Act III, Scene ii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act III scene ii

Hamlet gives detailed instructions to the actors about how they should speak their speeches. Horatio then enters, and Hamlet praises him for his well-balanced nature. Hamlet then tells Horatio about his plan to test Claudius through the performance of a play which echoes the circumstances of Old Hamlet's murder.

The king, queen, Polonius, Ophelia and other members of the court enter to watch the play. Hamlet embarrasses Ophelia by making remarks to her which are characterised by sexual innuendo.

The play begins:

  • It starts with a mime which outlines the action
  • Then the Player King and Queen speak. He tells her he will soon die, and she must marry again
  • She protests her undying love for him, and that she will never remarry
  • The Player King is then murdered as he sleeps by having poison poured in his ear
  • Hamlet tells the court that the Player Queen will now accept gifts from the murderer and marry him.

Claudius leaving during the MousetrapClaudius is deeply disturbed, halts the play and leaves. Hamlet is elated — he is sure now of Claudius' guilt.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to tell Hamlet that his mother is bewildered by his actions and she wishes to speak to him. He makes it clear to them that he knows they are spies and betrayers. He goes to see his mother, feeling ready for violent action, though he will not harm Gertrude.

Commentary on Hamlet Act III scene ii

Blest are those / Whose blood and judgement are so well commingled — ‘Blood' here means ‘passions', ‘emotions'.

More on the wisdom of ‘balance': Hamlet praises Horatio for having the right balance between his reliance on reason and his feelings — this produces a well-balanced human being, who will not rush into actions without consideration. (See Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being).

If his occulted guilt Do not unkennel … It is a damned ghost — Hamlet is still unsure of Claudius' guilt, which is hidden from view (‘occulted'). He is relying on the one speech he inserted in the play (see Act II scene ii) to prove it. At this point Hamlet still feels the Ghost may be a devil.

'Tis twice two months … So long? … Not forgotten yet? — Hamlet sarcastically attacks the speed with which people are forgotten after they die (and, by implication, particularly attacks his mother's hasty remarriage).

Full thirty times — 30 years have passed since they married. In Act V scene i we learn that Hamlet is 30 years old, which gives this speech added significance as a reflection of the marriage of Old Hamlet and Gertrude.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run — we may not end up doing what we think we will. By Act V scene ii Hamlet has also come to feel this, but ascribes the control of human lives to God's providence rather than to blind fate.

The Mousetrap — earlier in Act II scene ii Hamlet said it was called ‘The Murder of Gonzago', but for him it is really a trap for Claudius. The name ‘mousetrap' reminds us of the number of traps which characters in the play set for one another. (See Imagery and symbolism: Traps).

I'll take the ghost's word — Hamlet is now convinced that the Ghost really is the spirit of his murdered father and not a devil.

'Tis as easy as lying — lies and deceit, and the way words can be manipulated, is a major theme of the play. (See Themes and significant ideas: False appearances).

Investigating Hamlet Act III scene ii
  • At the centre of a play about acting (in both senses of the word) Shakespeare places a ‘play-within-a-play' (c.f. A Midsummer Night's Dream).
    • As the audience, we are therefore viewing at least two simultaneous fictions. What effect does this have?
  • Consider Hamlet's speech to Horatio.
    • Why might Shakespeare wish at this point in the play to stress the virtues of a balance between reason and passion?
    • What is the role of Horatio throughout the play?
  • Look at the way Shakespeare uses rhyme to suggest that the ‘play within a play' is not part of the main action. (See Shakespeare's language: Blank verse, prose and rhyme).
  • Look at the exchanges between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Contrast:
    • the way that they are prepared to betray him, with
    • the behaviour of Horatio.
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