Hamlet enters with the troupe of actors, instructing the First Player on how to deliver the monologue Hamlet has written for him. Hamlet laments the existence of actors who overdo their performances, as well as those who try to get the laughs of the masses rather than create a role genuinely. The First Player assures Hamlet that the troupe will practice hard and deliver a performance that makes Hamlet proud. The players all leave together.
Again, this passage would have been recognizable to Shakespeare’s audiences as Shakespeare’s tongue-in-cheek expression of frustration with the state of some aspects of the theater of his day. Hamlet’s critique of ingenuine actors is ironic, considering it is unclear throughout the play whether Hamlet’s own dialogue is rooted in genuine madness or merely a front to get to the truth of his father’s death.
Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter. Hamlet asks if the king and queen are going to attend the performance, and Polonius says they will. Hamlet urges Polonius to hurry along after the actors and let them know, and then orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to follow Polonius and make sure the actors quickly get ready for their performance. They obey him.
Hamlet delights in ordering around the very people he most hates—he knows they’re scheming against him, but also knows they have no choice but to listen to royalty.
Horatio enters, and Hamlet expresses how glad he is to see his true friend. Horatio is overwhelmed by Hamlet’s warmth, but Hamlet insists that Horatio is a loyal companion, a level-headed man, and a morally good person. Hamlet tells Horatio that, because of all these things, he is entrusting him with a secret. Tonight, Hamlet reveals, the actors are going to perform a play. Hamlet has written a new scene which mirrors exactly the circumstances of Hamlet’s father’s murder. Hamlet asks Horatio to keep his eyes carefully on Claudius during that scene to gauge his reaction. If Claudius doesn’t seem guilty, then it’s possible that he’s innocent and the ghost that appeared to Hamlet was a demon—but if he does, action must be taken. Horatio promises to do what Hamlet has asked of him.
Hamlet's explanation of his scheme regarding the play is, on one level, plot explication—in having Hamlet tell Horatio what will happen, Shakespeare is also telling the audience. Further, in this way Shakespeare creates dramatic irony, because the audience now knows what will happen while Claudius and Gertrude and everyone else have no idea. Meanwhile, Hamlet's joy at seeing Horatio testifies to his weariness at being surrounded by people whom he knows are themselves scheming against him, and his happiness in sharing his own scheme suggests, perhaps, that Hamlet is also tired at having to constantly be scheming and pretending himself.
Trumpets sound, and Claudius enters with Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and some other members of court. Claudius greets Hamlet and asks the prince how he’s doing. Hamlet gives a roundabout, confusing answer, then asks Polonius if he acted in plays in college. Polonius says he did—he was even good enough to play Julius Caesar. Hamlet laments how brutal Caesar’s murder was, and how wrong his murderer, Brutus, was to commit it.
Rosencrantz informs Hamlet that the actors are ready. Gertrude asks Hamlet to sit by her during the performance, but Hamlet says he wants to sit next to the “more attractive” Ophelia. As he sidles in next to Ophelia, he begins taunting her with sexually explicit barbs, each of which she coolly deflects, remarking upon Hamlet’s good mood this evening. Hamlet says everyone in the room is happy—even his mother, though his father died just “two hours” ago. When Ophelia retorts that Hamlet’s father has already been dead for “twice two months,” Hamlet sarcastically states that he will cast off his mourning clothes and exchange them for “a suit of sables.”
Even though Hamlet and Ophelia have had a huge fight, they must coexist with one another at court. This scene can be interpreted many ways: either Hamlet is preying upon the vulnerable Ophelia, devastating her with his harassment—or Ophelia, cool and capable, spars with Hamlet and matches his wit, proving her strength even in the face of his lack of favor.
A trumpet sounds, and the pantomime preceding the play begins. The players perform a scene in which a king and queen embrace lovingly before the queen leaves the king alone to his nap. While the king is sleeping, another man steals the king’s crown, pours poison in the king’s ear, and then runs away. The queen returns to find the king dead. She grieves him, and the killer returns, pretending to grieve with her. As the dead body is carried away, the killer presents the queen with gifts, wooing her until she falls in love with him. Ophelia is put off by the pantomime, but Hamlet assures her he’s just making some “mischief.” As the First Player enters and begins the real play, Hamlet and Ophelia trade more sexually-charged barbs.
The pantomime before the play—a tradition in some forms of Renaissance and Elizabethan theater—exposes the fact that the play will mirror the events of King Hamlet’s murder. Ophelia can tell what Hamlet is up to—but Hamlet attempts to distract her from ruining the performance and exposing his plan by further harassing her with lewd comments.
The play begins. Two players, acting as a king and a queen, discuss how long they’ve been married and how much the love each other. The player king remarks that he has grown old and tired and will soon depart the Earth—but wants his wife to remarry and find happiness again. The player queen remarks that she should be cursed if she marries again—“none wed the second but who killed the first.” What’s more, the queen says, is that every time she kissed her new husband in her old marital bed, it would be like killing her first husband over and over again. The player king urges his wife to keep an open mind—her feelings may change once he dies—but the queen stubbornly insists that she would be condemned to a life of “lasting strife” if she were ever to marry again.
The player queen’s remarks about not even being able to imagine marrying another are meant to make Gertrude squirm. Claudius is not Hamlet’s only target—Hamlet wants to use the play to call out the bad behavior of everyone around him and condemn his mother in the same breath as his uncle.
As the player queen leaves the player king alone to his nap, Hamlet turns to Gertrude and asks how she’s liking the play. Gertrude responds that the queen “protests too much.” Claudius asks if what’s coming next in the play is startling or offensive, but Hamlet insists everything is “in jest”—though the play is a little garish, it shouldn’t make anyone present feel uncomfortable, since all their consciences are clear.
Hamlet knows that the play is making his mother and uncle uncomfortable—but maintains that it shouldn’t, since it’s just fiction. Hamlet is blurring the line between appearance and reality, fact and fiction, as he forces the king and queen to look at their own actions head-on.
A player enters the stage, portraying a character called Lucianus. Hamlet tells Ophelia that Lucianus is nephew to the king. She remarks how much Hamlet seems to know about the play, and, again, their conversation devolves into witty sexual barbs, which Ophelia cheekily deflects. Lucianus pours poison in the king’s ear, killing him, at which point Claudius stands up from his seat. Gertrude asks Claudius what’s wrong, and he announces that he is leaving. Polonius orders the players to stop the performance. Everyone but Hamlet and Horatio follows Claudius out of the hall.
Hamlet’s plan has worked—the king, offended or frightened by the actions taking place on stage, has removed himself from the performance—in Hamlet’s eyes, this equates to Claudius admitting that he is guilty of his brother’s murder.
Hamlet is merry and mischievous as he asks Horatio if he saw how Claudius fled at the sight of his own dirty deeds reflected on stage. Horatio agrees that Claudius seemed very guilty. Hamlet orders the players to make some music since the king didn’t care for their drama. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reenter the hall and tell Hamlet that the king is very upset. They add that Hamlet’s behavior has greatly angered the queen, and she wants to see Hamlet in her bedroom right away. Hamlet dodges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s entreaties, and begins messing around with one of the player’s flutes.
Hamlet feels victorious, and is sick of being bossed around and dragged about the castle based on the whims of others. He feels he is in control and powerful—he has the upper hand over both Claudius and his mother, and intends to enjoy it.
Hamlet asks Guildenstern to take the flute from his hands and play a tune. Guildenstern insists he doesn’t know how to play a flute. Hamlet insists it’s an easy thing to do, but Guildenstern is still loath to take the flute from him. Hamlet accuses Guildenstern—and Rosencrantz, too—of trying to play him like a flute. He says he will not be “play[ed] upon” by either of them.
Hamlet is sick of everyone plotting against him and attempting to play him—he can no longer keep his cool, and lashes out at the weak Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their transparent betrayal.
Polonius enters and tells Hamlet that his mother wants to see him right away. Hamlet tells Polonius to go tell his mother that he’ll be with her shortly. Polonius goes off to inform Gertrude of the news, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follow him. Left alone, Hamlet remarks that it has become “the very witching time of night” and that he is capable of anything. But then Hamlet remembers he is about to see his mother and hopes aloud that he must restrain himself—even if he “speak[s] daggers to her,” he hopes to “use none.”
In this moment after he believes that he has proved Claudius's guilt, Hamlet is suddenly coursing with energy and ready to act—to kill. But then he restrains himself once more, because he now must go and see his mother. So he tells himself to be violent in what he says to her, but not to use actual violence, to once more focus on speaking rather than doing. Once more social bonds and rules cause Hamlet to put off taking action. In this case, that social rule is pretty simple—don't kill your mother. At the same time, that he has say this to himself at all hints at the violence that women regularly face when acting in ways that the men around them disapprove of. Finally, there is a further implication here that Hamlet thinks his mother has made a terrible mistake in marrying Claudius, but not that she bears any guilt in what happened to her husband.