In Act III of Hamlet, actors perform the killing of King Hamlet. His son assumes that theatrical plays have a real influence on its viewers and can reveal the truth. It represents Elizabethian drama by teaching a spiritual lesson about human behavior.
Hamlet is a tragedy written by the renowned classic William Shakespeare in the XVIth-XVIIth centuries. It tells a story of revenge. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is deeply affected by his father’s death and vows to avenge him. In Act III, he uses a theatrical play, depicting the murder. Hamlet wants to observe King Claudius’s reactions to the scene. He leaves the play before it ends, showing clear signs of guilt, and Hamlet doesn’t have doubts anymore:
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away.
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers– if
the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me–with two
Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a
fellowship in a cry of players, sir?
(Act III, scene 2)
Gertrude is confused with her son’s behavior at the stage and wishes to talk to him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform Hamlet about that and arrange the meeting. The Queen is scared of confronting her son, but he didn’t plan to hurt her physically:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!
(Act III, scene 2)
The Prince spots someone behind the curtains while talking to his mother. He thrashes his sword through the fabric, convinced that it is his guilty uncle. However, he kills not Claudius, but Polonius. He has been eavesdropping to find out the truth about Hamlet’s abnormal behavior.
The XVIIth century saw a significant development in classical and Renaissance culture. It was expressed in many highly respected theatrical plays across Europe. The principal focus was on exposing human emotions. One of the most significant ones developed in England under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I. It came to be known as Elizabethan theater. Queen Elizabeth I was a powerful, courageous monarch. She returned England to the Protestant faith, dealt with many severe turmoils at home, and unified the nation. Also, she was a passionate supporter of the fine arts. It sparked a surge of activity in the theater, many of which were built or renovated. Hamlet was written and set during her reign.
A play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s tragedy takes form in a performance set by Hamlet. He successfully plays on Claudius’ emotions to spark guilt and reveal himself. Thus, the public learns a spiritual lesson about human behavior. Also, Hamlet interacts with his audience. He taunts them during his main play, depicting a perfect example of metadrama.
Act III reveals actual emotions to the audience. Characters cannot comprehend why Hamlet is acting that way. It makes them falsely suggest that he is in love with Ophelia. The play-within-a-play represents the real reasons for his behavior. It shows Hamlet’s deep love for his father and obsession with confirming his theory. Besides, he is tormented by the ‘monstrous’ relationship between acting and genuineness. Claudius’ reaction to the play reveals his involvement in the murder. He fears to be accused and murdered for his crimes. What’s more, the accidental killing of Polonius shows Hamlet’s hidden fury. He strives to avenge his father, even though he cannot act it out.
To conclude, play-within-a-play in Hamlet plays on the audience’s feelings. It reveals the genuine emotions of the characters involved. It represents Elizabethan drama as the tragedy was written and set during her reign. Moreover, its central character is destroyed by his rage and desire. The play-within-a-play in tragedy is itself one of the most critical traits originating in the era.