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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT III, SCENE II

Evening has come, and Hamlet is with the players before their performance, explaining how he wants the new speech he has written to be delivered. As always, the point he wants to make leads him to give what is virtually a lecture, this one on the whole art of acting.

NOTE:

Hamlet's advice to the players is another section of the play that has become familiar through frequent quotation, partly because people assume it states Shakespeare's own views on acting and on the art of the theater. What he says, however, is also relevant to the dramatic situation. As a well- educated nobleman who strives for a classical balance in life, Hamlet wants the actors to be moderate and natural in their depiction of life, not exaggerated, yet not dull. In addition to intensifying your suspense about the speech he has written and about how the king will react to it, the passage reminds us that only in the fictional reality of art can Hamlet find the ordered universe he seeks, just as he can find the perfect image of a son's revenge or a queen's sorrow only in mythical figures of Pyrrhus and Hecuba. He believes that the theater exists to "hold the mirror up to nature" and hopes that Claudius will see his evil nature reflected in that night's performance.

Notice the change in Hamlet's behavior from the last time you saw him, shouting his bitterness at Ophelia. With the players, who are not involved in his "real" life, Hamlet can be at ease and at his best, a prince reminding artists of the ideals their art is meant to uphold. You know he is not so calm with his family or Ophelia.


Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter with the news that the king and queen- which in effect means the entire court- will join Hamlet in watching the play. Hamlet sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern off to help the players prepare and calls for Horatio. He explains his scheme, since he is the only one Hamlet can trust and asks Horatio to join him in watching the king. Horatio promises that he will not let the king out of his sight during the performance.

NOTE:

Hamlet's speech to Horatio shows you again that Horatio, unlike Hamlet, is a moderate man, neither rich nor poor, neither violent nor melancholy. Hamlet loves and envies Horatio for not being "passion's slave," a good description of how Hamlet must see himself in his frenzied moods.

A fanfare announces the king and queen's entrance, accompanied by courtiers and guards bearing torches. The king immediately asks how Hamlet "fares," and Hamlet, punning on the sense in which the word means "dines," answers that he "eats the air" (another pun, on "heir") as chameleons were thought to do, and that this is not a good way to feed capons- a hint that he suspects Claudius, in naming him successor, of stuffing him with promises the way a capon is fattened before being butchered. Claudius pretends not to understand what Hamlet means.

Polonius announces that he was thought of as a good actor in college, where he played Julius Caesar: "I was killed i' the Capitol," he says. "Brutus killed me." Hamlet's reply, making puns on "Brutus" and "Capitol," unwittingly prefigures the "brute part" he will play later that night, when Polonius will be killed in earnest.

Told that the players are ready, Hamlet looks for a place to sit. Gertrude asks him to sit with her, but he declines, probably because he would then be unable to watch Claudius. Instead he turns to Ophelia and engages her in a bantering conversation full of sexual double-entendres. Her reactions, cautious and deferential, suggest that his changed attitude has her completely dumbfounded. when she remarks that he is "merry," however, he seems to become mad again, and says:

What should a man do but be merry? For look
you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my
father died within 's two hours [not two
hours ago].

(lines 124-26)

"Nay," Ophelia replies, "'tis twice two months," provoking Hamlet to a cynical speech on how long a man can hope his reputation will last after he dies.

 

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