AD's English Literature : Play – Within- Play in Hamlet: Dramatic Significance

Play – Within- Play in Hamlet: Dramatic Significance



The play – within  occurs in HAMLET Act II, Scene III. This was a well – known dramatic device in Shakespeare’s days used to give an interesting turn to the plot and to further the theme. Kyd in his famous Spanish Tragedy had favoured such a device successfully and this might have prompted Shakespeare to introduce it in Hamlet, which had some elements of revenge tragedy in it. We should now see how this play – scene affects the course of play to be able to measure its real significance.

We know already that Hamlet learnt of his father’s foul murder through poisoning by Claudius and of his mission to avenge his father’s death as ordered by his father’s Ghost. Hamlet , however , was still in doubt and procrastinated, when the touring players arrived and the idea of testing the quiet of the king by a play suddenly hit him. “The play is the thing”, he exclaims, “to catch the conscience of the king”. By enacting the play, Hamlet thought he could clear himself of double – that about the honesty of the Ghost and the other about the occulted guilt of his uncle who was now the king (Claudius). This is the main motive of the play – scene.

The play is preceded by a summary dumb – show, which largely goes unnoticed by the royal couple (Claudius and queen) busy in whispering conversation. Than the actual play The Murder of Gonzaga begins with its story of a happy king who recalls a happy married life of three decades and expresses his devout desire for the extension of that marital bliss. The Queen , however , shows her anxiety about the health of the king who again confirms that he is approaching the end of his mortal journey. The Queen protests that if it would come to that she would never marry again. The King gently contradicts her when out of wisdom born of experience he pithily pronounces that out loves change with our fortunes. As a reaction, we find the Queen making frenzied protestation of her eternal constancy. The king feels drowsy and falls asleep when the Queen leaves and the King’s nephew enter to pour deadly poison in the ears of the sleeping king.

The play – scene has also been called the mouse – trap scene. In fact the trap is well – laid in advance by Hamlet who tells Horatio only his basic purpose while asking him to keep a constant watch on the kings (Claudius) face during the poisoning scene. During the play Hamlet keeps himself busy in various ways indicative of his method in madness.

As the play proceeds, King Claudius betrays signs of growing distribution when Hamlet assures that this passing show was nothing but make – believe. The scene of poisoning coming, the king sees the re – enactment of his own crime and failing to endure it any more, leaves the hall a huff with the performance ending in confusion.

The play -within – the play scene has been interpreted in many ways. It was no doubt in traduced following the vogue in revenge tragedies as has been hinted before and it also acted as a diversion that but interest to the play while it also lessened the tension. Finally, this scene settled the double doubts to Hamlet’s satisfaction and thus gave an edge to Hamlet’s resolve to avenge his father’s death. In this way, this scene certainly advances the action of the play and its theme. For when Hamlet in sure of the king’s guilt from the latter’s extreme uneasiness and discomfiture during the poisoning scene, a thing well – noted by Horatio posted for that purpose, he is wild with excitement at the success of his plan. After this, he receives word from his mother (the Queen) that she wants to speak to him and he is now fully convinced that he can firmly proceed in the bitter business he has vowed to perform.

A part from the diversionary interest of the scene and its main motif, this again contains Shakespeare’s dictum on dramatic production pronounced through Hamlet and as the result of a unique performing experience, these directions to players speak volumes of Elizabethan productions. They also contain some oblique references to the over – acting of some Elizabethan actors while they specifically prohibit the tendency of the clowns to say thing which are not in the test of the play. About these comments on acting, Coleridge says that they are “one of the happiest instances of Shakespeare’s power of diversifying the scene while he is carrying on the plot”. This scene finally reveals the true character of King Claudius and in doing so, it sharpens the contest between the King and Hamlet, who freed of his double doubts, prepares to fulfill his ordered mission of revenge. The scene also shows Hamlet at his best acting almost next to Providence with his apparently mad restless actions from making fun of Ophelia to mocking the King though darting sarcasms to his mother and even playing chorus to his little show. Hamlet’s versatile genius shows itself in all its brilliance and sparkling wit while his admirable presence of mind shines all through it.
Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert
         2. Shakespearean Tragedies- A. C. Bradley     

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