“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet utters these lines at the end of Act II, when he comes up with a plan to determine the truth of the ghost’s words. Once again, this line possesses a lot of significance and meaning into the inner workings of the prince Hamlet.
Let me rewind back to Act I for a second. What did the ghost of Hamlet’s father say to him, and what did he want? When the prince is alone the ghost tells him of how his father was murdered by his Uncle the King, and took the crown and his wife for himself. Hamlet was given a command, “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder……………….But, however though pursuest this act, Taint not they mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.” Here is a question that needs to be asked before we continue on: what do we see about Hamlet’s nature and character during the progression of the play?
Throughout this play, you get glimpses into an inner struggle that Hamlet battles within himself. When Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approach him and ask him why he seems so troubled his response is shadowed and vague; “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither,” So, Hamlet seems to be obsessed with god-like action and this will ultimately bring trouble at the end of the play.
When a troupe of actors arrive at the castle, Hamlet sees his chance. He has begun to doubt the ghost’s claims, and wants to be sure that his Uncle is guilty before making any rash decisions. “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil: and the devil hath power T’assume a pleasing shape;” He decides to write a play about poison, murder, and a stolen kingdom to observe his Uncle’s response. “I’ll observe his looks; I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench, I know my course…………………the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” You can see here that Hamlet is being cautious and careful, he has a side to him that is ruled with reason and discretion; but he also has an obsessive and compulsive side that is trying to win him over.
Before the play is performed, Hamlet goes to talk to the actors. He advises them on how best to act using temperance and discretion. In this short scene, it is revealed that to possess these things as a person is important and Hamlet understands that. The question remains; will Hamlet take his own advice?
The play is performed and the King and Queen watch it. In the middle of a scene, the King abruptly gets and up and leaves in anger. Hamlet sees this, and perceives that it is a sign of his guilt. However, instead of going straight to the King and obeying the ghost he make a little side-stop at his mother’s room. Remember, the ghost told him to leave her alone, but Hamlet ignores what he was told.
On his way to see the Queen, Hamlet stumbles across Claudius (the King) praying. He debates within himself whether or not to kill him, but decides against it! “Now I might do it pat, now he is praying; and now I’ll do’t – and so he goes to heaven; and so I am revenged: – that would be scann’d: a villain kills my father; and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain to heaven send……………..to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? NO…………..when he is drunk, asleep, or in his rage,……………about some act that has no relish of salvation in’t; then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven; and that his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes.” So, it appears that Hamlet will not be satisfied with just revenge; he wants to be sure that his Uncle goes to hell. He wants to act in the place of God, and what he wants to do is no longer human action, because no mortal can send anyone to either heaven or hell. Hamlet wants to be in control of the punishment.
When Hamlet finally arrives at his mother’s room, he proceeds to tell her everything that she has done wrong, and what she needs to repent of: “You go not till I set you up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you.” He tries to be his mother’s conscience and make her feel the sting of all her wrongs.
There we conclude Act III. So, in Hamlet’s inner struggle who emerged the victor? His reason and temperance gave way and he let his feelings and his hasty actions take control of him. Did he take his advice and act well, making himself rule of his reason, or, did he let his reason rule over him?