Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2:

Page Index:
  • Enter Hamlet and Players.
  • Enter Polonius, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz, then exeunt all three. Enter Horatio.
  • Enter King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and attendants.
  • Enter Players.
  • Exit Player Queen.
  • Exeunt all but Hamlet and Horatio.
  • Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Enter Polonius.
  • Exeunt all but Hamlet.

Enter Hamlet and Players:
As the scene opens, Hamlet is giving advice to the players on how to "hold  . . .  the mirror up to nature" (3.2.22). We may suppose that Hamlet wants the performance to be as realistic as possible, so that there will be a better chance that it will "catch the conscience of the King," but he goes on at such length that we may suspect that Shakespeare took the opportunity to air some of his pet peeves about actors.

Enter Polonius, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz, then exeunt all three. Enter Horatio:
After Hamlet has told the players to go get ready for the performance, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pass through and Hamlet learns that the King and Queen are ready to see the play. Perhaps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think they ought to hang around with Hamlet, but he sends them to "hasten" the players and calls for Horatio. Horatio promptly answers the call, and Hamlet tells him that he is "e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal" (3.2.54-55).

Horatio is a bit embarrassed at the praise, but Hamlet has much to say about his friendship for Horatio. It would seem that Hamlet makes such a point of affirming his friendship for Horatio because every other person that Hamlet encounters has an agenda. First, Hamlet says that his praise of Horatio is sincere, because he has nothing to gain by flattering Horatio, who is a poor man with nothing to offer but friendship. Then Hamlet says that his (Hamlet's) soul, from the time it was capable of making such a choice, "has seal'd thee for herself." (This implies that Hamlet and Horatio have known each other since they were children.) Finally, Hamlet gets to the reason that he likes Horatio so well. Horatio is a steady man, one who can take "Fortune's buffets and rewards" with "equal thanks." Apparently, Hamlet sees in his friend a quality that he lacks, and he says,
     Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (3.2.71-74)
At this point, Hamlet himself becomes embarrassed, too, saying "Something too much of this." He then asks Horatio's help in keeping an eye on the King during the performance of the play. Horatio readily agrees, and promises that the King will not "[e]scape detecting."

Enter King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and attendants:
Now we hear a "flourish," noisy music announcing the arrival of the King. With the King come a lot of attendants and all those who think something is wrong with Hamlet--the Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Hamlet says "They are coming to the play; I must be idle" (3.2.90), but he is much more than idle. He immediately begins messing with other people's minds. When the King asks him how he's doing, he replies, "Excellent, i' faith; of the chameleon's dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so" (3.2.93-95). A chameleon was supposed to eat air, and with a pun on air / heir, Hamlet is saying that the King promised he would be heir to the throne, but that promise isn't even chicken feed. With another pun, Hamlet calls Polonius a "calf," and then turns his attention to Ophelia.

He asks Ophelia, "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" In Shakespeare's time "lie" could be used in the sexual sense that we give to "sleep with," and "lap" could have a strong sexual meaning, too. Naturally, Ophelia says, "No, my lord," but when Hamlet comes back at her with "I mean, my head upon your lap," she says "Aye, my lord." This gives Hamlet an opening for a very nasty pun, "Do you think I meant country matters?" (3.2.116). (Say the word "country" aloud a couple of times, and you'll get it.) After another nasty pun from Hamlet, Ophelia defends herself by saying "You are merry, my lord." She means that Hamlet is just making jokes, but Hamlet turns that around by replying that everyone should be merry, "for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours" (3.2.126-127).

Enter Players:
After a little more "mad" talk from Hamlet about how the dead are soon forgotten, trumpets sound and the players enter. First comes a "dumb show," a silent pantomime which previews the plot of The Murder of Gonzago. It's a short, simple plot. We see a loving King and Queen. She expresses her love for him, and leaves him to sleep "upon a bank of flowers." The villain enters, takes the King's crown, pours poison in the King's ear, and leaves. The Queen returns, finds the King dead, and "makes passionate action." The villain then comes back and makes a move on the Queen. She resists for a while, "but in the end accepts love." (Incidentally, if this is an exact representation of what happened to King Hamlet, it indicates that Gertrude did not participate in his murder and did not have an affair with Claudius before her husband's death.)

After the dumb show comes the actual play. Shakespeare wrote stiff, old-fashioned couplets for his Player King and Player Queen to speak, and in performances the lines are often drastically cut, but there's a significant bit of philosophy here. The Player King and Queen have been married for thirty years, but the King is getting sick and foresees his death. He hopes that his Queen will find another husband as kind as he has been. She protests that she will never remarry, and the King answers with a long speech about how we make plans and promises to ourselves, yet often fail to carry out the plans or keep the promises. His philosophy is that we need to accept such failures as part of life, because we change, the world changes, and "'tis not strange / That even our loves should with our fortunes change" (3.2.200-201). He says, "Most necessary 'tis that we forget / To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt" (3.2.192-193). In other words, once we see that we're not going to keep a promise to ourselves, we should forgive ourselves for it, and forget it. This idea is just the opposite of what tortures Hamlet, the idea that he is a coward for not acting on his promise to kill King Claudius.

Exit Player Queen:
The Player Queen once again proclaims that she'll never remarry, and leaves her husband to sleep. At this point in the play-within-the-play, Hamlet begins to get impatient. He asks his mother how she likes the play. She replies with the perceptive comment that "The lady protests too much, methinks" (3.2.230). The King wants to know if there's any "offense" in the play, and Hamlet's mocking replies suggest that there is indeed. He even tells the King that the name of the play is "'The Mouse-trap'." Now the villain of the play enters, and Hamlet announces that "This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king." Ophelia comments that Hamlet is "as good as a chorus," and is rewarded with two wisecracks suggesting that she's a slut. Lucianus, to Hamlet's way of thinking, takes too long to get down to business, and Hamlet tells him to hurry up. Then, when Lucianus pours the poison in the sleeping Player King's ear, Hamlet can't restrain himself any more. He bursts in with information that Lucianus "poisons him i' th' garden for his estate," and "you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife." The implications of this are obvious, and the King rises, saying "Give me some light: away!" (3.2.269). The play is stopped short, and everyone leaves with the King, except for Hamlet and Horatio.

Exeunt all but Hamlet and Horatio:
Hamlet excitedly celebrates his victory by reciting snatches of poetry, proclaiming himself an actor, and asking if Horatio saw the same thing he did. When Horatio says that he did "very well note" the King, Hamlet celebrates some more and calls for music.

Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
Now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come in, and Guildenstern tells Hamlet that the King "Is in his retirement marvellous distempered" (3.2.301). If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thought Hamlet would be impressed with this news, they were certainly mistaken. By "distempered," they mean "upset and angry," but Hamlet immediately begins punning, and takes "distempered" to mean "drunk." Thus begins a brief struggle between Hamlet and his two "friends." They want him to be sorry for what he has done, as a normal person would, and talk to them like a normal person would, but he mocks them at every turn.

Hamlet's mockery consists in demonstrating to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that their worst suspicions about him are true. When Guildenstern asks for a "wholesome answer," Hamlet replies that he can't because his "wit's diseased." Moments later, Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that his behavior has upset his mother, and she wants to speak to him. Rosencrantz's tone shows that he thinks that Hamlet, as a loving son, should be sorry and go apologize. But instead of being sorry, Hamlet suggests that he's doing her a big favor by speaking to her. He says, "We shall obey, were she ten times our mother" (3.2.333-334).

While Rosencrantz is trying, as nicely as he can, to get Hamlet to tell them what's wrong with him, the players enter "with recorders." Apparently they heard him call for music, and are now prepared to give him a song. Hamlet takes a recorder and says "To withdraw with you," as though he and a player are going to go somewhere and make some music, but Guildenstern gets in his way. Hamlet says, "why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil?" (3.2.346-347). His metaphor is taken from hunting, in which hunters get to the windward side of the animals, in order to drive them into a net ("toil"). Guildenstern smoothly explains that he's doing what he's doing only out of "love" for Hamlet. Hamlet responds by harassing his harasser. He sticks the recorder in Guildenstern's face and demands that he play it. Guildenstern doesn't know how, but Hamlet tells him "It is as easy as lying," and then makes his point:
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? (3.2.363-370)
Enter Polonius:
Now Polonius shows up, to tell Hamlet what he already knows, that Hamlet's mother wants to speak with him, and "presently," that is, right away. Hamlet's response is more harassment. He points to a cloud that he says looks like a camel, but when Polonius says it does indeed look like a camel, Hamlet says it looks like a weasel. Hamlet goes on to a whale and then says to himself "They fool me to the top of my bent" (3.2.384). He means that if he's playing the fool, it's their fault. Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have treated him like a fool, smiling and nodding and poking and probing, and he's sick of it.

Exeunt all but Hamlet:
Finally Hamlet promises to go to his mother "by and by," and gets rid of everyone else. Alone, he thinks about what he's about to do. He says he "could drink hot blood," but he reminds himself that he is not to touch his mother, saying "I will speak daggers to her, but use none" (3.2.396). This is a little startling. After assuring himself that the King is indeed guilty of murder, Hamlet is now almost ready to kill--his mother.