Hamlet meets with the actors and instructs them as to the nature of proper acting. He tells them not to overact, and not to use large gestures. He wishes them to be honest; he asks them to mirror nature, to be entirely realistic in their portrayals. Polonius enters and announces the arrival of the King and Queen to hear the play.
While the court assembles for the performance, Hamlet explains to Horatio how the play will help prove the Ghost's honesty and reveal Claudius' perfidy. He asks Horatio to watch the King and note his reaction to a specific speech in Murder of Gonzago. If the play does not reveal Claudius as the killer, Hamlet promises Horatio that he will admit to having seen a "damnèd ghost" rather than the honest spirit of his late father. Horatio, Hamlet's faithful friend, assures his Prince that he will follow Hamlet's instructions to the letter.
As the courtiers enter the hall, Claudius greets his nephew and asks how Hamlet is, and Hamlet gives a cryptic response. Then Hamlet and Polonius exchange a few words, and Polonius brags about having been murdered by Brutus when he played Julius Caesar in his student days. Hamlet derides Polonius, but Gertrude interrupts to invite her son to sit beside her. Hamlet chooses instead to lie down at Ophelia's feet. He converses a bit with Ophelia before the dumb show — a pantomime — begins, and she mistakes his manic behavior for merriness. The dumb show mimes the following: A man murders a king while he is sleeping in his garden, and his loving wife, initially inconsolable over the king's death, marries the usurper, who has crowned himself king.
When the dumb show ends, the players perform the actual play, which depicts the same plot as the pantomime. An intermission follows the Player Queen's declaration that she will never remarry should the Player King die. Hamlet seizes the moment to ask Gertrude what she thinks of the play, and Gertrude answers that she is enjoying the play but that the "Lady doth protest too much."
Claudius asks Hamlet for the play's title, to which Hamlet replies, The Mousetrap. He says that the play presents the true story of a murder carried out in Vienna. He explains the action of the play, and Ophelia congratulates Hamlet for his story-telling skill. Hamlet makes a crude pun, suggesting that he could interpret the actions of Ophelia and her lover if he could watch them. Ophelia accuses him of being keen (cruel), and Hamlet responds with another sexual innuendo. Hearing the word keen to mean sexually eager, he tells her she would have to work hard to relieve his sexual urges. Ophelia laughs that he is wittier than she, but more indecent. Hamlet says that women take their husbands for better or worse but then they deceive them.
As Lucianus, the Player King's nephew, pours poison in the ears of the sleeping Player King, Hamlet explains that the murderer will presently win the love of the dead Player King's widow. Claudius rises and calls for lights to be lit. Polonius repeats the order for the lights and stops the play. The King and his court exit, leaving Hamlet and Horatio to debrief. The two agree that the King's reaction implicates him in the murder of King Hamlet, and Hamlet says he is now convinced of the Ghost's trustworthiness.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell him that the King is displeased and the Queen wants Hamlet to join her in her quarters. Hamlet promises to obey. When a Player enters carrying a recorder, Hamlet seizes the opportunity to make an off-color allusion to Guildenstern's manhood and to chide him for being manipulative. Polonius enters and instructs Hamlet to visit his mother. Hamlet toys with Polonius, pretending to see shapes that do not exist, and then he asks that everyone leave him alone.
Hamlet observes that the dark time of night has come, when spirits and goblins rise from hell to spread their "Contagion to this world." Incensed by the hour and the events of the evening, Hamlet claims that he is ready to perform the task that duty demands — to "be cruel." First he will go to his mother and rebuke her, but he will not harm her. He then chides himself because his words are at war with his soul.
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