearly at this point. Hamlet: What would he do Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have? He would drown the stage with tears… Yet I…peak…unpregnant of my cause, And can say nothing, no… (II.2.563-566) Hamlet is upset that an actor can cry for the sake of being a good actor yet he cannot motivate himself to avenge his father’s murder. He is angry that all he does is ‘mope’, “unpregnant” of his “cause” and he “can say nothing”. Hamlet goes on to question his strength and willpower by asking “Am I a coward?” which indicates that he is unsure of himself and his strength to seek revenge. Hamlet regains his motivation near the end of Act II when he realises how he will be able to find out if Claudius is guilty of murder. This sees the beginning of a more high-spirited Hamlet for the rest of his soliloquy. Hamlet: I’ll have these players Play something like the murder of my father Before mine uncle…If ‘a do blench, I know my course. (II.2.592-596) The subject which Hamlet was contemplating at the first point where he regained his motivation in this scene is similar to the one he is contemplating now. Since he is being sincere at this point, this connection emphasises the fact that when Hamlet can foresee a certain hope in the future, such as the revenge that he seeks being fulfilled, he regains some of his previously lacking motivation and composure. Hamlet uses his final words in Act II to reassure himself by justifying his previous inaction with a lack of damning evidence against the King and the possibility that the Ghost was a devil. Although he was warned of this possibility by Horatio, it is only now that he fully acknowledges it and uses it to make himself feel better. Hamlet: The spirit I have seen May be a devil, and the devil… Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds More relative than this. The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. Exit. Hamlet believes that he never had enough evidence that the King murdered his father. He believes that by using the play to deceive Claudius he will “have grounds more relative” than before and the importance he places on this is emphasised by the use of a rhyming couplet to end his soliloquy and Act II. Hamlet has moved from a very depressed state at the beginning of the soliloquy to a point where his motivation and confidence are at their highest point in this Act. This indicates an apparent resolution of his anger and depression because in the end he believes that he has justified his inaction which was the cause of these feelings. Through Hamlet’s language and behaviour in Act II of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the audience is allowed an insight into the character’s feelings of depression and anger, and confidence and motivation. These feelings intensify as the Act progresses until a culmination and an apparent resolution of these feelings occurs in Hamlet’s soliloquy. Hamlet feels his depression because he has not fulfilled his duty as a son and avenged his father’s murder. This is strongly conveyed in the Act in the few instances where Hamlet appears to be sincere. Hamlet’s soliloquy ends the Act with him passing from a point of extreme depression to a point where his confidence and motivation have built up. He justifies his inaction with a lack of evidence against the King and this results in an apparent resolution of his depression and anger. Hamlet’s character is presented very clearly in this text and allows the audience to better understand him as a character, and a person.