Hamlet: The Significance of Playing
In his powerful play, “Hamlet,” William Shakespeare utilizes the theme of playacting as a medium through which Hamlet can make political statements, as well as shield himself in supposed madness. Hamlet uses plays to not only inform Claudius that someone knows his secret, but also as a way to maneuver through different situations, so that others may not know his intent. While many key figures in the play believe that Hamlet has gone mad, he in fact can be seen directly playing them into his hand. He places his characters, Claudius, Ophelia, Polonius, and Horatio, in the exact situations that he wants so that his play and his actions may reach the ultimate goal of revenge.
The primary target of all of Hamlet’s playacting is Claudius. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is unhappy with his Uncle’s rule of Denmark and his mother’s hasty marriage. Before the Ghost tells Hamlet who the murderer is, Hamlet states “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.” (1, 5, 35-37) This pledge decides the fate of Claudius in the hands of Hamlet; however, Hamlet does not act in haste. He takes his time in plotting a trap for Claudius.
Hamlet engages an acting troupe to perform a play of his design cleverly entitled “The Mousetrap.” His plan involves Claudius being so disturbed by the allusions to the murder of Old Hamlet, that a visible reaction will occur. Hamlet directs the players, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue… Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor.” (3 ,2, 1-18) As the players go to set up, Hamlet sets his own stage in regards to the seating arrangements and moods of the observers.
Before the observers arrive, Hamlet asks Horatio to look for a sudden reaction from Claudius. “Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt Do not itself unkennel in one speech, It is a damnd ghost that we have seen…” (3, 2, 85-87) Hamlet knows that the play must invoke a strong reaction and wants someone else to notice it as well. Not only does Hamlet set a watch upon Claudius, but he also engages Ophelia, Claudius, and Gertrude in dialogue before the play. This dialogue is meant to set unease within Claudius, while appearing to Gertrude as if nothing is wrong. Ophelia, however, is entitled to a different sort of interaction between herself and Hamlet. Hamlet makes many different innuendos towards her, as well as using the mask of insanity to make her even more uncomfortable. He says, “For look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours.” (3, 2, 134-135) Ophelia is very disturbed by Hamlet’s apparent ease after she informs him that it was two months since his father’s passing. Hamlet is amused by Ophelia’s reaction, as well as the reaction of the audience as a whole at the beginning of the play.
The stage direction of “Hamlet” explains how the first layer of fear is delivered through the play to Claudius. A re-enactment of the death of Old Hamlet is called for, including the poison poured into the ear. As the play continues, Hamlet delights in the disturbance of the Queen, Ophelia, and the King. The King becomes so disturbed that he rises, thus proving to Hamlet that the King is indeed the murderer. Hamlet’s plan has been executed as he had planned utilizing the performance and his own performance of insanity to cause the King to cry out, “Give me some light! Away.” (3, 2, 295) While Hamlet’s playacting has a great affect on the King, it also has taken its toll on Ophelia.
Ophelia is the marionette of her father, a medium through which Polonius and Claudius might examine Hamlet’s behavior. She has true feelings for Hamlet; however, these feelings will be manipulated so that Hamlet may gain the revenge he wants on Claudius. After Polonius concludes that Hamlet has feelings towards Ophelia, he and Claudius decided to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia’s interactions. This proves to be quite harmful to Ophelia, as Hamlet knows of her father’s manipulative ways, thus causing her much mental anguish. He tells her “Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father? … Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house. Farewell.” (3, 1, 140-144) This can be seen as a warning of sorts to Ophelia to save herself and remove herself from her father’s manipulative ways. Throughout this scene Hamlet torments Ophelia, shattering her ideas of romance, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t. It hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage.” (3, 1, 158-160) His mental manipulation using playacting continues throughout the play, until Ophelia’s death. Ophelia’s father does not go unpunished for using his daughter as a window to see Hamlet.
Polonius is one of Hamlet’s important targets through playacting. By manipulating Ophelia, Hamlet in turn hurts Polonius. Hamlet also enjoys mocking Polonius, and watching him not be able to catch on. Instead, he believes that the mockery is madness. Hamlet says to Polonius “You are a fishmonger.” (2, 2, 190) Polonius believes that “Yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger. He is far gone.” (2, 2, 205-206) The irony of the situation is that Hamlet’s playacting is so effective that Polonius is fooled into thinking that Hamlet is truly mad, when instead he is being deceived. The way in which Hamlet speaks indicates that Hamlet is in complete control of the situation, while Polonius flounders about, attempting to prove that Hamlet is mad. Hamlet enjoys manipulating such an easy target. Polonius does not have enough wits about him to come to the realization that he is being played in the palm of Hamlet’s hand.
An even more ironic turn of events for Polonius involves his death being the result of spying once again on Hamlet. When Hamlet arrives to speak to Gertrude after the play, Polonius is hiding behind a tapestry. Hamlet mistakes Polonius for Claudius, and spears Polonius with his sword. When asked by Claudius about the location of Polonius, Hamlet replies, “At supper, Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.” (4, 3, 20-22) Hamlet plays up his supposed madness to Claudius, resulting in expulsion to England.
On the boat to England, Hamlet is accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet takes advantage of the situation and sends two letters to Horatio. One letter is read by Horatio and states that Hamlet is serving the pirates who took over the ship that he was on. He requests that Horatio deliver the second letter to Claudius. The second letter reads, “High and mighty, you shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. Tomorrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes…” (4, 7, 49-51) Horatio is the final recipient of Hamlet’s playacting. Through his letter, he has Horatio believing he is at sea, when in fact he has returned to seek his revenge upon Claudius. This final demonstration of Hamlet’s fondness of playacting results in the deaths of Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself.
Despite all of the benefits that playacting permitted Hamlet, it helped lead him to the cumulative point that would result in his death, as well as the death of others. Shakespeare’s use of the theme of playacting provided the perfect medium through which Hamlet could express his political viewpoints regarding Claudius and Gertrude, but also enabled Hamlet to manipulate situations into his favor. By using playacting, Hamlet was able to have Polonius right where he wanted him, as well as situate the kingdom for his surprising return. Shakespeare enabled Hamlet to manipulate every situation through the theme of playacting.
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