Why does Claudius suspect Hamlet "puts on his confusion" in Act III of "Hamlet"?

2 Answers

ms-mcgregor's profile pic

ms-mcgregor | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Claudius is confused over Hamlet's behavior but I don't think he has ruled out madness completely. The entire line from which you quote is:



And can you, by no drift of circumstance,

Get from him why he puts on this confusion,

Grating so harshly all his days of quiet

With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?



Claudius is talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, trying to find out the reason for Hamlet's strange actions. Here he mentions lunacy or madness. Earlier, after watching Hamlet with Ophelia, Claudius says



Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,

Was not like madness. There's something in his soul

O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;



So Claudius' intuition tells him that Hamlet is not insane when he is with Ophelia but there is "something in his soul" which is making him unhappy. Whatever the reason, Claudius sees that Hamlet is a threat, especially after watching "The Murder of Gonzago". He has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch him carefully and says, "Madness is great ones must not unwatched go." It seems that with his act of madness, Hamlet is also driving Claudius "mad" trying to figure out what Hamlet is up to.


andrewnightingale's profile pic

andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Claudius's question is directed at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's childhood friends, whom he has instructed to monitor the prince's behavior. He seeks a report from the two about what they have heard from, and perceived of, the young prince.

Hamlet has been acting quite strangely. After his father's untimely passing, the prince has withdrawn himself and become quite moody. He has been behaving in an irrational manner and has consistently spoken in ambiguous terms. Furthermore, he seems to be overwhelmed with grief, but the king suspects there is more to his conduct than just sorrow for his father's death. Claudius, however, cannot quite put his finger on what is really eating Hamlet.

The king does suspect, though, that a reason for Hamlet's odd behavior might be his obsession with Ophelia, Polonius's beautiful daughter. He has learned from his adviser that Hamlet has constantly been in conversation with her and has stated his affection. He has written her letters and given her gifts. At times, he has also spoken quite harshly to her, which adds to the confusion.

At this point, Claudius has arranged for Polonius to spy on a conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius has specifically instructed his daughter to meet with Hamlet and draw him out. The two men believe that is the only way in which they can get to the bottom of the prince's antic state. Once they have witnessed Hamlet's rudeness to Ophelia, Claudius decides that the prince is not infatuated or mad after all. He concludes,

Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger:

It is clear that Claudius has determined that Hamlet's behavior is the result of something much deeper. He expresses fear that Hamlet's brooding will hatch and open up a certain risk, especially to him. Prior to this conclusion, the king had already expressed his own guilt, and it is easy to assume that he probably believes Hamlet knows about his crime, the murder of the sorrowful prince's father by pouring poison into his ear. This adds to the dramatic irony, for the audience knows Hamlet has this knowledge and is plotting vengeance, even if he is delaying the actual act.