Pyrrhus And Priam

Why does Hamlet recall the story of Priam and Pyrrhus in act 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet?

Does it reflect in any way upon Hamlet's own situation?

Hamlet recalls the story of Priam and Pyrrhus and asks the player to present a speech about it because Hamlet believes that it closely resembles his visualization of future events in his own situation, that of Pyrrhus (representing Hamlet himself) killing King Priam (representing his uncle, Claudius) in revenge for the death of his father, while Priam's wife, Hecuba (representing Hamlet's mother, Gertrude), stands by helplessly.

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In act 2, scene 2, of Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Hamlet asks the player to recite a speech about Priam's death from a play about Dido and Aeneas (2.2.440–443), it's clear that Hamlet has been thinking about how the story of Priam and Pyrrhus relates to his own situation.

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In act 2, scene 2, of Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Hamlet asks the player to recite a speech about Priam's death from a play about Dido and Aeneas (2.2.440–443), it's clear that Hamlet has been thinking about how the story of Priam and Pyrrhus relates to his own situation.

In the ancient myth, Pyrrhus avenges the death of his father, Achilles, by killing Priam, the king of Troy, during the sack of Troy, while Priam's wife, Hecuba, is forced to watch her husband's death.

In Hamlet's mind, he visualizes himself taking the role of Pyrrhus, avenging his own father's death by killing Claudius, while his mother, Gertrude, stands helplessly by.

What's remarkable about Hamlet's request is that Hamlet remembers the speech well enough to recite part of it nearly word-for-word (2.2.445–460) and to cue the player at the part in the speech that relates to Hecuba, whose name isn't spoken in the speech (2.2.494–496).

How does Hamlet remember that speech so well, particularly since it's likely been several months since he saw the play performed in the city or since the players last performed at Elsinore? Is Hamlet's memory really that good? Or has Hamlet been doing some research into plays that resemble his own situation that he can arrange to be presented by the players at court?

Also, even after the player's lengthy presentation of the speech about Priam, Pyrrhus, and Hecuba—which relates so closely to Hamlet's own vision of future events—why does Hamlet ask the players to perform a completely different play, The Murder of Gonzago (2.2.530–531), which has not come up in conversation in this scene at all?

Perhaps Hamlet is thinking that a play about Pyrrhus and Priam might simply alarm Claudius and alert him to Hamlet's intentions toward him. The plot of The Murder of Gonzago more closely resembles the events of Claudius's murder of Hamlet's father and would better suit Hamlet's intention to cause Claudius to reveal his guilt.

HAMLET. 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;

The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. (2.2.583–587, 599–600)

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To understand Priam and Pyrrhus in Hamlet, we first have to identify the two men who are mentioned in the allusion.

The characters are from the stories of the Trojan War. For this allusion to be effective, most of the Elizabethan audience the play was performed for would have known of the story. Priam is killed by Achilles' son Neoptolemus (also known as Pyrrhus).

It is possible that Hamlet is comparing Pyrrhus to his uncle, Claudius. Some sources record the presence of Piram's wife, Hecuba, who helplessly stands by watching the murder. Hamlet wonders if perhaps Gertrude stood by and watched while Claudius murdered King Hamlet. By doing so, Gertrude might knowingly have aided Claudius in the murder. But this idea is swept aside when the ghost of Old Hamlet speaks to his son while Gertrude (not seeing the ghost) watches. The ghost confirms that murder was not her sin. Instead, the ghost tells Hamlet that judgement for the crime she has committed—marrying her brother-in-law (seen as incest by the Elizabethans)—should be left to heaven.

The comparison that Hamlet makes seems clear enough. It is, however, ironic and provides an instance of sad foreshadowing (of which Shakespeare most certainly would have noticed and used intentionally) that Priam also kills Pyrrhus' son. By the end of the story, through conniving treachery, Hamlet has been poisoned by Claudius and dies. 

In terms of the choice of Priam and Pyrrhus, Hamlet is drawing a parallel between the murder of Priam by Pyrrhus, and the murder of his father, Old Hamlet, at the hands of Claudius, who then "steals his throne and wife."

Ultimately, it is impossible to be exactly sure how Shakespeare intended to use his reference to Priam and Pyrrhus, but it is clear that he is drawing attention to the idea of one man killing another.

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Hamlet recalls this story because it is, in some particulars, related to his own situation with the death of his father. Achilles, Pyrrhus's father, was killed by Priam (the king of Troy), so Pyrrhus seeks to avenge his father's death by killing Priam. The speech Hamlet recites has an incredibly graphic visual image of Pyrrhus:

Head to foot,
Now is he total gules, horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets [. . .]. (2.2.481-484)

Pyrrhus, then, is represented as being covered in blood, totally red, as he stalks the streets of Troy, seeking Priam so he can murder him. He is one extreme example of the lengths to which a son might go to seek revenge on the man who killed his father; his retribution is swift and mighty. Hamlet, on the other hand, has known about his own father's murder for a while and has not yet done anything to avenge it, despite the ghost's charge that he do so. Perhaps Hamlet recalls this speech in order to inspire himself to begin to take some action on behalf of his own father.

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