Catch the Conscience

"I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King".

Some group of people want a person to feel remorse for his crime. To do this, they put on some sort of a performance specifically designed to remind him of his crime. This is one of those plots where doing the sensible thing — just reminding the guy — makes for a short, dull story. So we are going to make things elaborate.

His reaction to this may vary. Ideally, this will open his eyes to his cruelty and lead to an epiphany. However, it is equally likely that he will see the performance as an action against him and try to get revenge. Or, he may simply remain oblivious to how the show relates to him.

See related: Fawlty Towers Plot, A Simple Plan.


  • Happens several times in The King and the Clown, with the chief advisor using these plays as an excuse to enrage the king and make him suspicious of his corrupt ministers and concubines.
  • Monte Carlo: Though it was not the reason for the performance, Count Rudolph realizes that seeing the opera Monsieur Beaucaire will have this effect on Helene. It's about a noblewoman who falls in love with her hairdresser, rejects him, and later learns he was a nobleman in disguise; Helene has just fallen in love with Rudolph disguised as her hairdresser and rejected him because she thinks he's a commoner. Seeing the poster gives him the idea to make sure she sees him at the opera house, in the expensive boxes reserved for nobility. It has the desired effect, and she begs his forgiveness.
  • Played straight in early Alfred Hitchcock talkie Murder!, in which the protagonist, an actor, arranges a fake rehearsal of a fake play and invites the murderer, another actor, to audition.

  • In the backstory A Brother's Price, some of the royal family go to the opera, to see a performance about the civil war in which their own family was involved and victorious. It seems to be a relatively neutral performance, with no attempts to veil the horrors of war. This trope works so good that one of the daughters even starts crying, and complains that it is wrong to kill children. She is sent outside because her tears annoy the Spoiled Brat husband of her elder sisters. The theatre then explodes, and she and the sister who went outside to comfort her are the only survivors.
  • Hamlet gets parodied in Wyrd Sisters. The witches think this is why Tomjon and his strolling players are putting on a play about the old king's death. It isn't; they've been hired to do a propaganda piece that says Verence was a tyrant whose death was an accident. The witches then alter the play to do this themselves. Rather than feeling guilty, the Duke finally loses all connection to reality, but this still leads to a confession of sorts, so it's a result.
  • Played with in Greg Sestero's memoir/making-of book The Disaster Artist. Sestero takes Tommy Wiseau to the movies one night and Wiseau demands that they see The Talented Mr. Ripley, although Sestero tries to nudge him toward seeing anything else specifically because he worries that the unstable Wiseau will see too much of himself in the title character and have a nervous breakdown.

Live-Action TV
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Storyteller", in order to get Andrew to feel remorse for his killing of Jonathan.
  • The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Conscience of the King" plays with this trope; a man suspected of being the murderous tyrant Kodos the Executioner happens to be an actor currently starring in a production of Macbethnote .
  • In an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Robin and Little John witness a man murder his brother. The killer accuses the Merry Men. The authorities seem willing to believe him. Robin and John get cast in a Cain and Abel play to get him to confess.

Religion and Mythology
  • In The Bible, following David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, the prophet Nathan tells him the story of a rich man who took the beloved lamb of his poor neighbor to serve to his dinner guest, despite having many fat sheep of his own. David is outraged and demands to know who the man is who could have done such a thing. Nathan tells him.

  • The Trope Namer is Hamlet, whose title character puts on a play about a murder, called either The Murder of Gonzago or The Mouse-Trap, to remind Claudius of his guilt.
  • In The King and I, Tuptim, at the end of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," declares: "I too am glad for death of King. Of any King who pursues slave who is unhappy and tries to join her lover!" She almost gets carried away before a musical signal reminds her to deliver the bittersweet epilogue of the story. The King does not ignore this insult to his authority.
  • In One Touch of Venus, Savory puts on the Murder Ballad "Dr. Crippen" with an accompanying pantomime, reminding Rodney just before it starts that the police suspect foul play in the mysterious disappearance of Rodney's fiancée.

  • Tried in The Order of the Stick's "The Tragedy of Greenhilt, Prince of Denmark," only it goes completely Off the Rails. (Greenhilt snaps after Optimus Prime shows up.) Still, it works, sort of.
    Xlaudius [sic]: Man, that play was great! I haven't had this much fun since I poisoned your husband in the ear.

Western Animation
  • The Simpsons:
    • The school once staged an entire play to make Mr. Burns donate to them- it didn't work.
    • In another episode, a parody of Hamlet no less, Hamlet (Bart) uses this method to get Claudius (Moe) to admit to killing Hamlet's father. Claudius admits to many random things, just not the murder.