That evening, in the castle hall now doubling as a theater, Hamlet anxiously lectures the players on how to act the parts he has written for them. Polonius shuffles by with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet dispatches them to hurry the players in their preparations. Horatio enters, and Hamlet, pleased to see him, praises him heartily, expressing his affection for and high opinion of Horatio’s mind and manner, especially Horatio’s qualities of self-control and reserve. Having told Horatio what he learned from the ghost—that Claudius murdered his father—he now asks him to watch Claudius carefully during the play so that they might compare their impressions of his behavior afterward. Horatio agrees, saying that if Claudius shows any signs of guilt, he will detect them.
The trumpets play a Danish march as the audience of lords and ladies begins streaming into the room. Hamlet warns Horatio that he will begin to act strangely. Sure enough, when Claudius asks how he is, his response seems quite insane: “Excellent, i’ faith; of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed” (III.ii.84–86). Hamlet asks Polonius about his history as an actor and torments Ophelia with a string of erotic puns.
The players enter and act out a brief, silent version of the play to come called a “dumbshow.” In the dumbshow, a king and queen display their love. The queen leaves the king to sleep, and while he is sleeping, a man murders him by pouring poison into his ear. The murderer tries to seduce the queen, who gradually accepts his advances.
The players begin to enact the play in full, and we learn that the man who kills the king is the king’s nephew. Throughout, Hamlet keeps up a running commentary on the characters and their actions, and continues to tease Ophelia with oblique sexual references. When the murderer pours the poison into the sleeping king’s ear, Claudius rises and cries out for light. Chaos ensues as the play comes to a sudden halt, the torches are lit, and the king flees the room, followed by the audience. When the scene quiets, Hamlet is left alone with Horatio.
Hamlet and Horatio agree that the king’s behavior was telling. Now extremely excited, Hamlet continues to act frantic and scatterbrained, speaking glibly and inventing little poems. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive to tell Hamlet that he is wanted in his mother’s chambers. Rosencrantz asks again about the cause of Hamlet’s “distemper,” and Hamlet angrily accuses the pair of trying to play him as if he were a musical pipe. Polonius enters to escort Hamlet to the queen. Hamlet says he will go to her in a moment and asks for a moment alone. He steels himself to speak to his mother, resolving to be brutally honest with her but not to lose control of himself: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none” (III.ii.366).Read a translation of Act III, scene ii →
In the first two scenes of Act III, Hamlet and Claudius both devise traps to catch one another’s secrets: Claudius spies on Hamlet to discover the true nature of his madness, and Hamlet attempts to “catch the conscience of the king” in the theater (III.i.582). The play-within-a-play tells the story of Gonzago, the Duke of Vienna, and his wife, Baptista, who marries his murdering nephew, Lucianus. Hamlet believes that the play is an opportunity to establish a more reliable basis for Claudius’s guilt than the claims of the ghost. Since he has no way of knowing whether to believe a member of the spirit world, he tries to determine whether Claudius is guilty by reading his behavior for signs of a psychological state of guilt.