(Quick note: I'm sorry I'm a little behind in answering comments -- I'm having a very busy weekend, and it's taken me two days to write up this post. I'll reply to comments as I can, hopefully a bunch of them tonight.)
We start out here with Hamlet giving some advice to the players about what kinds of acting he likes -- he wants things to be realistic and purposeful, not just to get laughs or entertain. Partly, of course, that's because he has his oh-so-specific reason for having this particular play performed. But it's also partly because Hamlet is clearly an avid theatre enthusiast and a student of playacting.
Hamlet says that the purpose of acting is "to hold... the mirror up to nature" (21-22). In this instance, he wants them to hold a mirror up to Claudius and show him what he's done, of course.
After he's finished dispensing advice, Hamlet has a quiet conversation with Horatio, and it's one of my favorite moments in the whole play. Why would a prince befriend a relatively insignificant scholar? Hamlet says it's because Horatio "hast been -- As one in suffering all that suffers nothing" (61-62). He's not a slave to his emotions. And Hamlet kinda is, isn't he? When he's up, he's way up, but when he's down, he's way down. I have a friend who is bipolar, who's been commenting on this read-along by the name of Kelda, and she said in her comment on Act I Scene 2 that Hamlet is a pretty textbook example of bipolar disorder. So I think that Hamlet values Horatio's stability especially much. Anyway, I love this moment between them because it's a chance for us to see Hamlet be genuine, a glimpse of what he was probably like before everything began unraveling around him.
And then the play-within-a-play arrives. Hamlet resumes his antics, teasing Polonius with more clever wordplay, then exchanging some sexually charged remarks with Ophelia. I've long known that "country matters" was a sort of dirty pun, but I only just learned from this copy I'm reading that back in Shakespeare's day, "thing" was a common euphemism for male genitalia, and "nothing" referred to the female lack thereof. Which I mention now because in Act 4, I'm going to bring this all up again regarding some of Hamlet's dialog there. But I also wanted to point out that Hamlet's still being fairly unkind toward Ophelia, to engage in this sort of suggestive banter with her in the hearing of all the court. John Gielgud suggests he "is trying to see how Claudius and Gertrude will react to the way he treats Ophelia. He tries to use her in the way he knows Claudius is using Gertrude. He tries to shame them, yet not absolutely to expose them because he can't arouse too much suspicion at this point" (JGDRBIH, p. 117). I do like that explanation, because otherwise Hamlet just comes across as pointlessly mean here.
Claudius rises to Hamlet's bait, freaking out when he sees this performance that so closely resembles his brother's death. Hamlet's convinced it means Claudius is guilty, though Horatio seems more noncommittal in his assessment. Hamlet is frenetic in his joy over his "proof" and cavorts all over the place. He engages in some mind and word games with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, taunts Polonius, and finally agrees he will go speak to his mother.
"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" (67-70).
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (218).
"O wonderful son that can so 'stonish a mother!" (309).
"'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and Hell itself breaks out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And do such business as the bitter day
Would quake to look on" (366-70).
Possible Discussion Questions:
Do you think Claudius' behavior means he's guilty of murdering his brother?
Do you think Gertrude saw the similarities between the Player Queen and herself?
What do you think other people attending the play might be wondering or surmising about the play's contents and Claudius' reaction?