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The Mousetrap Scene

At the heart of Hamlet, the meta-theatrical play ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ or the ‘Mouse trap scene’ in
Act 3, scene 2, is a catalyst to the plot whose power to develop perspective foregrounds the uncertainty
of present time and illuminates the play proper as extending beyond its own temporal limits. In this
scene, Hamlet is playing the role of a playwright and director who subverts theatrical convention to
manipulate rather than entertain, a transgression that transforms The Murder of Gonzago from an
accusatory parallel with Claudius to a threatening message. The conjunction of Shakespeare the
playwright and Hamlet as playwright reflects on Shakespeare’s own intervention with classical
intertextuality that punctuates the tragedy, intertextuality that provides the hero with justification
whilst gesturing to past instances beyond the frame of the play, and to prescient glimpses of scenes to
come.

Shakespeare affords Hamlet a troupe of players, staging him as an antithetical playwright. Akin to the
playwright, Hamlet must encode underlying meaning into The Murder of Gonzago to invoke an emotion
from his specific audience Claudius. Thus, he directly alters his actor’s lines. However, it is not certain
what ‘dozen or sixteen lines’ (Act 2 scene II, 529) Hamlet annexes to the play, suggesting them to be less
important than what Shakespeare allows the audience to hear. Instead Hamlet adds lines via the
interruptions he makes to the court and Ophelia which take on theatrical conventions as he adds his
own personal ‘chorus’, reversing any subtleties he may have written into his actors’ lines. Stoll posits
that Shakespeare dispenses with ‘the probabilities of the action, or the psychology of the character’ in
favour of ‘the psychology of the audience’, raising a question of Hamlet’s value as playwright. However,
as an antagonist to the emotions of his audience Hamlet succeeds when Claudius cannot bear to watch
his play. He actively subverts the role of playwright, overseeing a production that is unwatchable to his
audience. Subsequently, a major part of Hamlet’s performance is his own destruction of illusion and his
dispensing of the need for verisimilitude. As director he manages the stage of the play and the play-
within-the-play to indirectly threaten the antagonist with a fictional parallel.

The First Player recites to Hamlet a version of The Aeneid, which Shakespeare has expanded for the
same reason that Hamlet creates additional material for The Murder of Gonzago: to enrich the parallel
of one fictional narrative with another and thus justify ensuing actions. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 2 scene
II outlines, The Murder of Gonzago as a practical device to remove doubt as to the ghost’s identity as the
devil, and to secure Claudius’s guilt (587 – 593), which highlights the Elsinore court as Christian
Denmark. Though, Hamlet, having graduated from Wittenberg University, frames his thoughts with
Greco-Roman mythology and historical epic. To Hamlet his father is ‘Hyperion’, ‘Hercules’ (Act 1 scene II,
154), saviour of gods; Gertrude is the usurper Agrippina (Act 3 scene II, 337), who as Nero Hamlet must
refrain from slaying; and Claudius is a goat-man ‘satyr’ (Act 1 scene II, 140) of insatiable lust.

To conclude, it can be said that, The exploration of meta-theatre in Hamlet contests the binary
organisation of reality and fiction providing a space in which to subvert theatrical convention and textual
adaptation. Shakespeare and Hamlet reproduce historical narratives in their real worlds as acts of
theatre and with these self-reflexive productions the play gestures toward theatre as a real world event
for the real and textual audience which forms a wider significance.