Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Act 3, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Hamlet coaches the actors in anticipation of the performance they are about to give for Claudius, Gertrude, and the rest of the court. As the players leave the prince to ready themselves, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter, announcing that the king and queen will join them shortly. Hamlet sends the three of them off to hurry the players just as Horatio arrives.

Hamlet tells Horatio of his plan to use The Mousetrap—his version of The Murder of Gonzago—to catch the king off guard. He further reports that he has amended the presentation so that one scene re-creates what the ghost told him to be the circumstances of his father's murder. Most importantly, Hamlet instructs Horatio to watch the king's reaction.

As the play unfolds, Hamlet's additions to the original piece make for a strong, disturbing performance. It becomes too much for Claudius, who leaps to his feet and leaves. In the ensuing confusion, the play is halted, and all leave but Hamlet and Horatio, who recap what they've just seen.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, telling Hamlet that the queen wishes to see him. They go around and around with Hamlet, trying to convince him to go to the queen. They are joined by Polonius, who speaks to Hamlet as if he is humoring a fool. They rouse Hamlet's anger, and he sends them off with word that he will join Gertrude soon. Left to his own thoughts, Hamlet's resolve to kill Claudius rises again, even as he plans to visit Gertrude.

Analysis

One of the significant points of this scene is Hamlet asking the theater troupe to perform a specific play with revisions he wrote for them. At the outset of this scene, Hamlet is still deliberating the ghost's motivation—whether it's a demon or an honest ghost. With the revised play, he intends to present a scene that mimics the details of King Hamlet's death. He hopes that with art mimicking reality, he will catch Claudius in his guilt. Hamlet does not want to seek revenge until he is sure of the ghost's honesty.

Thematically, this scene is rich. The play within the play, Hamlet's antics throughout the play, the pressure on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to trick Hamlet—all of these elements support the theme of truth versus deception (or, in this case, appearance versus reality). This notion is particularly clear when the players reenact the scene of King Hamlet's death in the garden. When Claudius sees his deed played out so publicly, one can only imagine how the lines between reality and appearance blur for him.

The theme of madness—or feigned madness—is never far behind the theme of truth versus deception in Hamlet. The two themes are almost inseparable. Interestingly, the king's behavior as the murder scene plays out becomes frantic, and he bolts from the hall in a way that could be construed as mad. This is the beginning of a downward spiral for Claudius—one in which his deeds come to light, his cool demeanor slips, and his moves become more reactive than proactive.

Hamlet is an interesting study in this scene. At the opening of the scene directing the players, he is masterful and in control, comfortable in the direction he is giving and displaying very little antic disposition. Only when he goes into the hall where the play is to be performed does he again begin talking in the wild, witty, uncontrolled way that has caused people to think he is mad. And in the confines of the theater, Hamlet's madness gives him the freedom to sound out those around him, especially Claudius, to his advantage.

Perhaps most interesting to this scene is the consideration of the play within the play—and specifically Claudius's panicked reaction to the climax of the play. Claudius's reaction to the murder scene is certainly a turning point for Hamlet, who is now convinced of Claudius's guilt.

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