A Wished Belief
Treachery, suicide, and madness are some of the several themes in the play Hamlet. After beginning his quest to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet means to put on an “antic disposition”(Act I Scene iii Line 28), or feign madness in order to gain information about who killed his father. His family wonders what is wrong with him, and his mother brings his two old friends to reason with her “too much changed son.” However, Lord Polonius discovers Hamlet’s apparent profession of love to his daughter Ophelia, and comes to the king and queen with what appears to be the source of Hamlet’s madness. Polonius’s speech to the King Claudius and Queen Gertrude provides a very important and central point to the plot of Hamlet. Polonius uses Hamlet’s madness as a beneficial occurrence in order to satisfy his ambition: to become closer to the monarchs and raise his standing in the court by showing himself to be useful to the King and Queen.
Hamlet’s declaration of love to Ophelia gives him the opportunity, though at the cost of his daughter, to show himself as helpful by dealing with Hamlet’s madness. Polonius’s opportunity to cure Hamlet’s “madness” arises when Prince Hamlet appears to Ophelia bedraggled and stained, seemingly lovesick. Ophelia relates to her father that Hamlet appeared “As if he had been loosed out of hell” (II. i. 48) and stares at her before leaving.
Ophelia confirms through her words that she has been rejecting Hamlet’s advances and letters and forbidding him from seeing her. Polonius comes to the conclusion that her actions “hath made him mad” (II. i. 56). In his eagerness to please the king and queen he immediately tells his daughter, “come, go we to the king: this must be known” (II.
i. 62). With his theory formed, Polonius goes to court in order to share his information with the King and Queen, in hopes that they will hold him higher in their favor. Polonius is the kind of person that flatters people in an obsequious fashion in order to gain their good favor, while always able to reflect his own compliments to whoever he chooses, be it himself or the person he speaks with. When Polonius goes to court he tells the king that “th’ ambassoders from Norway, my good lord, are joyfully return’d” (II. ii.
57), to which Claudius replies that Polonius is always a bringer of good news. Displaying the personality outlined above, Polonius questions the King’s comment, and then tells the King: “I assure my good liege, I hold my duty as I hold my soul, Both to my God and to my gracious king” (II. ii. 62). Now that the King has been cheered by Polonius’s compliment, Polonius begins to dangle his theory in front of the king like bait, showing the king that he needs Polonius to fix his “son.” Polonius tells the king that “else this brain of mine Hunts not the trail of policy so sure As it hath us’d to do—That I have found the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (II.
ii. 70). Polonius touches on the subject, saying that if his old brain is still in good condition, that he thinks he knows the cause of Hamlet’s madness, intending to draw the curiosity of the king, and he succeeds: “O, speak of that! That I do long to hear” (II. ii. 74). Polonius, realizing that the King is right where he wants him, now intends to drag out the King’s curiosity, letting it peak: “Give first admittance to th’ ambassadors.
My news shall be the fruit to that great feast”(II. ii. 85). Finally, Polonius sees fit to tell the King about what he thinks is causing Hamlet’s madness. Polonius needs to be very careful about doing this, as he does not want to be proven wrong and then be punished by the King he wishes to become closer to politically. He tells the monarchs: “I have a daughter who in her duty and obedience, mark, Hath given me this [a letter]” (II.
ii. 101). He proceeds to read the words of a love letter that Hamlet gave to Ophelia. When the King and Queen ask if Ophelia has answered Hamlet’s love, Polonius cunningly asks “what do you think of me?” (II. ii.
108), to which the king replies that he thinks Polonius is “faithful and honorable.” (II. ii. 109). Polonius proceeds to “prove so”(II. ii.
110). Now, Polonius speaks about how he is an honorable lord to his King, in a speech that begins the plotting and scheming of Polonius to prove his theory and help the King and Queen. He discusses what would have happened if “[he] had played the desk or table-book, Or given [his] heart a winking, mute and dumb” (II. ii. 115).
Polonius asks the queen what she would have thought of him had he kept quiet and allowed Hamlet to continue seeing his daughter, but as he crafts his words, he says: “No, I had to do something” (II. ii. 118), pointing out his loyal actions to the king and queen. Polonius tells them how he told Ophelia that “she should lock herself from his resort”(Act II Scene II Line 144). Polonius infers that as a result of Ophelia’s lack of response to Hamlet, that Hamlet “Fell into a sadness, then into a fast [.
..] and, by this declension, Into the madness wherein now he raves” (II. ii. 150-152).
The King and Queen seem to believe Polonius, however it is possible that they simply want to believe him. Nobody who has talked to Hamlet has been able to find the cause of his “madness,” and they both believe it is because of the death of King Hamlet and Gertrude’s swift remarriage, and so when Polonius says that Hamlet might not be mad about that, they are eager to believe. One aspect of Polonius’s speech that makes it notable is simply that Polonius is incorrect in his assumption. Hamlet, although later in the play does show signs of true madness, is not insane in his actions. Polonius realizes this, as when Hamlet is speaking with him his comments are filled with scornful insults, “pregnant” with meaning.
Hamlet merely pretends that he is mad, and so Polonius incorrectly assumes so. A notable consequence of Polonius’s theory is the plan that blossoms from it to spy on Hamlet. Polonius intends to fulfill his cravings for power and ascension into the court scene by using his daughter to spy on Hamlet. He says to the King and Queen “I’ll loose my daughter to him” (II. ii. 160), intending to hide behind a curtain in order to prove if Hamlet does really love Ophelia.
Polonius’s use of his daughter in such a way is what makes Hamlet refer to him as Jepthah: “O Jepthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou! […] ‘One fair daughter” (II. ii.
370, 376). Jepthath was an old judge over Israel, and he swore a vow saying that he would sacrifice the first creature that came to him when he arrived home if he was given glory for defeating the Ammonites, believing the creature to be his dog. However, upon arriving home after his victory, his daughter ran to greet him and he was forced to keep his vow. Oedipus compares Polonius’s use of his daughter to Jepthah’s sacrifice of his daughter for victory and glory. This scene in the play Hamlet is very important to the plot because it introduces one of the most important themes: madness.
To avenge his father’s death, Hamlet decides to forsake his reputation at the court and in Denmark in order to go “mad,” diminishing his presence as a threat, to distract attention from his investigation into King Hamlet’s murder, and to also be able to insult others without angering them. This scene begins the attempt of the King and Queen to discover what is wrong with Hamlet, a search that leads Claudius to fear his nephew, and ultimately leads to the demise of all.