Hamlet Act III, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act III, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

Act III, Scene 1:

The scene opens as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern discuss Hamlet’s madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell the king and queen that they have not been able to uncover the source of Hamlet’s troubles. However, they do report that Hamlet seemed pleased about the arrival of the acting troupe and its forthcoming performance. Gertrude exits as Claudius and Polonius prepare to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia. Telling Ophelia where to stand, they quickly hide as they hear Hamlet approaching. As he enters the room, Hamlet mulls aloud over the question of whether to commit suicide. He muses that the only reason people endure the burdens and suffering of life is that they fear the unknown of death. Acting on Claudius and Polonius’s orders, Ophelia interrupts Hamlet’s soliloquy and attempts to return some romantic gifts he once gave her. Hamlet denies ever having given Ophelia anything, erratically claiming that he loved her once before declaring that he never loved her at all. He then goes on to tell Ophelia that she should enter a nunnery rather than give birth to sinners. Increasingly agitated, Hamlet condemns marriage itself, saying that no more marriages should be allowed, before leaving the room. Alone, Ophelia laments the apparent loss of such a “noble mind,” and Claudius and Polonius come out of their hiding place. Claudius declares that Hamlet’s madness does not appear to be caused by love. Furthermore, he suspects that Hamlet is not simply insane, observing that Hamlet’s melancholy behavior seems to be the result of something weighing on his soul. Fearing that Hamlet might prove dangerous in his current condition, Claudius resolves to send him on an errand to England in the hope that travel will cure whatever ails him. Polonius thinks this is a good idea, though he still believes that Ophelia is the cause of Hamlet’s behavior. He suggests that Hamlet be sent to Gertrude after the play, proposing that he hide and eavesdrop on their conversation.

Act III, Scene 2:

Hamlet enters with the players, giving them advice on how best to deliver the extra lines he has added to their performance. Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter the room and tell Hamlet that the king and queen have agreed to attend tonight’s performance. Hamlet asks them to go and urge the players to hurry up. The players exit. Hamlet calls out to Horatio, and Horatio enters. Hamlet asks his friend to carefully watch Claudius during the performance, saying that he will watch him as well so that they may compare notes afterward. Horatio agrees, saying that he will be sure to notice if Claudius reacts in a suspicious way. As people begin to arrive for the performance, Hamlet warns Horatio that he must start acting crazy. Indeed, Hamlet proceeds to respond nonsensically to Claudius’s questions and harass Ophelia with rude sexual puns.

The players enter and perform a brief, silent version of the play to follow (an old-fashioned kind of pantomime called a “dumbshow”). In the dumbshow, the players present a loving king and queen. While the player king sleeps in the garden, a man steals his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the king’s ear. The player queen silently acts out her sorrow, but eventually, the poisoner succeeds in wooing the player queen. With the dumbshow over, the players then begin to perform the full play. Hamlet comments on the play as it unfolds, and when Claudius asks whether the plot of the play is offensive, Hamlet slyly replies that it will not bother those with clear consciences. When the play gets to the part where the player king is poisoned in the ear, Claudius suddenly stands up and leaves, ending the performance early. After everyone is gone, Hamlet and Horatio confer and agree that Claudius’s behavior clearly indicates his guilt. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and inform Hamlet that his mother wishes to speak with him. Once more, they try to persuade Hamlet to...

(The entire section is 1,241 words.)