Hamlet: Lights, lights, lights! The Mousetrap Play Annotated

One of the most important scenes in the play, the Mousetrap Play or The Murder of Gonzago represents a turning point in Hamlet. The play’s outcome precipitates the series of events which roll head on to the play’s tragic conclusion.


The Mousetrap Play scene in an 1897 production of Hamlet at Edwin Austin Abbey.

Below is an annotated version of the scene. Click on the footnote number icon next to the word or line to see an explanation of its meaning.

Enter Trumpets and Kettle Drums. Enter King, Queen,
Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and other
Lords attendant with the King’s guard carrying

KING How fares our cousin Hamlet?
HAMLET Excellent, i’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish.[1] I
eat the air[2], promise-crammed. You cannot feed
capons so.
KING I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet. These
words are not mine.
HAMLET No, nor mine now. To Polonius. My lord, you
played once i’ th’ university, you say?
POLONIUS That did I, my lord, and was accounted a
good actor.
HAMLET What did you enact?
POLONIUS I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ th’
Capitol. Brutus killed me.[3]
HAMLET It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a
calf there.—Be the players ready?
ROSENCRANTZ Ay, my lord. They stay upon your
QUEEN Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.
HAMLET No, good mother. Here’s metal more

Hamlet takes a place near Ophelia.
POLONIUS, to the King Oh, ho! Do you mark that?
HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
OPHELIA No, my lord.
HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?
OPHELIA Ay, my lord.
HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’
OPHELIA What is, my lord?
HAMLET Nothing.
OPHELIA You are merry, my lord.
HAMLET Who, I?                                                                                                                          OPHELIA Ay, my lord.
HAMLET O God, your only jig-maker. What should a
man do but be merry? For look you how cheerfully
my mother looks, and my father died within’s two
OPHELIA Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.
HAMLET So long? Nay, then, let the devil wear black,
for I’ll have a suit of sables[4]. O heavens, die two
months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there’s
hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half
a year. But, by ’r Lady, he must build churches, then,
or else shall he suffer not thinking on, with the
hobby-horse, whose epitaph is “For oh, for oh, the
hobby-horse is forgot.”
The trumpets sounds. Dumb show follows.

Enter a King and a Queen, very lovingly, the Queen
embracing him and he her. She kneels and makes show of
protestation unto him. He takes her up and declines his
head upon her neck. He lies him down upon a bank of
flowers. She, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon
comes in another man, takes off his crown, kisses it, pours
poison in the sleeper’s ears, and leaves him. The Queen
returns, finds the King dead, makes passionate action. The
poisoner with some three or four come in again, seem to
condole with her. The dead body is carried away. The
poisoner woos the Queen with gifts. She seems harsh
awhile but in the end accepts his love.
Players exit.

OPHELIA What means this, my lord?
HAMLET Marry, this is miching[5] mallecho[6]. It means
OPHELIA Belike this show imports the argument of the

Enter Prologue.

HAMLET We shall know by this fellow. The players
cannot keep counsel; they’ll tell all.
OPHELIA Will he tell us what this show meant?
HAMLET Ay, or any show that you will show him. Be
not you ashamed to show, he’ll not shame to tell you
what it means.
OPHELIA You are naught, you are naught. I’ll mark the
For us and for our tragedy,
Here stooping to your clemency,
We beg your hearing patiently. He exits.
HAMLET Is this a prologue or the posy of a ring[7]?
OPHELIA ‘Tis brief, my lord.
HAMLET As woman’s love.

Enter the Player King and Queen.

Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart[8] gone round
Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbèd ground[9],
And thirty dozen moons with borrowed sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been
Since love our hearts and Hymen[10] did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands.
So many journeys may the sun and moon
Make us again count o’er ere love be done!
But woe is me! You are so sick of late,
So far from cheer and from your former state,
That I distrust you. Yet, though I distrust,
Discomfort you, my lord, it nothing must.
For women fear too much, even as they love,
And women’s fear and love hold quantity,
In neither aught, or in extremity.
Now what my love is, proof hath made you know,
And, as my love is sized, my fear is so:
Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear;
Where little fears grow great, great love grows there.
Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too.
My operant powers their functions leave to do.
And thou shall live in this fair world behind,
Honored, beloved; and haply one as kind
For husband shalt thou—
PLAYER QUEEN O, confound the rest!
Such love must needs be treason in my breast.
In second husband let me be accurst.
None wed the second but who killed the first.[11]
HAMLET That’s wormwood![12]
The instances that second marriage move
Are base respects of thrift, but none of love.
A second time I kill my husband dead
When second husband kisses me in bed.[13]
I do believe you think what now you speak,
But what we do determine oft we break.
Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity,[14]
Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks on the tree
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.
Most necessary ’tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy.
Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament;
Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.
This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
For ’tis a question left us yet to prove
Whether love lead fortune or else fortune love.
The great man down, you mark his favorite flies;
The poor, advanced, makes friends of enemies.
And hitherto doth love on fortune tend,
For who not needs shall never lack a friend,
And who in want a hollow friend doth try
Directly seasons him his enemy.
But, orderly to end where I begun:
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
So think thou wilt no second husband wed,
But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead.
Nor Earth to me give food, nor heaven light,
Sport and repose lock from me day and night,
To desperation turn my trust and hope,
An anchor’s cheer in prison be my scope.
Each opposite that blanks the face of joy
Meet what I would have well and it destroy.
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
If, once a widow, ever I be wife.
HAMLET If she should break it now!
’Tis deeply sworn. Sweet, leave me here awhile.
My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep. Sleeps.
PLAYER QUEEN Sleep rock thy brain,
And never come mischance between us twain.
Player Queen exits.
HAMLET Madam, how like you this play?
QUEEN The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
HAMLET O, but she’ll keep her word.
KING Have you heard the argument? Is there no
offense in ’t?
HAMLET No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest. No
offense i’ th’ world.
KING What do you call the play?
HAMLET “The Mousetrap.” Marry, how? Tropically.
This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna.
Gonzago is the duke’s name, his wife Baptista. You
shall see anon. ’Tis a knavish piece of work, but
what of that? Your Majesty and we that have free
souls, it touches us not. Let the galled jade[15] wince;
our withers are unwrung.

Enter Lucianus.

This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.
OPHELIA You are as good as a chorus, my lord.
HAMLET I could interpret between you and your love,
if I could see the puppets dallying.
OPHELIA You are keen, my lord, you are keen.
HAMLET It would cost you a groaning to take off mine
OPHELIA Still better and worse.
HAMLET So you mistake your husbands.—Begin,
murderer. Pox, leave thy damnable faces and
begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for
Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time
Confederate season, else no creature seeing,
Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate’s ban[16] thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property
On wholesome life usurp immediately.

Pours the poison in his ears.


The Mousetrap Play scene in the David Tenant/Patrick Stewart BBC adaptation of Hamlet.

HAMLET He poisons him i’ th’ garden for his estate. His
name’s Gonzago. The story is extant and written in
very choice Italian. You shall see anon how the
murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.
Claudius rises.
OPHELIA The King rises.
HAMLET What, frighted with false fire?
QUEEN How fares my lord?
POLONIUS Give o’er the play.
KING Give me some light. Away!
POLONIUS Lights, lights, lights!

All but Hamlet and Horatio exit.

Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungallèd play.
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
Thus runs the world away.
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers[17] (if the
rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me) with two
Provincial roses[18] on my razed[19] shoes, get me a
fellowship in a cry[20] of players?
HORATIO Half a share.
HAMLET A whole one, I.
For thou dost know, O Damon[21] dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself, and now reigns here
A very very—pajock[22].
HORATIO You might have rhymed.
HAMLET O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for
a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
HORATIO Very well, my lord.
HAMLET Upon the talk of the poisoning?
HORATIO I did very well note him.
HAMLET Ah ha! Come, some music! Come, the
For if the King like not the comedy,
Why, then, belike he likes it not, perdy.[23]
Come, some music!

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[1] Hamlet ‘chameleon’s dish’ alludes to the deceptive facades of the characters around him. The use of ‘dish’, along with the next line, ‘I eat the air’, connotes that the very air of the Danish court is suffused with pretension and insincerity. The chameleon’s dish (a round, encompassing object) further emphasises the idea that Hamlet is surrounded by duplicitous figures.

[2] “I eat the air, promise-crammed’: Hamlet means by this that he hears nothing substantial from the other characters, only hot air in the form of empty promises that are seldom lived up to in conduct.

[3] The reference to Caesar’s assassination foreshadows Polonius’ own death. The irony here is that Caesar was supposedly a great general and statesman while Polonius is an obsequious court official. Caesar’s assassination was premeditated while Hamlet stabs Polonius in the spur of the moment.

[4] “I’ll have a suit of sables”: A sable is a small and agile weasel-like animal. The sable’s dark brown fur is highly valuable and considered a luxury item. This absurdist remark contains a grain of seriousness: Hamlet reminds the reader, by associating himself with the sable, of both his status as Danish royalty, as well as the wiley, weasel-like way he is conducting himself around court.

[5] Miching: hiding or lurking.

[6] Mallecho refers to mischief. The word is derived from the Spanish malhecho (mal bad) + (hecho deed)

[7] “Is this a prologue or the posy of a ring?”: the posy of a ring is a motto engraved on a ring. Hamlet is suggesting that the prologue lacks substance, like a fragment of a love poem engraved on a ring.

[8] Phoebus is one of the Latin names for the Greek Sun god Apollo who rides a flying horse-drawn cart. The rounds that his cart makes refers to the passage of years. This kind of metaphor seems to imply a heliocentric worldview which had already been undermined in Shakespeare’s time. Perhaps Shakespeare is emphasising once again the outdated, medieval tone of the Murder of Gonzago as opposed to his own play, which appears much more modern by comparison.

[9] Neptune’s salt wash: the rise and retreat of the tides. Tellus (the Latin word for earth)’s orbèd ground: the totality of the earth.

[10] Hymen is the Greek god of marriage.

[11] “None wed the second but who killed the first” meaning that only a Queen who killed her husband would marry his successor. It was not uncommon for medieval Queens to marry successors to the throne. Doing so often gave her the advantage of enhanced influence, and a longer reign if her husband died of old age. As women could not rule in their own right, they ruled through their husbands. Gertrude may have disagreed with Old Hamlet’s war-mongering, and helped Claudius murder Old Hamlet because he was easier to control, or had similar approaches to governance to her.

[12] A woody shrub with a bitter aromatic taste, used as an ingredient of vermouth and absinthe and in medicine. Wormwood also refers to a state or source of bitterness or grief.

[13] You can probably see that the rhyming scheme of the Mousetrap Play is very simple (almost consistently in an AABB form). Shakespeare may have done this to distinguish the play-within-the-play from the poetic complexity of his own verses.

[14] “Purpose is but the slave to memory/of violent birth, but poor validity”: Purpose is often neglected by memory, it is strong at the start (of violent birth) but doesn’t withstand the test of time (but poor validity).

[15] (derogatory) a woman considered to be ill-tempered or disreputable

[16] Hecate is a Greek goddess associated with sorcery and a knowledge of poisonous herbs and plants. ‘Ban’ is an archaic term for curse.

[17] Elizabethan actors’ outfits were adorned with copious amounts of feathers.

[18] The roses of Provence were noted for their beauty and often worn by Elizabethan actors.

[19] Razed refers to shoes slashed and inlaid with patterns.

[20] A ‘cry’ of players is a company of players.

[21] Another reference to Greek mythology. Damon and Pythias symbolise the Greek ideal of friendship as one that involves extreme sacrifice. In the legend, Pythias is sentenced to death for plotting against the tyrant Dionysius I. He asks Dionysius I to allow him to go away and settle his affairs before the execution, and leaves his friend Damon as bond. Contrary to Dionysius I’s expectations, he returns and Dionysius, moved by their friendship, frees both men.

[22] A play on the word ‘peacock’, a symbol of male flamboyancy.

[23] “perdy”: a euphemism for “par dieu”, which is French for “by God”. Hamlet uses “perdy” here as an exclamatory term, being excited by the reaction that his play has provoked in Claudius.