Ophelia's question, "What means this, my lord?" reflects the fact that the guests did not expect a dumb show. Dumb shows no longer preceded tragedies by the time of Hamlet's first production, and Shakespeare's desire to include one baffles critics. Perhaps Shakespeare thought it clarified elements of the story that he needed in order to heighten the intensity of contrast between the play and the play within the play.
Whatever the reason for the dumb show, the actual speaking play follows, and Claudius remains unperturbed until the Player King actually pours the poison in his brother's ear. He then jumps up in a moment of heightened drama and, after his courtiers notice him, he shouts, "Give me some lights." The King has sprung Hamlet's Mousetrap; Claudius' own revulsion to The Murder of Gonzago catches him. Hamlet's mission now becomes obligatory. Not only does he know he must avenge his father's death, but Horatio also knows — and the entire court may now suspect foul play in the death of their former king, so that no his inaction is unmanly. Hamlet must act decisively and immediately.
And yet, Hamlet keeps talking. He volleys words about his unlikely succession to Claudius' throne with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Finally he agrees to visit Gertrude. Before he goes, however, he postures yet again with words. He says that he has reached another midnight and that the dark nature of that witching hour makes him bloodthirsty and makes him desire to decisively take action. But the audience knows better. Hamlet is still not ready to commit to action.
Hamlet's short soliloquy is often used to support the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet's relationship to his mother. Here he speaks of going to her softly, worried that he will not be strong enough to speak his piece. "O heart, lose not thy nature. . . ." Having just assessed his feelings in the language of a traditional revenger in Elizabethan melodrama, Hamlet turns his attention to Gertrude whom he goes to confront as though she were an offending wife to his cuckold.
groundings the poorer and less critical section of the audience who stood in the pit.
inexplicable dumb-shows the unintelligible pantomime preceding the play proper.
Termagant Herod favorite characters in the old miracle plays, who were always portrayed as blustering tyrants.
candied sugared with hypocrisy.
blood and judgment passion and reason.
pipe a recorder or flute. The stops are the fingerholes.
Vulcan's stithy the workshop of the Roman god of fire and metalworking.
heedful note careful observation.
be idle seem crazy.
chameleon's dish The chameleon was supposed to feed on air.
your only jig-maker I am the funniest man alive (ironic).
miching mallecho slinking mischief.
posy of a ring as brief and silly as the inscription inside a ring.
Phoebus' cart Phoebus' chariot. In Greek mythology, Phoebus is Apollo as god of the sun.
Neptune's belonging to Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.
Tellus' in Roman mythology, the goddess of the earth.
Hymen in Greek mythology, the god of marriage.
operant powers bodily strength.
wormwood bitterness. (Wormwood is a plant with bitter qualities.)
Tropically the use of a word or words in a figurative sense; figuratively, a trope being a figure of speech.
galled jade a worn-out horse with sores from the rubbing and chafing of a saddle.
withers the highest part of a horse's back, located between the shoulder blades.
chorus in ancient Greek drama, a company of performers whose singing, dancing, and narration provide explanation and elaboration of the main action.
Confederate season suitable opportunity.
Hecate's ban the curse of Hecate, the Greek goddess of the moon, earth, and underground realm of the dead, later regarded as the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft.
forest of feathers plumed hat much worn by players.
turn Turk turn bad.
Provincial roses rosettes for concealing the laces on shoes.
razed slashed for ornamentation.
Damon a perfect friend; in classical legend, Damon and Pythias were friends so devoted to each other that when Pythias, who had been condemned to death, wanted time to arrange his affairs, Damon pledged his life that his friend would return. Pythias returned and both were pardoned.
recorders a wind instrument with finger holes and a wedgelike part (a fipple) near the mouthpiece; fipple flute.
purgation the act of purging; Hamlet probably intends a pun — to administer a purgative to get rid of the bile and to purge him of his guilt. The word recalls Hamlet's father, who is in purgatory.
pickers and stealers hands.
recover the wind a hunting phrase — to get to windward.
ventages small holes or openings; vents.
compass the tonal range of a musical instrument.
Nero (A.D. 37-68); notoriously cruel and depraved emperor of Rome (54-68) who killed his own mother.