Scene 3.2 - Within the Castle
It is evening and the play is to be performed. Hamlet gives detailed instructions to the players about how they should speak their lines - they must be neither too tame nor too wild - counseling them to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action." Before the curtain goes up, Hamlet converses briefly with Horatio, praising him for his stoicism. Horatio, Hamlet continues in a tone of admiration, is not passion's slave - he contents himself with whatever is dealt to him, whether good or bad. So, too, would Hamlet like to be. Hamlet then tells Horatio of the upcoming play and asks that he pay particular attention to Claudius' disposition throughout it. Afterwards they will confer about what they have seen and decide jointly whether or not the ghost is from hell (and thus an imposter and liar). Horatio agrees to Hamlet's plan.
The whole royal host enters, as the play is set to begin momentarily. Hamlet takes a seat next to Ophelia and asks, amidst a series of lewd puns, whether he might not rest his head upon her lap. She consents and notes how merry Hamlet is, no doubt recalling his harsh treatment of her earlier in the day. He reasons he must be merry if his mother can be so cheerful within mere hours of her husband's death; Ophelia reminds Hamlet that his father in fact died months ago. The play within the play begins with a dumb-show, introducing the argument of what is to follow. A man poisons a sleeping king on stage and, undetected, comforts the distraught Queen until she finally accepts his love. The audience, with the exception of Hamlet, is absolutely puzzled. The play, dubbed "The Mousetrap" by Hamlet, opens with a king and queen reflecting on their thirty years of marriage. The king is apparently sickly and fears he might die soon; at his suggestion that she then remarry, the queen stops him short and promises never to wed a second husband unless it is he who killed the first (which, in her mind, is an impossibility). The king says that she is speaking from present feelings and that she cannot know how she will feel (or act) if and when things change. To prove her devotion, the queen wishes everlasting strife on herself if she ever breaks her vow not to remarry. Hamlet turns to his mother to ask her how she likes the play; her memorable reply is "The lady doth protest too much methinks," meaning that the Player Queen would do better to make fewer promises. Meanwhile a fellow named Lucianus has happened upon the sleeping king and with "Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing," Lucianus pours poison in the king's ears. Claudius can no longer bear to watch the play, so implicated does he feel, and he cries out "Give me some light. Away!" while desperately fleeing the performance.
Hamlet, elated, confers with Horatio. Both concede there can be no doubt: the ghost is indeed Hamlet's father and his message is to be trusted. Claudius is guilty and Hamlet must now proceed with his revenge. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter before long, on business of course. Guildenstern reports that the King is distempered (i.e. out of humor), but Hamlet willfully misunderstands him and asks, "With drink, sir?" Guildenstern is not amused but can do little about it, for Hamlet continues to play on secondary meanings in each sentence he speaks. Rosencrantz, seeking to help his flabbergasted friend, fares no better. He repeats Guildenstern's request that Hamlet speak with his mother in her room. Then he questions Hamlet yet again about the cause of his distemper and Hamlet, telling Rosencrantz exactly what he wants to hear, says it is because Claudius occupies his place on the throne. Hamlet asks Rosencrantz offhandedly to play on a pipe, but Rosencrantz says he doesn't know how. It soon becomes clear what Hamlet is up to here, as he launches into a ruthless rebuke of his former friend: "You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass - and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me."
In the meantime Hamlet's mother is getting increasingly impatient and thus sends Polonius to fetch her son. Hamlet, savoring the opportunity to tease Polonius and feign madness, speaks of clouds he presently sees in various shapes. Polonius, the timid brownnoser, continually agrees with whatever Hamlet claims to observe, first "seeing" a camel, then a weasel and finally a whale - three quite distinct shapes! Upon Hamlet's promise to go to his mother, everybody exits except Hamlet. In a brief soliloquy, he calms and composes himself before attending to his mother, lest he be overcome with emotion and, like Nero, contrive his mother's murder. Hamlet will be cruel but not unkind, as the situation necessitates, speaking daggers but using none.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7