Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Why didn't Hamlet kill Claudius when he had the chance at the end of act 3, scene 3?

Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius in act 3 because Claudius appears to be praying. Hamlet fears that if Claudius dies while praying, when his soul is at its most pure, he will go directly to heaven. Hamlet wants Claudius to go to hell for his sins, so he reasons he cannot risk killing him now. What Hamlet doesn't know is that Claudius is not actually praying. Instead, he is admitting that he cannot fully repent of his murder of King Hamlet, because doing so would mean giving up his crown.

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hamlet tells himself that he can't kill the King while he is praying. But the real reason is probably that Hamlet can never make up his mind. Coleridge said that Hamlet "thinks too much." Hamlet sees too many sides to any question. When he does act, it is always on impulse, before he has had a chance to think. For example, he acts very courageously and decisively when his ship bound for England is attacked by pirates. Coleridge's diagnosis of Hamlet's character is probably the best that has ever been attempted. The answer by rishakespeare at this link below gives another perspective on Hamlet's actions. See what he says about "a harsh reality of an immoral world with his idealistic Christian reality."


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teachersyl eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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He needs to "catch" Claudius in the throes of some sin, so that he will die with an unclean soul, thereby sending him to Hell. He has just been absolved of (his brother's) murder because of his prayer.

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amy cloer, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hamlet has had many opportunities to kill Claudius.  In fact, at this time period, revenge was justified homicide; Hamlet could at any moment of any day have walked up to Claudius and run him through.  Unfortunately, this is not in Hamlet's nature.  He reveals his hesitation in Act I when he says "O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!"  His hesitations and trepidations lead to his circuitous plans - the crazy acts, the denouncement of Ophelia, and the altered play.  These get him nowhere, which is right where he wants to be. 

Of course, the moment is perfect when Claudius is praying.  Luckily, the intelligent Hamlet thinks of yet another excuse to avoid committing an act which is so out of his character.  Yes, he is praying, and yes, he will go to heaven.  So what?  The chance presented itself perfectly.  God allows for revenge.  Hamlet is only capable of killing Claudius when he, himself, is also dying. 

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Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius at this point because he believes that Claudius is praying. He says that killing the king NOW would be "hire and salary, not revenge!" He simply cannot send Claudius to heaven, where he would surely go were he killed just after praying and purging his sins. He thinks that would not avenge his father's murder, because Claudius killed Old Hamlet without giving him the opportunity to pray, and therefore, Old Hamlet must spend time in hell. Hamlet thinks killing Claudius when he is fit for heaven would be like paying Claudius for the murder of his father. That simply would not do.

The real irony is that Hamlet does not realize that his revenge could have been complete if he had actually killed the king then and there, because Claudius was not really praying. Oh, sure, he was on his knees, but Claudius says that he knows he cannot be forgiven for the murder unless he truly repents, and repentance would mean giving up his crown and queen. So when Claudius says "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./ Words without thoughts never to heaven go," he is really admitting that he knows he isn't forgiven. If only Hamlet had known, then Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Leartes, Gertrude and Hamlet all could have survived.

But then, the story wouldn't be a tragedy :-)

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janeyb eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius at that moment because he thinks that Claudius is praying. Hamlet says that killing Claudius now would, "send [this same villain] To heaven” instead of Hell where he belongs. Hamlet vows to kill Cladius as Cladius had killed his father, and not send him to heaven.

Further Reading:

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mrmuse | Student

At the end of Act 3, Scene 3, Hamlet didn’t kill Claudius because when he saw Claudius, the king was kneeling in an attempt to pray. Hamlet reasons, “Now might I do it pat, now ’a is a-praying; / And now I’ll do’t—and so ’a goes to heaven” (3.1.74-75). The young prince feels that if he kills Claudius while he is “in the purging of his soul,” Claudius’ soul will rise to heaven (3.1.85). Hamlet is presuming Claudius is in the act of asking forgiveness for his sins.

Hamlet further reasons that killing Claudius at this moment wouldn’t be the vicious punishment Hamlet desires. Rather, it would be a blessing. He refers to the execution of his nemesis as “hire and salary, not revenge” (3.1.79). In Hamlet’s eyes, he would be performing a benevolent service worthy of payment, not delivering the damning fate every man fears.

Hamlet continues by acknowledging another apparent irony of the situation: He would be giving Claudius a definitive destination, heaven, but Claudius did the opposite for Hamlet’s father. The king doomed Hamlet’s father to an unknown fate because he robbed him of the chance to say his last prayers and gain absolution for his sins:

’A took my father grossly, full of bread,

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May,

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought

’Tis heavy with him. (3.1.80-85)

Hamlet’s father was killed with “all his crimes” on his head, and if Hamlet kills Claudius in this moment, he feels he would be giving Claudius the very absolution his father could never receive (3.1.81).

Shakespeare uses this scene to illustrate how indecision leads to inaction. In other words, Hamlet is suffering from paralysis at the hands of analysis. Although he is relatively certain Claudius killed his father, he finds ways of reasoning his way out of exacting revenge. It is left to the reader to decide if this is an act of cowardice or the prudent thinking of a pragmatic gentleman.

Shakespeare leverages the literary device of dramatic irony as well. As Claudius finishes his attempt at prayer, he admits the vanity of his attempt at gaining forgiveness: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: / Words without thoughts never to heaven go" (3.1.98). The reader or audience is thus alerted to what would have been Claudius’ fate had Hamlet killed him. He would still have gone to hell because he was not engaging in an earnest act of repentance.

Therefore, in a twist of situational irony, although Hamlet was afraid to play God, he and God would have been on the same page.

preshast | Student

Hamlet, who has sworn to kill Claudius, avenge his father's death, and set the kingdom right, comes upon Claudius who is praying and unaware of Hamlet's presence. Hamlet sees his chance and admits that this is his opportunity to be avenged by killing Claudius and sending him to heaven. That thought,--sending Claudius to heaven--however, causes Hamlet to hesitate because he realizes that the act would not be revenge, but rather a type of payment. Because Hamlet sees Claudius in a moment of contrition, kneeling in prayer, and apparently repented for his murdering of the rightful king, God is presumably forgiving him which means Claudius will not be innocent. Rather than send Claudius to Heaven in his forgiven state, Hamlet resolves to wait and kill Claudius in an immoral act, thereby sending him to Hell which will be a just reward for the murder of Hamlet's father. The scene is interesting because it shows the internal conflict within Hamlet caused by his over-analysis of the situation which leads to his hesitation.

zumba96 | Student

At that moment when he sees Claudius he finally has the chance to kill him. After stretching the task ages and ages, finally Claudius is in front of him, but he does not want to kill him because he believes he is asking God for forgiveness. He wants Claudius to go to hell and if he kills him while he is praying, then Claudius will be sent to heaven. That is why he waited to kill Claudius. 

jankaye | Student

I agree with all of the above. To send Claudius to heaven when his father is obliged to suffer in purgutory because his death was without absolution would indeed be unfair though as someone else said Polonious was only trying to pray for he could not manage it so it is an irony that Hamlet could have achieved his declared ends by killing him there and then.

However throughout the play we meet the thoughtful, intellectual Hamlet  who struggles endlessly with the decision to kill his uncle. He has been stirred up - at the witching time - after he has been verbally fencing with Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guild. to confront his mother when unplanned he passes through the chamber where Claudius prays and noticing him on his knees says -'now may I do it, pat..."  . He certainly hadn't worked himself up for that particular deed in advance, his fury is elsewhere. This is a extremely emotional young man, emotions high and raw with his sense of injustice and need to revenge so he would rush in drawing his dagger seeing his opportunity but his natural inclination to stop and think has been his constant companion so on the very brink he hesitates, thinking of yet another reason to delay the deed.


dumendlovu | Student

Hamlet sees Claudius praying and assumes that Claudius is praying for forgiveness and if he kills Claudius then and there he will go to Heaven.

mariedinh | Student

He did not want King Claudius to go to heaven.

zakariaabby | Student

An Oedipul analysis woul have thought that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius because Claudius is in the position Hamlet wants to be in. In a sense they are quite similar.


Oedipul Complex - The idea that a male wants to kill his father and marry his mother.

dannybigbang | Student

Hamlet could have easily killed him but His chicken was ready and by the time he kills and cleans up Claudius, his chiken would have been done for... so he decided to kill him later when hes not budy :)

ijere | Student

Hamlet decided agianst killing claudius because he felt that it will grant him a chance to gain heaven, due to the fact that he was praying at that time. he believed that his prayers would have meant a free passgae to the Kingdom despite his crime. it is also obvious that in a prayer mood, one may not know that thoughts or prayers of the penitent, hence, it could be that he was asking for forgiveness at that instance. From another perspective, the weakness of Hamlet as a procastinator may be the reaason behind the postponement.

authorpd | Student

'Praying' of his uncle in this case is just an excuse for Hamlet to escape away from attempting to kill Claudius. Temperamentally he suffers from the flaw of 'indecision' and 'uncertainty' which renders him impotent for any such action. Therefore, the Prince of Denmark takes a temporary refugee in the religious dictates or the morality/immorality of killing a fellow human at the time of prayer only to hide his helplessness and inadequacy (i.e. indecision/uncertainty/impotency) and delays his vowed revenge. This delay in avenging his father's death later brings his own downfall in the fencing match with Claudius which points out to this tragic flaw in the noble character of Hamlet.

schakraborty | Student

Hamlet wanted to avenge his father,s murder but througout the play we find him in a fix as what to do or what not to do, to be or not to be that is the question, on one hand, he has to avenge his fater ,s murder at the same time he is also a man who wants to follow and do everything as per moral integrity, that is why he can not  take the action of murder  so easily , he goes on analyzing whether should he do or not, meanwhile he also saw his uncle doing prayer, so he thought that if now takes revenege from him, his uncle will reach heaven and that he does not wish for him.


Actually shakespeare here depicts a universal human being who is in a fix between right and wrong  before taking any action

eikco | Student

Hamlet does not kill Claudius because he is praying. According to the catholic beliefs (which are referred to regularly in the play) Claudius may have been forgiven his sins due to his repentance. And therefore have gone to heaven.

Hamlet's father was murdered directly after his midday meal - without chance for repentance - and is therefore condemned to purgatory, where he will be "purged" of his sins. Knowing what his father has to face, Hamlet wants to cause the same suffering to Claudius. For this reason he cannot avenge his father while claudius appears to be in prayer.

Ironically, Claudius is not truly in prayer, but poor Hamlet has no way of knowing this.

mbweber | Student

Gentle Hamlet is conflicted throughout most of this play - should he avenge the death of his father or be a coward and let it go? When he comes upon his traitorous, incestuous uncle in what appears to be a posture of prayer, Hamlet makes what could be construed as an excuse as to why he does not kill him: Claudius is kneeling in the castle's chapel in what Hamlet believes to be parayer. For this execuiton to be truly revengeful in Hamlet's eyes, Claudius must be caught in an act of sin, with the end result eternal damnation. His conflict is further fueled by the suspicion in Act I that the ghost of his father may have, in reality, been a demon tempting Hamlet to sin by  committing murder himself. Poor Hamlet is a hot mess trying to decide who he really is and who is directing his path. He decides to wait for a more opportune time to kill his uncle.

tye93 | Student

Hamet doesn't kill Claudius because he is praying for forgiveness and it is belived that in the act of praying if killed one is innocent and forgiven of all sin. meaning that if hamlet had killed claudius he would have gone to heven.

guest15 | Student

Hamlet does not kill Claudius when he’s in the chapel as Claudius was praying to the god. Hamlet is armed; he draws out his sword and is in the position and mood to kill King Claudius, but does not kill him, as of the thought that if he kills Claudius while he’s praying, confessing his sins, Claudius will have the chance to go to heaven. He wants Claudius to end up in Hell and controls his emotions. He decides that he will kill King Claudius when he’s involved in some indecent activity, like “drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed, or at a game swearing”.

arjun | Student

In this scene the action reaches a crisis. Hamlet sees the king at prayer. He gets a golden opportunity to avenge his father`s death.But he thinks that if he kills the murderer at his prayer, his soul would go to heaven, and abstain from action.He thus misses a golden opportunity,for he does not want a wicked soul to enjoy the pleasure of heaven. Wishing for some other occasion when the king is indulging in some evil deed,Hamlet leaves the place.So evil is evil.As it is said: Virtue is rewarded and vice is punished.What he does in prayer? May be he is crying for mercy. Mercy comes with repentance,but in him we dont find any repentance.