The Longest Scene


The longest scene in Hamlet is 2.2 (or the seventh scene of the play, if we ignore act divisions). It is the longest by some way: its 600-odd lines are around 200 more than the next longest scene (the final one). It also ends with the play’s lengthiest soliloquy – ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ – which at 55 lines is a third longer than the next in length (36 lines). While this scene is never thought of as the ‘central’ one of the play (this is usually given as 3.2 or even 3.1), its sheer size and scope suggest that in terms of narrative development it is at the play’s fulcrum. Yet it is not until the very end of this scene that the issue of revenge is even touched upon [1]. What happens over the course of it to justify such a long stretch of unbroken action, so apparently incidental to the play’s main business?

The scene’s primary focus is on Hamlet’s ‘madness’. Nearly all of the preliminaries, prior to Hamlet’s entry, are devoted to discussions held by the King and Queen with Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the problem of Hamlet’s ‘transformation’ (as the King terms it, 1025) or ‘lunacy’ (as Polonius calls it, 1073). The political issue of Denmark’s recent war-footing with Fortinbras is raised briefly only to allay it at once and remove it from the play’s backdrop (1083-1111). From here on the court’s attention will be on the ‘mad’ Prince to the exclusion of external considerations. Hamlet’s two school friends will attempt to politicise the issue of his madness – and hence to give it a wider context – but this serves merely to alert him to their purpose in visiting him. Equally, the introduction of the players is at heart a therapeutic strategy by Polonius and the two companions to alleviate Hamlet’s mood. Only at the very end of the scene do the actors become co-opted, unpremeditatedly, into the revenge mission.

The scene’s structure reflects this focus. Hamlet is introduced at a late stage (1203), but from then on becomes the central figure around whom others gather and impose as they probe the problem of his madness.  In a reversal of the order suggested by the scene’s preliminaries, it is Polonius who encounters Hamlet first (1208-1262) before giving way to the two school friends (1267-1426), after which all three interact with him together (1427-1586). There are thus three discrete episodes of dialogue between Hamlet and the court members, in each of which the question of his state of mind gets sustained treatment. Nevertheless, there is a clear qualitative distinction between the exchanges with the two school friends and those with Polonius: the latter are much more evidently filled with the language and matter of ‘madness’.


The simplest way of interpreting this is to see the exchanges with Polonius as constituting the ‘antic disposition’ proper. It is here, after all, that we are given the strongest semblance of madness, with Hamlet’s bizarre non-sequiturs, sudden shifts of meaning, and feigned ignorance of the interlocutor – ‘yet he knew me not at first’ (1226). These contrast markedly with the dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where Hamlet’s speech seems more measured and rational throughout: he acknowledges his friends by name at once, engages in quick-fire banter with them about the nature of fortune and the world, and draws from them an admission that their visit was commanded before they have any real opportunity of working their way into his confidence. While there is inevitably some overlap or incursion of one register into the other (Polonius detects ‘method’ in Hamlet’s madness, 1243; Hamlet warns his two school friends that he is ‘but mad north-north-west’, 1425-6), a distinction between them is upheld even when the whole group is presented together: during the Hecuba episode, for example, the Players are addressed familiarly, the school friends barely at all, while Polonius remains singled out as the target for outlandish lampooning.

Hamlet, then, is showing the front of ‘madness’ much more directly to, or around, Polonius than anyone else. If, as I have suggested on another page, Hamlet’s ‘putting an antic disposition on’ constitutes a strategy for managing his own responses to the notion of incestuous sexuality in others – one which is characterised by the formula: ‘putting on’ = slandering/(feigning) – then Polonius is its obvious (indeed its only possible) target in this scene. Just by virtue of having a daughter the old man becomes drawn in to the web of associations which have controlled Hamlet’s idea of human sexuality since his mother’s remarriage [2]. Accordingly, Hamlet’s first words to Polonius transform him into a comic figure, just as he had done earlier with the terrifying figure of the Ghost:

POLONIUS: Do you know me, my lord?
HAMLET: Excellent well, you are a fishmonger. (1210-11)


The meaning of this is lost on Polonius; but an audience aware of Hamlet’s state of mind leading up to this point will detect a darker intimation beneath the joke. Hamlet takes the popular image of the fishmonger as a lecher and applies it to the councillor, beginning a sequence of ‘antic’ personifications which target not just the old man but, as the exchange develops, his relationship with his daughter [3]. So when Polonius denies the ‘fishmonger’ appellation Hamlet, after censuring his dishonesty (2113), finds his next image in the book he has been reading: ‘for if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion…’ (1218-19). Hamlet now equates Polonius with the sun in its role as the father of life which breeds in everything it touches, and thus warns him against letting his daughter ‘walk i’th’ sun’: for like the maggots engendered in a dog’s carcass his daughter may ‘conceive’ under his influence. The mention of his daughter serves only to heighten Polonius’ curiosity, and as he persists in speaking to Hamlet, so Hamlet in turn must continue to generate a comic persona for Polonius. Hence the persistent enquiries about the book which Hamlet reads from are finally countered by his long caricature of old age – the feature of himself, we may surmise, that an overly amorous old man would most like to change, by reversing it after the fashion of a crab’s movements. While Hamlet’s use of this strategy leaves Polonius convinced in his belief that he is ‘far gone’ in the ecstasy of love for his daughter, Hamlet for his part has avoided the consequences of an encounter which would have unmanned him no less than in the meeting with the Ghost, or in Ophelia’s closet.

With the exit of Polonius and his replacement by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the tenor of Hamlet’s interactions changes markedly. His friends do not present the same kind of psychological threat as Polonius, so there is no need for investment in the full-blown ‘antic’ language used towards him. Instead, the focus shifts to the more general question of Hamlet’s responsiveness to them as they pursue their brief and try to gain an insight into his feelings. They go about this task in two ways. The first, suggested by the King at the beginning of the scene, is to ‘draw’ Hamlet ‘onto pleasures’ – a tactic they adopt from the outset by their jocular greetings and early exchanges with him (1035). Although this attitude is taken up by him initially, there soon emerges on Hamlet’s part a certain coldness and indifference towards the two men, apparent from his enquiries about the purpose of their visit, beginning with his question ‘What news?’ (1281). The lack of encouragement thus intimated towards the two men becomes more pronounced when Hamlet describes Denmark as ‘a prison’ (1287): to his companions ears this might sound like a wish to have them elsewhere. Since Hamlet as yet shows no suspicion that his friends are on an agency to the King, this lack of true warmth and hospitality toward them will be their first palpable sense of a Hamlet who is indeed ‘transformed’ from the one they have known.


The second method the two friends try is to trick a confession out of Hamlet about his inward state. Seizing on Hamlet’s last remark, Rosencrantz offers his own explanation for his friend’s sense of imprisonment: ‘Why, then your ambition makes it so: ‘tis too narrow for your mind.’ This begins a series of exchanges (1298-1312) during which both he and Guildenstern insist, despite Hamlet’s initial denial (1.254-256), that his problem is one of ambition. Their tactic is deliberate, and echoes the one suggested by Polonius to Reynaldo in the previous scene, where a false accusation is trailed to find out what response it elicits. Here, however, the aim is to provoke Hamlet into refuting their claims by the only defence possible against slander – by yielding up the truth. A denial is what they want from Hamlet, and when at first they get one (1300-2) they attempt to press him for an even fuller denial by insisting on their case. But the tactic goes adrift: for after the initial contradiction Hamlet’s position has changed by the end of the exchange to acquiescence with their claims, even where this outrages common sense. His own failure to rise to their bait thus fortifies his secret from them.

This first attempt at getting a confession from Hamlet has been enough to suggest the real purpose of his friends’ visit, and Hamlet now gets them to admit as much by the simple technique of direct questioning (1316-1339) – which is enough to produce a bashful ‘confession’ from their looks alone. Having thus comprehensively defeated the probings of the two men, Hamlet goes on to dispose of their other task – that of drawing him onto pleasures – by delivering a speech which, while on the one hand purporting to be an account of his ‘transformation’, is really a veiled suggestion to his friends that all their efforts to cheer and enliven him will be fruitless (1340-1357). Point by point, Hamlet portrays himself as a man unable either to participate in the joys of living or to take pleasure in the world around him, listing three examples of the wonders of nature only to show how they leave him completely unaffected. It is the last example of man which is the longest and most important, for by completing his self-portrait with the claim ‘man delights not me’ Hamlet hints to his two friends that their own attempts to ‘delight’ him are inevitably doomed. The tables have, of course, been fully turned now, with the two friends out-guessed and out-manipulated in the use of their own tactics. But at a narrative level the question remains open as to far Hamlet is merely resorting to evasion, and how far his claims are representative of a true state. His indifference to the two men and their failure to provoke a response from him precede his discovery of the circumstance of their visit, contributing to the impression of a substantive change to ‘the inward man’.


Hamlet closes this first interview with his friends by suddenly dropping a hint about the ‘madness’ they have been expecting him to display, and which has so far been conspicuously absent. With the claim that he is only mad when the wind blows in a north-north-westerly direction, he intimates that it is only towards certain people that his ‘madness’ will be shown. Towards his two friends he can behave rationally and conventionally, and thus retain his objectivity about their true purposes. This claim is immediately substantiated with the return of Polonius, on whom Hamlet must once more impose a set of comic personas. Picking up on the theme of Polonius’ age which ended their last encounter, Hamlet transforms him into the grotesque of a ‘great baby’ who is ‘not yet out of his swaddling clouts’, and then continues to make a fool of him by frustrating all his attempts to announce the arrival of the Players (1429-1443). With the councillor’s lengthy recital of their theatrical advertisement (1444-50), however, the frightening, sexualised ideations which inform Hamlet’s image of Polonius as a father are allowed to re-surface. His response is to find yet another caricature for Polonius, this time making him the subject of an old ballad:

‘O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!’ (1451)

When the bewildered Polonius enquires about this ‘treasure’, Hamlet is able to sing,

Why, ‘One fair daughter and no more
The which he loved passing well.’ (1454-5)

The image works hard at a number of levels, adding to the plot element which sees Polonius’ theory of frustrated love reinforced, and also to the narrative irony which makes Ophelia – as ‘Jephthah’s daughter’ – a sacrificial victim of her father’s schemes (although it is not until much later in the play that this ‘sacrifice’ becomes clear). But its simplest and starkest function is as another comic re-imagining of father-daughter incest, with the term ‘passing’ connoting a ‘surpassing’ (i.e. extraordinary) love which may exceed the bounds of nature [4]. Since Polonius shows only innocence in the face of these remarks, Hamlet refrains from elaborating, hinting only that: ‘The first row of the pious chanson will show you more’ (1463-4).


Structurally, then, the scene has shown us Hamlet’s ‘madness’ as he is compelled to show it to Polonius; followed by its contrast with his cooler, more collected response to his friends; followed by a combination of these interactions when he is placed between both sets of individuals. With the arrival of the Players comes a measure of triangulation. Hamlet now has an opportunity to shift his ‘antic’ gaze from Polonius whilst also evading the attentions of his friends. As Hamlet earlier gave warning, he does indeed show the Players more ‘entertainment’ than he did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who now drift into the background as non-entities (1419-22). Polonius remains the target of lampooning, but only when he intrudes into the Prince’s purview, as he does on a couple of occasions during the First Player’s recital of ‘a passionate speech’ from a favoured tragedy (1477). For the most part, the scene with the Players thus provides Hamlet with a respite in which his performance of ‘madness’ is only momentarily required. The relief is temporary, however, for Hamlet’s thoughts are unexpectedly brought round to his task of revenge during the tragic description of Priam’s slaughter, when in the midst of feigning a passion the Player suddenly produces real passion in himself (1560-1).


The consequences are two-fold: firstly, it gives Hamlet the notion of obtaining proof of the King’s guilt through a dramatic representation of the murder, which scheme he puts into process at 1576-85 as the Players retire. But more importantly, by showing genuine grief over an entirely fictional character the Player stands in stark contrast to Hamlet’s own deficiency in responding to a real-world case: the murder of his father. Now when Hamlet goes on to speak of himself by comparison as a ‘dull and muddy-mettled rascal’ who ‘can say nothing’ for the greatest motive in the world, namely a slain King and father, are we to understand him as speaking of the recent past only or of the present moment (1606-11)? While the speech is often interpreted as an outburst of anger, with Hamlet emerging from a passage of neglect to rekindle his passion for revenge, the use of tense throughout these lines shows that he is referring to his emotional state in the here and now: the case is that he ‘can say nothing’, not simply that has he ‘said’ nothing hitherto. Hamlet’s own explanation for this is that he is ‘a coward’ (1611-20); that is, one who is innately ‘pigeon-livered’ in lacking the irascible passions (e.g. ‘gall’). But, although cowardice will become an important explanatory frame for Hamlet himself, it contradicts what has been shown of him in the earlier part of the play, both in terms of his resolution to confront the Ghost and the spirit in which he met its commandment to revenge. Rather than identifying a fixed aspect of his ‘character’, then, the soliloquy seems to be forcing a sense of disconnect between the Hamlet who was earlier so ‘apt’ to be moved by the Ghost and the one who now seems unable to be.

This impression of Hamlet as a man unmoved is not restricted to the soliloquy but has been built up throughout the scene as whole, most particularly in Hamlet’s exchanges with his two schoolfriends. What began with his initial lack of warmth towards them became more conspicuous with their failure to trick him into making a confession, the more so because their accusations of ambition were especially crafted to provoke him. Equally, in the account of his ‘transformation’ he portrays himself as unmoved by his fellow men, insisting that he no longer ‘delights’ in their company: a statement which the context leaves open as to how far it is disingenuous, how far accurate. Now that he finally comes to ‘remember’ his father as he vowed to, he discovers that this memory can no longer generate any strong emotion in him. So if Hamlet’s own explanation of cowardice is unacceptable, then our best point of reference for what has changed is the opening passage describing the Player’s manufacture of emotion (1591-7).


These lines set out a Renaissance physiology of performance which also works as a general theory of the production of emotion. There seem to be three elements in this process: the Player’s ‘conceit’, which holds the mental image of Hecuba; the ‘soul’ which responds to this conception (and which the Player can direct by ‘forcing’ it); and the physical symptoms of passion which result from the ‘working’ of the soul in the body. It is not obvious where the Player’s subjectivity is located in this process (neither conceit, soul, nor body appear to have overall agency), but the logical order seems clear: the imagination of something causes an activity in the soul, which in turn leads to the bodily expression of emotion. While there were many sorts of belief about the interaction of soul and body in the period, and while the existence of a complex faculty psychology often entailed disagreements over how the passions were to be divided between them, the soul as it is delineated here seems to occupy a mediating role between the mental stimulus of a pitiable object and the body which is the seat of the passions [5]. If Hamlet suffers by comparison with the Player, then, it is through some deficiency in the ‘working’ of the soul in his body – through a decline, in other words, in its function as the motivating (or ‘animating’) part of the subject.

The construction of this whole long scene suggests that this decline has been brought about by Hamlet’s use of the ‘antic disposition’, the very action he has employed to overcome his terror of his surroundings and facilitate his revenge on the King. In this instance it is Polonius who provides the feared object throughout; and as soon as he is replaced by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s unresponsiveness towards the two friends becomes the dominant theme, suggesting that this latter state of affairs is the direct consequence of the action just prior to it. A pattern of cause and effect is thus established which for emphasis is immediately repeated with a second manifestation of the antic disposition towards Polonius, this time succeeded by the soliloquy in which Hamlet finds he can show neither pity nor anger over his father’s murder. The play does not assign an explicit reason for this disastrous development, but we can surmise the following: the transformation of Polonius into a grotesque negates – as it is required to – his effect on Hamlet; but on the model of emotional arousal followed by the soliloquy, this leaves the soul itself unmoved and thus unable in turn to move passion in the body. Since, within the scope of the drama, Hamlet is surrounded by individuals who, like Polonius, make it necessary for him to continue this strategy, we can further assume that his soul is for the most part not being moved by anyone. The result of this protracted inactivity of the soul is therefore illustrated in the aftermaths of each encounter with Polonius, in which Hamlet’s soul is called on to respond to those who do not represent objects of terror to him – his school friends, or the memory of his father. From its clear inability to do so it can be further surmised that with the passing of time the inactive soul has undergone a form of deterioration through disuse (the soul was conceptualised as a natural body as much as a spiritual one) and that this has advanced to a stage to which it is now unable to respond to all but the most powerful of stimuli: namely, all those who have made the antic disposition necessary in the first place.

In the soliloquy, then, as throughout the scene as a whole, Hamlet reveals himself to be a man undergoing a kind of soul-death; who is unable to stir passion in himself even at so great a provocation as the murder of a loved one, and who is therefore rendered incapable of the act of revenge. Hamlet of course remains in ignorance of this deterioration, supposing as we saw earlier that cowardice has kept him back from killing the King. Consequently it is in order to overcome this presumed cowardice that he develops in the last fifteen or so lines of his soliloquy his plan to test the Ghost’s word by obtaining proof of the King’s guilt (1628-45). For if Hamlet were a coward then his worst fears would lie with the threat of his own death, a threat which not unreasonably attaches itself to any such task as the one the Ghost has given him; and part of the danger of death for Hamlet is the possibility of damnation after it, should the Ghost’s word turn out to have been that of ‘a devil’ which has deceived him into an attempt on the life of an innocent man. This ploy to ‘catch the conscience of the King’, then, represents an attempt by Hamlet to master cowardice in the face of death by making death more acceptable. But, since cowardice is not the true cause of his inaction, any attempt to overcome inaction in this way is doomed to end in failure.


[1] This an important caveat for those who argue that Hamlet’s non-performance of revenge (a.k.a. his ‘delay’) only becomes a real issue with the third major soliloquy – ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ – which the Folio omits. See Jonathan Bate, ‘The Case for the Folio’ (2007), p.32. On the contrary, delay is experientially, if not explicitly, signalled at this early stage by the play providing 550 lines of anything but revenge, and then another 50 lines of bitter reflection on this lack.
[2] Although the play does not supply any direct evidence for it, it seems reasonable to assume that Ophelia’s rejection of his letters may have furthered his misapprehension of the relationship between Polonius and his daughter.
[3] The interpretation of the fishmonger as a lecher (i.e. a ‘fleshmonger’) is generally preferred over the other candidate often cited – a bawd – as having more support from contemporary sources. This includes an association of fishmongers with overly fertile daughters, although its exact nature is not fully clear. As Arden 2 editor Harold Jenkins explains: ‘Contemporary references make it easier to see that there was a joke attached to a fishmonger, and especially to having a fishmonger for your father, than to grasp what the joke was’. The point made above is that Hamlet is making his own creative use of this established truism.
[4] For this kind of suggestion, cf. the accusation against Christopher Marlowe that he ‘would report St. John to be Our Saviour’s Alexis […] that Christ did love him with an extraordinary love’; quoted in Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning p.53
[5] For a comparable view of the soul as non-identical with other faculties of the subject, including those of the appetites, the passions and the intellect, see the Castle of Alma episode in Book 1 of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The soul here is gendered female, like the Player’s soul, and is personified in the figure of Alma, who has parallels with the allegorical figure of Anima.

All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).