What happens in the "play-within-a-play?" How do the speeches and actions reflect events in the kingdom of Denmark? How does the king respond? Act 3
In Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet coaches the actors to produce a play that will make the king, Claudius, feel guilty by showing the way in which Hamlet's father was murdered. Hamlet tells Horatio about Claudius,
"If his occulted guilt Do not itself unkennel in one speech, It is a damnèd ghost that we have seen" (III.2.75-77).
In other words, they will observe Claudius during this scene and see if he seems guilty. If Claudius does not seem guilty, Hamlet will know that the ghost he saw was not real, but was just a spirit. During the play, the actors first perform in pantomime. They show a king and queen embracing. When the queen leaves, another man comes in and takes the king's crown and pours poison into the king's ear. When the queen returns to find the king dead, she is upset, but she eventually returns the other man's love. The players then act out this play, which Hamlet says is called The Mousetrap, using speech. The play reflects the situation in Denmark, where Claudius has murdered Hamlet's father, who was married to Gertrude, by pouring poison into his brother's ear. Claudius then becomes king and marries Gertrude.
After watching the play, Claudius gets up. He says, "Give me some light, away!" (III.2.254). He asks for the lights to be turned on, and he leaves, which Hamlet feels indicates that Claudius is guilty. Hamlet tells Horatio,
"O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?" (III.2.260-262).
In other words, Hamlet believes the ghost was right and that Claudius murdered his father.
Unlike the typical revenge drama, Hamlet does not immediately go from hearing of the treachery of a relative being murdered straight to a vengeance killing. Instead, he introspects and thinks about what has happened. For this reason, he has been called both indecisive and the first modern hero. He weighs committing suicide. He also weighs whether the ghost is telling the truth or has been sent by the devil to tempt him to murder an innocent man based on a false story.
Hamlet, as perhaps fitting for one who has recently been a student in Germany, tests the hypothesis that Claudius killed his father. He does this through the play within the play. While we as an audience never witness the actual murder of Hamlet's father, we now see a recreated version of the crime. Both in pantomime and with words, the actors play out a king being murdered by having poison poured in his ear as he sleeps.
As he recognizes what is going on, Claudius suddenly leaps up and rushes from the play, calling for light. This guilty response proves to Hamlet that the ghost was telling the truth.
Hamlet rewrites portions of the play-within-a-play, wherein he wants to present a visual of poison being poured into a sleeping king's ear, hoping that this will rouse Claudius and cause a reaction that will be evidence of Claudius' murder of King Hamlet. "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," he says (II.ii.581-2). In the play-within, the murderer then courts the queen, who gradually succumbs to his advances. Hamlet writes into the play things that only Claudius would know, using the information provided to him by the ghost of his father.
His plan seems to work, because Claudius rises from his seat and cries for the lights (torches) to be lit. To Hamlet, Claudius' strong reaction to the scene is indicative of his guilt.