Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2 Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson provides a summary of Act 3 Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It also highlights and analyzes some of the most significant quotes from the scene.

Hamlet and Horatio

In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet gives directions to actors preparing for the play. He wrote parts for them to play and is instructing them to act as naturally as possible, explaining that ''the purpose of playing, whose end…was and is…to hold…the mirror up to nature,'' which is to say that the art of acting should reflect real life as much as possible. Hamlet has written a play that closely reflects what he believes happened between his father and Claudius.

Horatio enters, and Hamlet praises him for being so reserved and controlled, saying, ''Give me that man that is not passion's slave, and I will wear him in my heart's core…as I do thee.'' He told Horatio in an earlier scene that the ghost he encountered revealed that Claudius killed his father and is appreciative of his discretion. Now, he gives him instructions to watch Claudius closely during the play to see how he reacts. If Claudius is indeed guilty of Hamlet's father, Hamlet suspects that he will react strongly to the play. Horatio promises to watch Claudius, and Hamlet tells him that he will soon start acting very strangely to keep up the rumor around the court that he is going insane.

The Play's the Thing

The actors begin the play, the plot consisting of a king and queen displaying their love for each other. When the king is asleep, another man kills him by pouring poison in his ear and then seducing the dead king's wife. The play later reveals that the man who killed the king is the king's nephew, which is basically the dynamic among Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet's dead father.

Painting of play scene in an 1897 production of Hamlet
Painting of play scene

As the play within a play progresses, Hamlet mutters his own commentary about the acting and torments Ophelia with bawdy references. He asks his mother how she is enjoying the play. The queen in the play repeatedly emphasizes how she would never remarry if her husband died, ''The lady protests too much, methinks,'' meaning that the queen in the play is being so overly conscious about making this point that she probably means the opposite. It is ironic that Queen Gertrude is being critical of this character because Hamlet constructed the character to be critical of her herself.

King Claudius asks Hamlet what the play is called and replies ''Mousetrap'' because he rigged the play as a way to trigger Claudius's guilt and catch him as his father's murderer. The real title of the play is Murder of Gonzago. When the king's nephew is about to pour poison into the king's ear, Claudius shouts suddenly to bring lights into the room. The play stops, and servants frantically bring lights in. The king, followed by the audience, leaves.

After the Play

Horatio and Hamlet agree that Claudius's strange behavior probably means that he is guilty. Hamlet is excited that his plan of writing a play to draw out Claudius's emotions worked so well. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell Hamlet that his mother Gertrude wants to speak to him. They try, again, to get him to talk about why he has been acting so strangely and out of sorts. Guildenstern appeals to Hamlet as a friend, asking why Hamlet would not confide in him as a friend if he were upset.

As musicians begin to play on their recorders, Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of trying to 'play' him like a musical pipe, or manipulate him. The word 'play' in this scene can be interpreted in several ways. To 'play' someone means to manipulate them, which Hamlet does to Claudius by constructing the 'play,' or a plot that is acted out. Hamlet uses 'play' in the musical and manipulative sense here as he speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

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