Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
--Polonius, Hamlet (I, iii)
The start of act two in Hamlet is tricky.
Traditionally, those in charge of the production have a choice in that scene of presenting Polonius with his daughter, disturbed over Hamlet’s appearing “loosed out of hell,” or with Reynaldo, a messenger Polonius dispatches to spy on his own son.
Were the audience to see the second act begin with Ophelia, then Polonius is a fool, a bureaucratic bumbler who will later wrongly confuse the source of Hamlet’s madness with his own overprotective urges toward his daughter’s honor. This Polonius is a showpiece, a know-nothing, a babbler, a man limited to insular ambition.
However, were an audience to begin act two by watching Polonius, who moments before (in the trademark “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech) swore devotion and pride in the character displayed by his son, Laertes, send essentially a hired gun to tail him to a brothel, then this Polonius is someone to watch out for.
Most productions feature a thunderstorm of a Hamlet and reduce the other characters to mud puddles (have you ever seen a Fortinbras worth a damn?), so the clownish Polonius is more common.
If you’ve ever seen the version of Hamlet with Richard Burton in the lead, the one without costumes or a set, then you’ve seen perhaps the best portrayal of Polonius you’re ever likely to. Hume Cronyn won a boatload of praise and awards for his joyfully sinister Polonius.
That Hamlet contains Act 2, Scene 1 in toto.
When it comes to life imitating art, Fitzgerald, our American Shakespeare, famously eliminated the problem, but he was probably speaking just for himself (in that regard, he’s better our American Keats, one supposes). Americans, today, seem to thrive on second acts.
And if he and Zelda were alive today, no doubt they’d be headed to Tuscaloosa tomorrow, sloshing it up in a pair of million-dollar, air-conditioned, buffet-flanked seats in a luxury box filled with Z’s people overlooking the rabble out in the sun. No doubt, too, that they’d have no memory of it.
Just as well. The Great Leader, beginning his second act, hammers home that the stats from these scrimmages and, since statistics are a measure of performance, these scrimmages themselves mean nothing. But, as the sweet prince says himself, “there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise . . .”