It is a wise father that knows his own child.
(The Merchant of Venice Act 2. Scene 2.)
For Hamlet’s plot till now, see Hamlet So Far.
And now on to Act 2. Here a spy. There a spy. Everywhere a spy spy. R&G spy. Ophelia spies. Gertrude spies. Claudius spies. Polonius spies, and we know how that turned out. Not good. Even Hamlet does a bit of spying.
Hamlet should get used to it. He’s a royal, the son and the nephew of aking. Royals are always spied upon. Just ask Elizabeth I. But she, like most rulers, is both the spyee as well as the spyer. She may not do it herself. She has minions whose business it is to spy.
Why do I bring up all this spy business up? Act 2 opens with Polonius asking a servant, Reynaldo, to take off for Paris and spy on Laertes. Either Polonius knows his son well or he doesn’t know his son well. It must be important for him to find out. Otherwise he wouldn’t spend a pretty penny to spy on Laertes.
Perhaps Laertes will spend all his money gambling and whoring and getting himself in a real pickle. It will cost Polonius all the money and goodwill he can muster, money and goodwill he has spent a lifetime collecting. Polonius wasn’t always an important official. He was born a poor farm boy who had ambition. He was a regular Danish Horatio Alger.
Polonius wants to make sure that his boy is worthy to be his heir. Otherwise he will have to do the unthinkable and will his fortune to Ophelia.
Just as Act 1 established that there was something rotten in Denmark, Act 2 establishes that nobody trusts anybody. Soon we will see that suspicion turns into suspicion run amok..
“So, Reynaldo,” Polonius stands above Reynaldo. “You go off to Paris. Check out what my son is doing. Then come back and let his father know what dynamite he is playing with.”
“But, Sir,” Reynaldo always calls Polonius Sir, “Laertes is a good kid. He’ll sow his wild oats, then come back home and be your loyal son.”
“The kid wants to be the next Van Gogh. That’s all he talks about.”
“Yes, Sir. But what’s wrong with that?”
“You know how Van Gogh turned out. A missing ear he cut off his own self and poorer than a church mouse.”
“He might turn out to be the next Hans Holbein. Then he could paint the king’s portrait and the queen’s too. And even the prince’s.”
“Not him,” Polonius says.
“Just take my word for it. The prince isn’t going to be around long enough to have his portrait painted.”