What does Hamlet mean when he says, "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king"?

When Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he means that he will use a dramatic performance to test whether his uncle, Claudius, is guilty of murdering Hamlet’s father. He will have the actors perform a murder scene similar to the one described by Hamlet’s father’s ghost, and Hamlet will observe Claudius’s behavior to see if he acts like he has a guilty conscience.

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Hamlet encounters a strange apparition that looks, walks, and talks like his late father; the ghost tells him that Claudius, Hamlet 's uncle and the current king of Denmark, murdered Hamlet's father in order to take over the throne and become king. Even though Hamlet is uncertain of the...

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Hamlet encounters a strange apparition that looks, walks, and talks like his late father; the ghost tells him that Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and the current king of Denmark, murdered Hamlet's father in order to take over the throne and become king. Even though Hamlet is uncertain of the ghost's true nature and origin, he begins to suspect that the ghost might be right and that his uncle might actually be his father's murderer, which is why he decides to find a way to prove the ghost's claims.

Hamlet learns that the people who were somehow reminded of the crimes they've committed in the past wasted no time to confess their sins, as they were unable to live with the guilt. Thus, in act 2, scene 2, he comes up with a plan: he'll arrange a play in which the actors will play out a scene where someone will be murdered in the exact same way his father was murdered.

Then, he will focus on Claudius and his body language and facial expressions as he watches the play, and he'll pay close attention to the king's reaction to the murder scene in the hopes of "catching the conscience of the king." If Claudius's behavior hints that he might be guilty, Hamlet will know for certain that the ghost he saw was the ghost of his late father and, most importantly, he'll prove his suspicions right, which means that he'll have a legitimate reason to kill his uncle: revenge.

I’ll have these players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;

I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,

I know my course.

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When Hamlet utters this line at the end of act 2, scene 2, he means that he will use a dramatic performance put on by the recently arrived acting troupe to test Hamlet's uncle's guilt. A ghost that looks like Hamlet’s father has told Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, but Hamlet is unsure whether to trust the ghost (who could, theoretically, just be an evil spirit trying to tempt Hamlet to do something sinful). To this end, Hamlet says,

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape.

Until he can be sure of the ghost’s identity and motives, Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill his uncle.

As a result of his uncertainty, Hamlet wants to make sure his uncle actually is guilty of fratricide before he kills Claudius. Here is his plan:

I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I know my course.

He says that he will have the actors perform a scene very like the murder of his father, according to the ghost, and Hamlet will observe the king, his uncle, while Claudius watches the play. He believes that, if Claudius is guilty of murder, then he will reveal his guilty conscience through his expressions and behavior. This will allow Hamlet to confirm his guilt and will authorize Hamlet to kill his uncle in order to avenge his father.

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This rhymed couplet sums up the plan that Hamlet decides to pursue at the end of Act II.

Hamlet isn't entirely certain that Claudius killed Hamlet's father, so he is going to test Claudius. He is going to stage a play for Claudius to watch, a thinly-disguised dramatization of Claudius's supposed murder of Hamlet's father. If, after watching the play, Claudius betrays emotions of guilt or otherwise behaves suspiciously, Hamlet will have confirmed that his uncle did, in fact, kill his father.

If you read the approximately 18 lines leading up to these words, you can observe Hamlet hatch this plan. The others have left; Hamlet is thinking aloud. And he recalls something:

"Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ."

In other words, he's heard that people guilty of crimes have confessed their guilt after watching a play that portrays situations highly reminiscent of their own, criminal acts. Seeing their crimes acted out by others reminds them of their guilt, and so they give themselves away.

Having remembered this, Hamlet determines that he will write his own little drama -- one recreating the peculiar circumstances of the crimes he believes Claudius committed -- and have the actor's troupe perform it for the royal household. Then, to determine if Claudius is guilty, Hamlet says:

"… I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course."

If Claudius reacts with so much as a flinch, Hamlet says, he will have the evidence he needs to confirm Claudius's guilt. This is crucial because Hamlet isn't sure he can trust what he was told by the spirit that had appeared to be his father's ghost. He's concerned that "the devil" might have taken the shape of his father and told him lies.

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