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FREE ONLINE STUDY GUIDE / NOTES: HAMLET
ACT III, SCENE 2
Hamlet directs the actors in how to perform the lines he has added to "The Murder of Gonzago." When he is finished, he dismisses them. Polonius enters, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and tells Hamlet the King and Queen will attend the play. Horatio next arrives, and he and Hamlet have a private discussion. Hamlet reveals his scheme to test Claudius' conscience, stating that the play will contain an incident similar to the death of his father. He asks Horatio to closely watch Claudius' face for any signs of guilt during the play, especially when the lines added by Hamlet are presented. If Claudius does not flinch, it will be proven that Hamlet has seen "a damned ghost" and not the benevolent spirit of the late King Hamlet. Horatio assures his friend that he will observe Claudius' reactions closely.
The King and Queen enter accompanied by Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and other lords and courtiers. A brief exchange follows between Hamlet and Polonius in which the Prince, still feigning madness, again makes fun of the Lord Chamberlain. Hamlet then refuses his mother's offer to sit beside her and instead takes his place at Ophelia's feet. A pantomime precedes the play, showing a King and Queen who are deeply in love with each other. The Queen declares her eternal love for her husband and declares that she will never remarry if something happens to her husband. When the actor King falls asleep on a bank of flowers, the Queen leaves. A man appears, takes the King's crown, and kisses it. He then pours poison in the sleeping King's ear and leaves. When the queen returns, she finds her husband dead and makes a great show of grief. However, when the murderer returns, the Queen does not hesitate long before accepting his advances.
Ophelia is unable to understand the pantomime and asks Hamlet to explain. Hamlet tells her that the silent pantomime is meant to prepare the audience for the theme of the play that is to come. In the actual drama, the King and Queen express their devotion to one another. The Queen assures the King that if he were to die, she would remain a widow, claiming second marriages are never made for love, but only for crass material gains. The King is pleased with his wife's sincerity and soon falls asleep. During the interlude that follows, Hamlet asks his mother whether she likes the play. Gertrude replies that the player acting the role of the queen "protests too much" about her vows. Claudius then asks Hamlet if there is any offense in the argument of the play. Hamlet replies that the play is in the spirit of jest and does not constitute an offense. He further explains that the play is entitled "The Mousetrap" and depicts the story of a murder committed in Vienna. The name of the duke is Gonzago, and his wife's name is Baptisa. He assures Claudius that whatever happens on the stage will not affect the spectators in any manner.
When a new character appears on the stage, Hamlet excitedly explains to Ophelia that this is Lucianus, nephew of Gonzago. Lucianus proceeds to pour poison in the sleeping King's ears. At this point, Hamlet tells all present that the play is a dramatization of the actual murder of Duke Gonzago and that the murderer will soon enough gain the love of Gonzago's wife. Claudius rises in alarm, and Polonius orders that the play be terminated. Hamlet is now convinced that Claudius is guilty of his father's murder and declares that he will "take the ghost's word for a thousand pound." Horatio also asserts that Claudius has revealed his guilty conscience by the sudden alterations in his mood. Hamlet celebrates the success of his scheme by calling some musicians to play.
At this point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive to tell Hamlet that the King is very angry and upset and that the Queen desires to see her son in her room. Hamlet agrees to honor his mother's wishes. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern persist in looking for the cause of Hamlet's strange behavior, Hamlet is outraged. He tells Guildenstern to play upon a pipe, and when the man protests that he lacks the skill to play the instrument, Hamlet rebukes both of the men. He criticizes them for thinking that they can play upon him and "pluck out the heart of [his] mystery" while they are incapable of playing a simple musical instrument. Polonius enters to repeat the request for Hamlet to meet with the Queen in her room. In response, Hamlet again makes the old Chamberlain the butt of ridicule but tells him that he will go to see his mother shortly. When Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Horatio, and the players leave, Hamlet is once more left alone.
In a soliloquy, Hamlet reveals his intent to now extract his revenge on Claudius. He states that the midnight hour is an appropriate one for his committing momentous deeds. Now at last armed with the truth (reality), Hamlet admits that his passion is roused to a feverish pitch, but he calms himself before going to meet his mother. He must refrain, at his father's request, from committing any wrong action against her; he reminds himself to "let me be cruel, not unnatural."
This highly charged, emotional scene contains the first climax of the play. The play-within-a-play, a common occurrence in Shakespearean drama, tests the King's conscience and confirms Hamlet's suspicions of his villainy. It is a turning point of the plot, for Hamlet now knows conclusively that the ghost has spoken the truth, forcing him to finally act decisively. In his soliloquy, he proves that his earlier indecision has been transformed into passionate emotion and immediate desire for revenge. Unfortunately, Hamlet has waited so long to take action that he has allowed Claudius time to plan his own drama.
Besides dramatically furthering the plot of Hamlet, the play-within-a-play also presents a metaphor for the theatre and develops the theme of appearance vs. reality. The fictional drama being presented before the King is a parallel to the past reality of the King and will serve to shape the future reality of the King and several other characters. Hamlet, as director of this great masquerade on stage, cautions the players not to exaggerate their expressions and emotions, stating that only uncivilized "groundlings" are impressed by excessive melodrama. He tells them that the aim of art is to hold "the mirror up to nature," saying, in essence, that the representation of action should be a realistic reflection of life, with moderation as the keynote. Hamlet's advice to the players is important, for it reveals his state of mind before the presentation of the play. Hamlet has been striving to achieve a balance between reason and passion, as seen in his soliloquies in Acts II and III; before the players, he cautions for moderation and against excessive passion, indicating that Hamlet's own mind has finally reached a reasoned balance. It is important to remember that when the players first arrived in Act II, Scene 2, Hamlet had asked them to give a passionate presentation of the killing of Priam by Pyrrhus. Now he specifically instructs the players to "beget a temperance" in the "whirlwind of passion" in order to give it "smoothness."
The fact that Hamlet confides his plans for the play to Horatio reveals his strong admiration and respect for his friend. In fact, he comments that Horatio's sense of equanimity makes him an admirable judge of things. As a result, Hamlet asks him to act as an independent witness of Claudius' reaction to the play. Hamlet tells Horatio that "both our judgements join / In censure of his seeming."
Before the play begins, Hamlet indulges in again poking fun at Polonius; but when it is time for the drama to begin, the suspense quickly builds. Hamlet rejects his mother's invitation to sit beside her and instead chooses to sit beside Ophelia in order to observe the reactions of the King and Queen during the drama. The Prince, still pretending to be mad, indulges in some word play with Ophelia and asks her whether he may lie in her lap. When Ophelia refuses, Hamlet says that he had only meant to lay his head upon her lap and hadn't meant "country matters" (a euphemism for sexual intercourse). When Ophelia says that she thinks nothing about such an act, Hamlet suggests that she is so chaste that she has "no thing" between her legs. Hamlet's punning is painfully cruel and serves to reveal his own tormented state.
The inner play is preceded by a meaningful pantomime that foreshadows the action and theme of the actual play. In the mime, Duke Gonzago is killed by having poison poured in his ear; shortly after his death, his wife goes off with the murderer. Since it is a pantomime, the meaning is not fully clear, but provides Hamlet with an opportunity to observe Claudius before the King really realizes what is unfolding. When the actual play begins and Claudius fully understands its meaning, he is unable to contain his guilt; he is brought to his feet, stops the play, and flees the scene. Hamlet now knows the truth for certain; his excuse for inaction is gone.
This scene, in typical Shakespearean fashion, develops the plot in rapid strokes. Only when Hamlet is left alone does the pace momentarily slow to allow for the self-reflection that is integral to his character development. His determination to act is given in a soliloquy, and he appropriately plans his momentous deeds for the hour of midnight. Hamlet, thirsty for revenge, declares, "Now could I drink hot blood, / And so much bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on."