Essay – A Play Within a Play: Transparency in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’

Here, have a short essay about Hamlet I’m moderately proud of. Seems pointless to have them just sitting around on my hard drive.

More (interesting) content to come soon.


As in many of his stage works, Shakespeare incorporates into the narrative of Hamlet the idea of meta plays (such as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and performance (such as the masked balls in Much Ado About Nothing or Romeo and Juliet). As a way to accuse his uncle of the murder of his father, in Act 3 Scene 2, Hamlet instructs a group of players to perform the story of a king murdered by having poison poured in his ear. The murderer then marries the widowed queen, just as with Hamlet’s uncle and mother.

The use of the play is, in itself, a powerful tool for not only Hamlet but also for his creator. In the context of Hamlet, Shakespeare is drawing the audience’s attention to the fact they are watching a play. By putting the same story on a stage within the play itself, he is creating transparency, a self-awareness, and, in a sense, is opening a dialogue with his audience.

Hamlet says to Ophelia ‘The players cannot/keep counsel – they’ll tell all’. Not only does this make gentle fun of the actors’ desire for attention, but by saying ‘they’ll tell all’, Hamlet, and by extension Shakespeare, is also literally saying that everything the audience needs to know will be provided in time. This short statement is an exploration of what theatre means.

It is deliberate. By using the word ‘players’ and not characters, Shakespeare is pointing out that these people are not real, but merely a pretence by another person. He is holding up theatre as a mode of communication and entertainment and showing it is but a construct of the mind. And yet, by saying that the players ‘cannot keep counsel’, he conveys the idea that these words, these stories, these plays must exist and that their stories must be told. As both an actor and a writer, Shakespeare was attempting to convey how vital plays are for revealing truths about ourselves, exploring how art and observing art can uncover and communicate the problems in our real world.

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