What is the background and meaning of the following quote from Hamlet?: "Then I'll look up; My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'? That cannot be; since I am still possess'd Of those effects for which I did the murder, My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. May one be pardon'd and retain the offence? My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go."

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This quotation is taken from a soliloquy in act 3, scene 3. In this soliloquy, King Claudius admits to killing the previous king, who also happened to be his own brother. Also in the soliloquy, before the given quotation, he seems to express some remorse for what he has done. He asks if there is "rain enough in the sweet heavens" to wash the blood of the murder from his hands.

However, after seeming to express remorse for what he has done, King Claudius then decides that there is no point in being remorseful now. He says that his "fault," meaning the murder, "is past," and he asks himself, "what form of prayer / Can serve (his) turn?" In other words, what good, he asks, can prayer do for him now, after the "foul murder" has already been committed? He reasons further that God will not be able to forgive him now because he is "still possess'd / Of those effects for which (he) did the murder." The "effects" he refers to indicate the crown and the power that comes with being king, and also to the wife he took from his brother. Indeed, he lists these "effects" himself as his "crown, (his) own ambition and (his) queen." King Claudius here asks if one can "be pardon'd and retain the offence?" The implied answer here, which King Claudius seems to be aware of, is that no, he cannot be forgiven for a sin from which he still gladly reaps the benefits.

At the end of his soliloquy, King Claudius decides to pray once more, hopeful that he will find mercy among the "angels." At this point, Hamlet enters the stage and thinks about killing King Claudius. Hamlet decides not to kill him yet, because he thinks that if he kills the king while he prays, then the king's soul shall be saved and avoid eternal damnation. Hamlet wants the king's soul to suffer the agonies of eternal damnation in hell.

When Hamlet exits the stage, King Claudius rises, unaware that Hamlet has been watching him. He says that his "words fly up," but that his "thoughts remain below." The implication is that he has been praying to God, or the angels, and asking for forgiveness. However, his prayers seem to have been insincere because in his mind, he is still thinking of the "effects" of the murder, which are earthly and thus "below" the heavens. He then says that "Words without thoughts never to heaven go." In other words, when one expresses remorse but does not truly feel remorseful, one's expressions of remorse will be hollow and meaningless. The irony here is that Hamlet could have murdered the king without worrying that the king's soul would go to heaven. The king has not been able to sincerely express remorse and thus will have received no forgiveness.

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Claudius murdered Hamlet's father (the former king of Denmark), married the dead king's wife, Gertrude—with whom he was probably already having an affair—and usurped the throne from the dead king's son, Hamlet, who was at school in Germany and oblivious to everything that was going on back home in Denmark.

Claudius doesn't regret killing the old king, and he's not particularly remorseful about it.

CLAUDIUS. O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will;
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent... (3.3.38–42)

In a moment of weakness after commissioning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet to England to be killed, Claudius decides that it might be advantageous to his soul to ask God for forgiveness for the murder of old King Hamlet—and possibly for ordering Hamlet's murder as well.

Claudius knows that he's probably going to hell for the murder of the old king. What's done is done, he says, and there's really nothing he can do about it now, but he rationalizes to himself that it can't hurt to ask.

CLAUDIUS. And what's in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. (3.3.50–53)

Claudius is almost mocking of himself in this soliloquy. "What do I say?" He says to himself. "Ha! What can I say?"

CLAUDIUS. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul murder?" (3.3. 54–55)

Claudius is far too realistic and pragmatic to believe that kind of prayer will actually work with God.

CLAUDIUS. That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder—
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence? (3.3.55–58)

Claudius has made no attempt whatsoever to repent his sins, and he has no intention of offering any kind of compensation to his victims. He's already married one of them (the dead king's wife, Gertrude) and he's not going to relinquish the crown to Hamlet, the old king's rightful successor. "Can I keep all these things and still be forgiven?" he asks. "What about if I can't really repent for my sins?"

CLAUDIUS. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent? (3.3.66–68)

Nevertheless, Claudius decides that it's worth a try, and he thinks that if he gets on his knees and acts repentant enough, God might just forgive him.

CLAUDIUS. Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well. (3.3.71–75)

Claudius ultimately decides that there's nothing he can say or do that will encourage God to forgive him. The simple reason is that Claudius has no regrets, feels no guilt, and doesn't really want to repent for what he's done to the old king or for what he intends to do to Hamlet.

KING. My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (3.3.99–100)

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