Act III, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221
Act III, Scene 1:
The scene opens as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern discuss Hamlet’s madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit 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 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,” as 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 once again 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. 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 to the play in a suspicious way. As people begin to arrive for the performance, Hamlet warns Horatio that he must start acting crazy. Hamlet then 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 divulge the reason for his behavior, but Hamlet accuses them of trying to manipulate him. Polonius enters the room and reiterates the queen’s request to see Hamlet. Hamlet agrees to go and is soon left alone. Speaking aloud to himself, Hamlet decides that he must admonish his mother with his words only, resolving not to physically harm her.
These scenes contain Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, arguably some of the most famous lines in all of Western literature. In this soliloquy, Hamlet reflects on the inherent unknowability of death as he ponders, yet again, the idea of suicide. Hamlet’s contemplative nature is on full display as he considers the merits of suicide from a philosophical, rather than personal, perspective. Without disclosing his own reasons for contemplating suicide, Hamlet concludes that people only bear the torments and burdens of life because they fear the unknown of death. Hamlet argues that contemplation robs individuals of their boldness (“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”), highlighting his capacity for introspection as he pinpoints his own greatest weakness.
While Hamlet seems remarkably lucid during his soliloquy, his subsequent conversation with Ophelia is much more confusing. Hamlet rudely tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” (Elizabethan audiences would have recognized “nunnery” as a euphemism for “brothel”), building on his earlier suggestion that Polonius is a “fishmonger” (pimp) and insinuating that Ophelia, who Hamlet seems to know is acting on her father’s orders, is prostituting herself. While Hamlet frequently claims that he is merely acting the part of a madman, his criticism of Ophelia seems to stem from very real feelings of frustration toward women in general. The dual meaning of “nunnery” suggests that Hamlet’s main complaint is against those who appear pious or good but are secretly sinful, a criticism he frequently directs toward the women in his life.
In an earlier scene, Hamlet translates a specific complaint against his mother into disillusionment with women as a whole, declaring, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” A similar pattern emerges in Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia when he dismisses marriage itself, saying, “wise men know / well enough what monsters you make of them.” Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia only worsens, and his overtly sexual responses to her polite remarks during the play become increasingly inappropriate and even borderline cruel. Whether or not Hamlet ever truly loved Ophelia, it now appears that their romantic relationship is over, and his apparent frustration with women in general sets the stage for the forthcoming confrontation with his mother.
The performance of the play reveals that just as Claudius is using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, Hamlet is surveilling Claudius. These competing schemes further contribute to the atmosphere of secrecy and deceit that has taken hold of the court. Claudius’s extreme reaction to the poisoning scene in the play is, for Hamlet, a sure sign of his guilt. Horatio, too, now knows of Claudius’s treachery. Before he leaves to go to his mother, Hamlet notes that it is midnight (the “witching time”) and says that he feels empowered to act villainously: “Now I could drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on.” These lines give the audience a glimpse into Hamlet’s dark state of mind, foreshadowing the violence that is to come.