The Play Within the Play

Hamlet Art






Painted by Edwin Austin Abbey in 1897, the above painting, Hamlet, depicts the play (Murder of Gonzago) within the play scene from Act III Scene ii. This oil on canvas painting was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy, but it is now located at Yale University.

The lines from the play that are most closely associated with this painting are probably: “Give him heedful note/For I mine eyes will rivet tot his face,/And, after, we will both our judgments join/In censure of his seeming” (III.ii 89-92). Here Hamlet tells Horatio to watch King Claudius’s expressions closely when the scene of the murder comes. In the above painting, the viewer can see both Hamlet and Horatio watching Claudius closely for any indications of guilt. Hamlet is in the forefront in purple leggings, and Horatio is to the far right with his head turned so only his profile can be seen.
Unlike other depictions of the play scene–such as those by Charles Hunt or Daniel Maclise–Abbey’s painting has a much more darker and sinister atmosphere. This scene is painted from the point of view of the actors on stage so that the viewers of the painting can see all the facial and body expressions of the play’s audience. Everyone except for Horatio and Hamlet are watching the play. Most, specifically Ophelia and Gertrude, watch indifferently, not fully aware of the meaning of the play. Interestingly, Gertrude is sitting on the far side of the bench, noticeably separate from Claudius; this could be Abbey’s interpretation of the play that Gertrude did not really love Claudius (and may have only married him for political reasons to maintain status as a queen). On the other side of the bench is Claudius who looks evil and almost mad. The most interesting part of Claudius’s figure in this painting is that there is a serpent on his robe. This serpent serves as a symbol of his evilness as well as a reminder to the reader of the happenings in Act I; King Hamlet’s death was known to be caused by a snake bite, but the Ghost of King Hamlet tells his son that “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown” (I.v. 46-47).  This dark and evil mood of both King Claudius and the overall atmosphere of the painting is further depicted by the flames in the far background. The satanic flames leap and blaze in the background, representing both the evilness of the King and the corruption he brings to the Royal Court.


2 thoughts on “The Play Within the Play

  1. I love this painting because you can see the deception in Hamlet’s face. It seems that the King and Queen are sitting in a darkened area which could portray their reactions to the play and the anger built up from it. Even Ophelia’s aloof nature is portrayed through her expressions in this painting. Good job on this post!!


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