Significance of the Play within Play

Hamlet has been entrusted with the duty of avenging his father's death by his father's Ghost. He learns that his father has been murdered by Claudius. But he hesitates to execute the command of the Ghost. He has doubts about the genuineness of the Ghost and Claudius's sin. He wishes to have strong proof before taking revenge and allows time to lapse until the arrival of the players. Their arrival inspires him with a sudden idea of enacting a play to catch the conscience of Claudius.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Hamlet receives the players with enthusiasm and plans with them to stage a play called The Murder of Gonzago with some modification in the speeches. On the day of staging the play Hamlet prepares the players well in advance to make the play a great success. He advises them to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" so that they would not "overstep the modesty of nature", for the aim of a play is to hold the mirror up to nature. He then seeks the help of Horatio, to whom he has already revealed the secret of the Ghost's revelation, to watch the King's feelings while the play is staged. Thus he prepares the players, Horatio and himself to 'catch the conscience of the King'. The play is to be the mainspring for further action. The King, the Queen and the courtier are invited to see the play.

The dumb-show is the prelude to the actual staging of the play Hamlet chooses to sit at Ophelia's feet rather than next to the Queen, partly to encourage the idea that his madness is caused by disappointed love, but mainly because he could not watch the King's face if he sat next to the royal pair. Hamlet plays the part of the commentator too. The dumb-show is the first part of the King's ordeal. The dumb-show itself represents very closely the crime of Claudius. Yet it is surprising that he does not betray his feelings. Some critics feel that Claudius, being lost in his conversation with the Queen, missed the dumb-show. Certain other critics feel that Claudius does see the show, but he hopes that it is only an unlucky coincidence that The Murder of Gonzago resembles his own crime or he naturally suspects that the choice of the play is deliberate and knows that Hamlet is watching his reactions. As the remarks about second marriages, which he has heard, are grossly offensive, he pretends not to have noticed them. The dramatic importance of staging this dumb-show is that as the play is stopped before the end, Shakespeare, in order to inform the audience of the full plot, uses the dumb show for the purpose.

The dumb-show is followed by the actual play The Murder of Gonzago with its deliberately artificial style, full of repetitions and indirectness enables us to concentrate on the real drama which is being enacted, with Hamlet's eyes riveted on his uncle's face with the King trying hard not to show by his face what he is feeling. Claudius's Guilt is confirmed. After the exit of the Player Queen, Claudius appears to be frightened. Hamlet's assertion that the play is titled The Mousetrap is a veiled threat of which the King is perfectly aware, especially as 'mouse' is his term of endearment for Gertrude. When Lucianus enters, Hamlet's comment that he is 'nephew to the King' is taken as another threat, and Claudius suspects that Lucianus's lines are written by Hamlet himself Claudius watches for the second time the re-enactment of his crime and is about to reveal himself, and when Hamlet gives a last twist to the knife by explaining, 'You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife,' the King rises terror with false fire. The Ghost's story is confirmed.

By enacting the play Hamlet has confirmed the Ghost's story, but at the expense of revealing his own knowledge to the King. His own fate is sealed unless he follows up his victory. The victory is imperfect, in any case, because Hamlet's behavior during the performance, as well as the apparent gross lack of the taste in his choosing a play with such a theme can allow the King to cover up his guilt with a show of anger. On the other hand, Hamlet is extremely happy at having discovered the truth. Now he gives more weight to the words of the Ghost. Thus, the situation leads to the crisis or turning point of the play. Hamlet has to act now. But when he gets the opportunity to carry out his work, he fails to act as he finds Claudius at prayer. In his soliloquy he justifies his lack of action by saying that if he kills Claudius, who is at prayer, his soul would enjoy the pleasures of heaven, instead of suffering the tortures of hell.

 The Murder of Gonzago play puts both Claudius and the Ghost on trial, the former for 'fratricide' and the latter for its 'honesty.' Hamlet's doubts are removed. Still, he hesitates to act. Hence this play emphasizes Hamlet's procrastinating nature. Hamlet is inspired by the play with greater desire to act, but it fails to have the effect to make him act. It only shows him as a 'pigeon-livered' man who shrinks from action on moral grounds. It allows Hamlet and Claudius to know exactly what the other feels. It is a climax and a crisis, and the pivot of the action in Hamlet. Now, Hamlet has no excuse for delay, Claudius will set forth his own machinations to destroy Hamlet, and with the unseen hand of fate, Hamlet will grow to self-realization.

This play-within-the-play further helps the dramatist to reveal his own theories of playacting. Hamlet acts as a mouthpiece of Shakespeare, through whom he expresses his ideas of playacting and shows his contempt for the contemporary actors. To Shakespeare, the aim of drama is to hold the mirror up to nature, with the actors not indulging in extravagant passions. They should "suit the action to the word, the word to the action, and should not "overstep the modesty of nature". This piece of advice given by Shakespeare through Hamlet shows Hamlet at his best. He is playing the part of Deputy Providence, plotting, arranging, baiting the trap, etc. His making fun of Ophelia, his darting sarcasm at his mother and playing the part of a Chorus, his mocking the King, all shows his versatile genius.

The play-within-the-play serves to emphasize that Hamlet is not the traditional revenge play. The hero, after the Ghost's words have been confirmed, he yet spares Claudius' life because the King is praying. The problem is that Hamlet sees himself as one who is to ensure the victim’s punishment in the next world also. He is overestimating his role, and it is only towards the end that he will truly understand that man must accept certain conditions and act within them readily. However, it would be wrong to consider the scene the central act and the crisis of the play. It is important as far as bringing Claudius and Hamlet to a full awareness of one another's true nature.

Hamlet Study Center

Procrastination in Avenging the Murder of Father in Hamlet