Well, guys, it’s finally happening. To judge whether Claudius is truly guilty, Hamlet is going to put on a play about murder and then gauge his uncle’s reaction. It’s the most poorly conceived plan in a Shakespeare work since Juliet’s temporary death nap, but to clear, I’m not saying I could do a better job. I’m just saying Hamlet could not possibly have done a WORSE one.
Here in Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet has gathered the actors, and he’s giving them some last-minute tips before the play. I’m sure this sequence was hilariously meta for theatergoers in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately for Shakespeare, I am a modern twenty-first-century reader, and in the time it took me to read and make sense of this stuff, I could have watched one-quarter of a really funny Friends episode, so I remain unimpressed.
He then sends the actors off to get ready, and Horatio arrives. Since Hamlet can never control himself around Horatio, I’m not at all surprised when Horatio says something super casual like “hey, what’s up” and Hamlet goes “HORATIO, YOU’RE THE BEST MAN I EVER KNEW.” He then goes off on a rant about how he’s not saying this to flatter Horatio, because what does he stand to gain by flattering a poor man? He’s just saying it because he MEANS it, obviously. (This is basically how I flirt with people also. I tell them they’re very dear to me and that I’m not after their money.)
Next, he fills Horatio in on his plan that has no holes in it whatsoever.
HAMLET: There’s a play tonight. Everyone’s going. I added a scene that comes real close to portraying my father’s murder, so make sure you keep an eye on Claudius. HORATIO: Keep an eye on him for what? HAMLET: Well, to see if he reacts, of course. HORATIO: Reacts how? HAMLET: Like if he flinches or something. I don’t know. HORATIO: But what will that prove, exactly? That murder makes people uncomfortable? HAMLET: Stop asking stupid questions, Horatio. This plan is foolproof. HORATIO: Sorry.
Enter Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern—basically everyone we’ve come to vaguely know and sort of love. Claudius asks Hamlet how he’s doing, and Hamlet lets loose with just this torrent of incomprehensible nonsense, as is the Hamlet way. Exasperated, Claudius replies,
I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet.
which is something I think I’m going to start saying to people who don’t respond satisfactorily to my texts.
Hamlet asks Polonius if he’s ever done theater, and Shakespeare takes a moment to shamelessly plug his own play—Polonius says he once played Julius Caesar and was killed by Brutus. I sure hope this doesn’t foreshadow anything.
As everyone takes their seats, Gertrude asks Hamlet to sit with her, but Hamlet says no thanks; he’d rather go harass Ophelia. He asks Ophelia if he can “lie in [her] lap,” which is the Elizabethan equivalent of “You up?” She demurs, and Hamlet says he was just making a joke. He asks if she thought he meant “country matters” (i.e. SEXY SEX). She replies, “I think nothing, my lord,” and Hamlet spends a few lines making THAT weird, because in those days, “nothing” was slang for lady bits. He’s like an eighth grader whose math teacher just asked him to put problem 69 on the board.
The play begins with a prologue. Ophelia comments that the prologue was “brief,” and since Hamlet is the master of shoehorning chauvinism into casual conversation, he says, “[As brief] as woman’s love.” Women, am I right?
Two actors portraying a king and queen appear on stage. The king says his wife will probably remarry after he eventually dies, but the queen says, “WHAT? NEVER. I WOULD NEVER DO THAT, EVER, AND IF I’M LYING I HOPE I JUST STRAIGHT-UP DIE.”
Hamlet asks Gertrude what she thinks about this, and she whispers back, “The lady protests too much, methinks,” or rather “Seems like the lady’s overdoing it a little.” Hamlet says the scene shouldn’t bother people who aren’t guilty. “Let the galled jade wince,” he says; the innocent have nothing to hide. Then he turns to Ophelia and propositions her. He goes from “hey Mom let’s talk about personal accountability” to “hey Ophelia want to take a ride on my disco stick” in two seconds flat. What he actually says is “It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge,” which, 0/10.
The king’s nephew then appears onstage and secretly murders the king so that he can steal his kingdom. Hamlet whispers loudly that the faithless queen will now marry the nephew. Apparently this is all getting a little too real for Claudius, because he stands up, stops the play, and runs out of the room. Claudius would be a terrible poker player. Or maybe he just has to go to the bathroom. I know that game. Because of some nonideal bathroom breaks over the years, I still haven’t seen the first ten minutes of The Woman in Black or the last five minutes of The Bourne Legacy, and it haunts me every day.
I’m angry that Hamlet concocted this whole dumb plan, but I’m even angrier that it somehow WORKED. Everyone leaves except for Hamlet and Horatio, who put their heads together and deduce that Claudius definitely murdered up Hamlet’s father. (Either that, or he realized this play was about uncle-killing and got a bad vine from his newly crazy nephew.)
Rozencrant and Guildenstern come back to tell Hamlet that his mother’s upset by his recent actions. What follows is this absolutely bananas exchange wherein Hamlet tries to force Guildenstern to play the recorder even though Guildenstern doesn’t know how. Hamlet says something to the effect of “Oh it’s weird how you can’t play this flute, but YOU THINK YOU CAN PLAY ME.” It would’ve been a cool revelation, that Hamlet knows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent to spy on him, except he already told us that two acts ago. So now I’m just thinking about what I’m having for dinner. Probably pasta. Let me know in the comments if I should go cavatappi or farfalle.
Polonius enters and tells Hamlet the queen wishes to speak with him. If anyone ever tries to say that Shakespeare is too high-brow for them to read, show them THIS PART:
HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS: ’Tis like a camel indeed.
HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET: Or a whale.
POLONIUS: Very like a whale.
With that, Hamlet agrees to go talk to Gertrude. Polonius heads off to tell her Hamlet’s coming. Everyone exits, and Hamlet’s left alone to soliloquize. He tells us that going to chat with his mother is really cutting into his MURDER CLAUDIUS time, but he’ll do it anyway because he’s such a great son. Also he’ll speak daggers to her, but he won’t use one on her. That would just be crazy.
I don’t think we’ve reached the pinnacle of Hamlet’s crazy. Not yet, anyway. He’s perfectly normal when he’s speaking to Horatio, but he puts on his “antic disposition” for everyone else.
It’s worth noting that he’s also not acting particularly crazy around Ophelia. He’s behaving crudely and maliciously, yes, but with intent, not the senseless babbling he reserves for Claudius and Polonius. It really puts his newfound disdain for womankind into perspective. I think we’ve all met guys like Hamlet. They like to talk about their work-out routine, and they are all named Zack or Kevin.
Hamlet to Horatio: “Give me that man/That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him/In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,/As I do thee.” GET A ROOM, YOU TWO. JEEZ.