The “play within a play” scene (Act 3 Scene 2) is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT in advancing the plot of Hamlet. It’s the very thing that gives Hamlet confirmation that his uncle is indeed the man who murdered his father. Remember, Hamlet has some trouble with the whole revenge thing… he does not immediately prepare for murder upon hearing the ghost’s request. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you want to be 100% sure that you were taking revenge on the right guy? Well, “The Murder of Gonzago” is a play that is put on right there in the castle. Everybody comes to watch– Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude, and of course… Claudius. Hamlet wants to see how Claudius reacts to the play in order to determine whether or not he is guilty.
The scene opens with Hamlet talking to the players (the actors who stage the play, “The Murder of Gonzago”). He’s giving advice to them about how to carry out the play (3.2.22). Soon, Polonius, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz enter the scene and Hamlet learns that Claudius and Gertrude are ready to see the performance. Hamlet calls for Horatio, and the three other men leave. When Horatio enters, Hamlet praises him– after all, Horatio is his best friend, one who never backs down on Hamlet (3.2.71-74). Hamlet asks Horatio to help him watch for signs of guilt in the King during the play. Soon, Gertrude and Claudius enter, along with Polonius, Ophelia, Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, and the attendants. Hamlet is rather vulgar to Ophelia during the play. The play proceeds too slowly for Hamlet’s liking, and he prods the actors to hurry up with the murder scene! When finally the murder scene arrives, Hamlet cannot contain himself so he spoils the ending! He reveals that what is occurring on stage is a murder– the acting-villian pours poison down the acting-king’s ear to kill him. At once, the audience understands that what they are witnessing is a tragic murder. Claudius suddenly demands that he leave the room (3.2.269). Everybody exits except Hamlet and Horatio, who agree that the King’s reaction surely signify his guilt.
Hamlet chooses to have this particular play performed because the play re-enacts the poisoning of a person, the same way Claudius had poisoned Hamlet’s father. A strong reaction from Claudius proves his guilt, Hamlet thinks. Do you agree that this is an effective way to determine someone’s guilt? If you were Hamlet, how do you think you would have attempted to determine whether or not Claudius was guilty?