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Intro

The play's the thing

I'm Hamlet. I'm a smart aleck with a penchant for delivering long speeches about the meaning of life. And I'm pretty depressed since my dad died and my mom married my uncle. And you know what I think?

                                           I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king (2.2.586-603.)

Who Said It and Where

So. A ghost has appeared to Hamlet and oh so kindly informed him that his uncle Claudius murdered his father, which means Hamlet's gotta kill him. Awkward. The problem is, he's not sure whether he can believe the ghost or not, because, you know, ghosts aren't the most trustworthy of creatures. He thinks he can trust the creepy crawler since he just happens to be his dear old dad. But then again: should he really take his tips from dead apparitions roaming the castle at night?

In any case, our young Hammie has vowed to get to the bottom of things and figure out what's really going on in Denmark. Of course, that's easier said than done. Things are finally looking up when some players (actors) come into town. When the players arrive at the castle, Hamlet is super excited to see them. He asks for a speech he once heard performed. He's a prince, so he can just demand things like that.

What speech? It's the tale Aeneas told Dido about Priam's murder, all drawn from Virgil's Aeneid. It's a significant story because Pyrrhus, son of the warrior Achilles, comes to Troy in the Trojan horse to avenge the death of his father by killing Priam, King of Troy.

Hmm, a son killing a king to avenge his dad? That sounds familiar.

The speech details Pyrrhus's dark, scary, blood-covered rage. Then we get to Hecuba, Priam's wife, who's pretty upset by the whole thing. Hamlet starts reciting the speech himself, then lets an actor take over. The actor gets so worked up by the description of Hecuba's emotion at her husband's death that he has tears in his eyes.

Polonius, meanwhile, is super bored, since he only likes the bits with dancing and sex. Hamlet then has a private confab with the main actor, asking if they can perform The Murder of Gonzago for the court tomorrow night—with the little addition of a speech that Hamlet will write himself—a speech mirroring all the shenanigans going down in Denmark now. The player agrees. (Hamlet is the prince, after all.)

The goal here is to have the actors stage a version of his father's death in front of Claudius so he can watch Claudius's reaction. If Claudius flips out, Hamlet can rest assured that he's guilty. Then he knows he can trust the Ghost and move forward with the whole avenging thing. Which is proving more difficult than he originally thought.

Left alone, Hamlet berates himself stalling out on his vengeance plan in one of the most famous soliloquies… ever. He basically asks how the actor can weep for a fictional character, while he himself does nothing about his own father's very real death. Hamlet calls himself a coward and a promiscuous woman (seriously) for not having acted on the ghost's revelation. Beyond his cowardice, he's ashamed that even when Heaven and Hell would have him take revenge, he can only prance about the castle and whine to himself.

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