In a literary piece, a motif is a recurrent image, idea, or symbol that develops or explains a theme. Symbols, on the other hand, are images, ideas, sounds, or words that represent something else and help to understand an idea. A symbol may appear once or twice in a literary work, whereas a motif is a recurring element. Find where these motifs appear in act 3 and explain how they fit into the themes of the play.

  • Disease, rotting, decay
  • Silence vs. voice
  • Complexity of action
  • Conscience
  • Appearance vs. reality
  • Misogyny

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The first scene of act 3 is a strong example of the motif of silence versus voice as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Gertrude and Claudius that they cannot get Hamlet to confide in them. Hamlet knows that he cannot trust his schoolmates and so censors himself for fear that they will betray him to his enemies. In this same scene, misogyny is apparent in how Claudius treats both Gertrude and Ophelia. He banishes Gertrude from his conversation with Ophelia as he and her father, Polonius, work to manipulate the young woman into sounding out Hamlet. Both women become hapless puppets of the men, who wield power over them and see them only as commodities to be utilized to enhance their power.

In Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy in this act, he contemplates the complexity of action of the decision he faces. He has to choose among continuing to live in the corrupted world his mother and uncle have created, to enact his late father's will, or to take his own life and risk the punishment of "the undiscover'd country" of the afterlife that religious doctrine says will result from suicide.

In their mistreatment of each other, Ophelia and Hamlet struggle with appearance versus reality. Ophelia is forced by her father, brother, and king to pretend that she wants to return Hamlet's love tokens and break with him, though it is clear to the audience that she loves him. Likewise, Hamlet feels that though he has loved her, she has been compromised by his enemies, and he is forced by circumstances to deny ever demonstrating his affection for her. Moreover, Hamlet is not mad, but it is to his advantage to convince her that he is, since he knows she is being manipulated by others.

In arranging the play in scene 2, Hamlet hopes that the story will appeal to Claudius's conscience and that he will implicate himself in the murder of Hamlet's father. The plan works, as Claudius's reaction is to run from the performance, begging for light.

And finally, disease, rotting, and decay underpin the conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet in the act's final scene. Hamlet accuses her of the ultimate decadence: having a hand in her husband's murder to enjoy a lustful relationship with his brother, Claudius. Gertrude denies his accusations and believes her son to be suffering from a mental disease manifesting in delusions.

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