In Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet conceives the plan of staging a play called “The Murder of Gonzago” and inviting the king and the queen, besides the courtiers, to see it. His motive in staging this play is to seek a verification of the story of his father’s murder as narrated to him by the Ghost. In the soliloquy with which this scene closes, Hamlet bitterly scolds himself for his delay in executing his revenge. But it occurs to him that the Ghost he has seen might be the devil in disguise and that the devil might have tried to tempt him to commit an evil deed by telling him a falsehood pertaining to his father’s death.
Accordingly, hamlet would like confirmation of the story that the ghost has told him; ‘I’ll have grounds more relative than this”. / The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Act II, scene ii, 600-1) In act III, scene ii, Hamlet seeks the assistance of Horatio whom he had already taken into confidence regarding the secret that was revealed to him by the Ghost. Hamlet asks Horatio to watch the king’s face in the course of performance of the play and let him know afterwards the conclusion he comes to:
Give him heedful note;/For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,/And after we will both our judgment join/In censure of his seeming. (Act III, scene ii, 84-7) The dumb show is the prelude to the performance of the play. The king sees the dumb show but does not give any sign of feeling disturbed. The king pretends to be unconcerned and watches both the play and Hamlet very closely. The play quickly becomes offensive, not only to Claudius, but to the Queen and the courtiers: A second time I kill my husband dead/When second husband hisses me in bed.
(Act iii, scene ii, and 179-80) Claudius could have stopped the play at this point, but he does not. He does not wish to appear touchy. It might still be all a coincidence. Presently he asks Hamlet: Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in’t” Hamlet gives a taunting reply: “No, no: they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence ‘n the world. ” When the king asks the title of this play, Hamlet again replies tauntingly; “The Mouse Trap”. This reply makes it perfectly obvious that there is a plot afoot, with Hamlet behind it.
Claudius, watching for a second time the re-enactment of his crime, is at breaking point. And when Hamlet makes the following comment: “you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife” the king rises. Hamlet’s behavior must have struck all the courtiers, witnessing the play, as intolerable. They must have seen the resemblance between some of the events of the play and the familiar facts of his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. Hamlet has got a confirmation of the Ghost’s story. But the king has come to know that Hamlet has somehow become aware of his crime.
Shakespeare wanted to show that, even after Hamlet had obtained a confirmation of the Ghost’s story by his enactment of a play, Hamlet failed to act. In other words, the play within the play further emphasizes Hamlet’s procrastinating tendency. Had he felt any conscientious objections to killing Claudius, they should have been removed by Claudius’s reaction to the play arranged by Hamlet. But we are now made to realize that, apart from those conscientious objections that have been proved to be baseless, Hamlet is prevented from taking his revenge by his own incapacity for any premeditated action.
Hamlet’s enactment of a play and the confirmation it affords serve only to induce in Hamlet a greater desire to act, but are not effective enough to make him act. The play within the play therefore throws some additional light on the irresolute nature of Hamlet and shows him as shrinking from an action, which, on moral grounds, he feels to be fully justified. References Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Penguin Classic Edition). Penguin. New York. 2003 Bradley. A. C. Shakespearean tragedy: lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan. 1971.