In act 4, scene 3, how does Hamlet insult Claudius?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In act 4, scene 3, Claudius politely asks Hamlet to tell him the location of Polonius's body. Hamlet proceeds to demonstrate his wit and apparent mental instability by informing Claudius that Polonius is at supper being eaten by worms. Hamlet proceeds to elaborate on how all humans, regardless of their social status or rank, will eventually be food for worms and maggots. When Claudius demands to know where Hamlet has hidden Polonius's body, Hamlet proceeds to insult Claudius by saying,

"In heaven. Send hither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i' th' other place yourself" (Shakespeare, 4.3.34–36).

Hamlet is indirectly insulting Claudius by saying that he will not be able to enter heaven, which is why he must send a messenger instead. Claudius's inability to enter heaven alludes to his serious crimes on Earth. Hamlet then adds to the insult by telling Claudius to go to hell, where he will probably find his loyal counselor. Before Hamlet leaves for England, he once again insults Claudius by saying, "Farewell, dear mother" (Shakespeare, 4.3.53). When Claudius corrects his nephew, Hamlet offers him another witty answer to justify his disrespectful comment. Overall, Hamlet insults Claudius in act 4, scene 3 by indirectly informing Claudius that his soul is too corrupt to be allowed into heaven, telling him to go to hell, and calling him his mother.

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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At the end of Scene 3, Hamlet appears to insult Claudius by calling him "my mother." Claudius, characteristically, conceals any anger he might feel, no doubt thinking that Hamlet will understand his true feelings when he is having his head chopped off in England.

Hamlet
But, come, for England! Farewell, dear mother.

Claudius
Thy loving father, Hamlet.

Hamlet
My mother. Father and mother is man and wife. Man and wife is one flesh - and so: my mother.

Some of Hamlet's zany behavior and utterances are amusing, but it is hard to see why he would think it was witty or amusing to call Claudius his mother. He can only be doing it to keep up the pretence of being crazy. Claudius, however, is no fool. He is likely to understand that this is not madness but pretense. He doesn't really care much, now that he thinks he is getting rid of his number-one problem. It is interesting that both Hamlet and Claudius are acting.

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