In Act III of Hamlet, the play-within-the-play reveals the crimes Hamlet’s uncle committed, and it was meant to become a lesson for him. Since the Elizabethan drama is characterized by describing human nature and their everyday sins, the play-within-the-play scene used in Act III is its perfect representation.


The truth about how Hamlet’s father was murdered is revealed in Act III. After Hamlet finds out that his uncle is a murderer, he comes up with the idea to set a “mousetrap” for Claudius to see if it is true. Moreover, he needs some proof that his father’s ghost, who was the source of the revelation, isn’t just in his mind. Using the help of the traveling acting troop, he sets up the play (ironically naming it “The Mousetrap”), which plot is amazingly similar to his father’s murder scene. All that is meant to observe the reaction of Hamlet’s uncle. During the play, the King storms out, which implies his guilt.

The scene when the traveling actors played the murder of Hamlet’s father is the plot tool called “a play-within-a-play”. While being in the original story, its characters tell or perform another storyline. The best-known play-within-a-play example is, of course, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When Hamlet decides to stage a play, it creates a deeper level of the play’s reality. It can be compared to creating a folder inside a folder on your computer. The play-within-the-play’s purpose as a dramatic tool is closely connected to the times of the Elizabethan Age.

The Play Scene in 'Hamlet' - "Elizabethan drama" painting.
Source: https://www.tate.org.uk

The most straightforward definition of Elizabethan drama is that it is the written pieces of drama that were created when Elizabeth I was on the throne, but it’s far from the essence of this type of drama. Since Elizabeth I was quite a fan of the theater, more theaters were built, and playwrights felt encouraged to write more. It brought a wider audience and more and more characters as pickpockets were introduced on the scene. The main characteristics of Elizabethan drama were:

  • humor
  • presenting revenge
  • adding superstition theme
  • morality
  • portraying human desires and crimes

However, due to the negative influence of the plays that include elements mentioned above, protestants showed their power and closed the theaters in 1642.

Only one glimpse of the description of Elizabethan drama can bring a strong correlation between it and what happens in Hamlet’s play-within-the-play. Act III should be called a model of Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare described in detail all the doubts of Hamlet, he raised the question of rights and wrongs. What’s more, he made Hamlet come up with this brainy way of proving his uncle’s guilt, in order to plan his revenge. Exactly the honestly portrayed characters’ traits is what brings the feeling of connection between the audience and the play, and it is the key element of Elizabethan drama. So the significance of the play-within-the-play in this act cannot be underestimated since it became a perfect dramatic tool and made Shakespeare the greatest playwright of all time.

To sum up, the way how in Act III of Hamlet Shakespeare describes and presents the common human behavior with all the flaws and even sins is the perfect representation of Elizabethan drama.