What do Claudius' actions reveal about his character in Act III, scene 3 of Hamlet?
Claudius reveals his internal conflict in this scene, discussing how his "stronger guilt defeats [his] strong intent" to pray (3.3.44). He knows that he has done something very wrong, but he realizes that there is no way in which he can truly be absolved or forgiven for his brother's murder, because he still retains the things for which he committed the murder: he wanted the crown, and he got it; he wanted his brother's wife, Gertrude, and he got her. He isn't willing to give these up. He knows that he cannot be "pardoned and retain th' offense" (3.3.60). He feels he has a "bosom black as death," but he tries to pray anyway. Hamlet actually has the chance to kill him right now, but the prince does not want to kill Claudius while he prays; rather, he wants to wait until a sinful moment so that Claudius will go straight to Hell, not having had a chance to seek absolution for his sins. Hamlet, of course, does not realize that Claudius's prayers are fruitless.
However, after Claudius's prayer, the king reiterates—alone on stage now that Hamlet has gone to his mother's room—that his words will not make it to heaven because his thoughts remain with those things here on earth. It's as though he feels guilty for the murder, but he doesn't really regret it, because he still wants the power and prestige and wife that it afforded him.
Claudius sends Hamlet to England as a precaution because he fears Hamlet’s madness. Claudius is not yet on to Hamlet’s plot of revenge, but he supposes that Hamlet might mean him harm. Claudius also shows signs of guilt in this scene. He compares his crime to the story of Cain and Abel. In this scene, Claudius prays more out of fear of eternal damnation than out of genuine guilt. It seems that Claudius is either not sincere in his prayers or he actually feels that he is not worthy of mercy. Whichever is the case, Claudius doesn’t think his prayers will be answered. This is ironic because Hamlet postpones killing Claudius since killing a man in prayer will send him to heaven.
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.