The scenery of 2.2 is riddled with so much ancient greek mythology for a play that takes place neither in ancient history, nor Greece, nor myth as to actually be quite unique. And, holy moly, it’s a lot of slaughter tied to just a handful of people. What Shakespeare seems to do here is take this revenge plot and make it a transcendent force; he ties it both to history (via Gesta Danorum) and myth via the Aeneid to posit it as an eternal thing that resonates throughout time. Hamlet, the avenger-prince, is an archetype of sorts, Laertes and Fortinbras, too. Something burned into the collective retina of human experience.
I’m going to take scene 2.2, where Hamlet intellectually squares off with Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern as an example to prove the above, as well as showcase how alarmingly forceful Hamlet’s mind seems to be.
In this scene, Polonius, Ophelia’s father, takes action and brings love letters that Hamlet previously gave to Ophelia to the King and Queen, claiming to have found the source of his madness. After persuading them, he conspires with Claudius to observe an exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia to prove that his love for her is at the source. The old man is not even remotely correct, but this process is fascinating nonetheless.
After this, he tries and fails to coax something out of Hamlet that he might further use to prove his point, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two childhood friends of the prince, attempt to also do so at the behest of King Claudius. After a drawn-out encounter where Hamlet toys with the three of them, he relents and delivers his second soliloquy, “And to me what is this quintessence of dust?” which seems to give some insight into what he’s feeling. It’s nothing we don’t already know from the first soliloquy, in fact, there’s actually less substance with more wordplay. It looks an awful lot like a stratagem that connects to 3.1, given that the duo report this to the king, and that upcoming soliloquy is also observed by Claudius and Polonius. The gist of this theory is that he is attempting to leave the king and Polonius with a specific, abstruse impression they will be unable to parse through and this is supported by the deliberation with which he feeds them information, but I’ll go no further into that here.
It comes out that an actor troupe is coming to Elsinore. He knew these actors from some time in his past and incites one of them to recount a speech he heard the man speak once on the topic of Greek Mythology. In this case, it is Aeneas’ recounting to Dido (the pair are lovers) of the slaughter of Priam at the hand of Pyrrhus in front of Hecuba (Priam’s wife). At a later point in greek mythology, Pyhrrus will see the ghost of Achilles (slain by Paris, son of Hecuba) who demands the sacrifice of the princess of Troy, Polyxena (also a daughter of Hecuba). What’s more, the doomed relationship between Aeneas and Dido (Aeneas leaves her at the command of Jupiter, and she commits suicide) was actually orchestrated by Juno and Venus.
This is an incredibly oblique intimidation tactic that Hamlet employs against Polonius in particular, invoking the dour fates of three separate women from mythology. This is quite chilling when one realizes that he might already have consigned himself to denouncing and abandoning (like Aeneas) Ophelia, or is at least seriously considering it, as the lords and ladies of Elsinore begin to draw their battle lines. Also, the grief of Hecuba foreshadows Ophelia’s fate after Hamlet makes a corpse of her father. More, Hamlet seems aware of the fact that it is the men in both Greek Mythology and this play that victimize women. Also, the First Player invokes “thou strumpet Fortune.”, when Hamlet himself also makes this claim, before he is even supposed to know that the actors were coming (2.2.228-229, “ In the secret parts of Fortune? Oh, most true, she is a strumpet. What news?”).
After the speech, Hamlet and the First Player come to an agreement about the memorization of lines that he intends to insert within a play called The Murder Of Gonzago. After the whole crowd departs we see, marvelously, how Hamlet really feels. Another legendary soliloquy follows, “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”, in which he rails on himself for not being better motivated to kill than he is. Something about the conviction with which the First Player is blessed with (he is so moved during his speech that the actor starts to weep) that really eats at him, “For Hecuba!/Who’s Hecuba to him or he to her/That he should weep for her?” I would also weigh the argument that this has something to do with the symbolism that speech is rife with, as mentioned before. After this, he voices his intention to use the upcoming play to feel out whether Claudius is guilty.
The overall transition is one from the anhedonic’s dilemma (feeling empty), to how he intends to proceed. More than anything, it drives home the fact that Hamlet is unwell, he hates himself, and he most definitely is playing at something.