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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT III, SCENE II

Before anyone can respond to this, music announces the play. The entertainment begins in the customary fashion with a pantomime prologue or dumb-show in which a king and queen embrace, the king falls asleep, the queen leaves, and then another man comes in, kisses the king's crown, and pours poison in his ear. When the queen returns she finds the king dead. She is consoled by courtiers, including the poisoner, who courts her with gifts and finally wins her. This prologue is in effect a brief summary of the situation that will begin The Murder of Gonzago, a play that would tell how the murderer is discovered and punished. Its resemblance to the murder of King Hamlet is obvious, but no one knows this except Hamlet and Claudius. Claudius does not react to the pantomime. Such stories were common enough, and he may assume that its relationship to his own case is just an unfortunate coincidence. In many stage productions, Claudius is inattentive, whispering to Gertrude and conducting business during the dumb-show. However, it is quite possible that a man of Claudius' hypocritical abilities could watch the dumb-show and not let his reactions show. Ophelia is puzzled by it; when she asks what it means, Hamlet answers, "mischief," adding, in a joke meant as a warning to Claudius, "The players cannot keep counsel; they'll tell all."

The player king and queen now act out their devotion in rhymed couplets that suggest an earlier and more primitive form of playwriting. Gonzago and his queen have been married thirty years, they tell us, and Gonzago is ailing. When he raises the subject of his queen's remarriage after he dies, she refuses to hear, cursing the whole idea:

In second husband let me be accurst!
None wed the second but who killed the first.

(lines 191-92)

Hamlet murmurs that this is "wormwood," a bitter medicine. The player king warns the queen that vows are often broken when the situation that created them is gone, but she swears even more emphatically never to marry again. The king asks to be left alone, as he is sleepy, and she leaves him with gentle good wishes.

At this pause in the action Hamlet turns to his mother and asks her if she likes the play. "The lady doth protest too much," she answers, suggesting that she knows what is coming. Hamlet promises the queen will "keep her word," probably in a mocking tone, since Claudius asks Hamlet if he is sure the story has nothing offensive in it. Only "poison in jest," Hamlet replies. When Claudius asks the name of the play, Hamlet tells him it is The Mousetrap, based on an actual case in Vienna. It is an awful play, he says, but "free souls" like Claudius and himself can cope with it. The murderer Lucianus now enters- the central character, presumably played by the actor for whom Hamlet has written the new speech- and Hamlet identifies him as "nephew to the King," which equates him at one stroke with Claudius and with Hamlet himself. Lucianus describes the mixture of poisonous herbs he has created, and pours it into the ear of the sleeping player king. If this were not enough to upset Claudius by itself, Hamlet follows it with another few lines of mocking banter, ending with, "You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife." This is too much for Claudius, and in one of the most electrifying moments in all theater the lines of the five major characters clatter on each other's heels in response to Claudius' reaction:

Ophelia: The King rises.

Hamlet: What, frighted with false fire?

Queen: How fares my lord?

Polonius: Give o'er [stop] the play.

King: Give me some light! Away!

(lines 277-81)


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