Hamlet Act III, Scenes 3–4 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act III, Scenes 3–4 Summary and Analysis

Act III, Scene 3:

Claudius enters as he speaks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Afraid that Hamlet might prove dangerous to him, Claudius informs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they will be sent to England along with Hamlet. Polonius enters and tells Claudius that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude’s room. Polonius intends to hide himself behind a tapestry curtain, and he reiterates how important it is that someone other than Gertrude hear this conversation, as mothers cannot be impartial toward their children. After Polonius leaves, Claudius begins to speak aloud of his guilt over having murdered his brother. Though he yearns to cleanse himself of sin, he finds that his guilty conscience prevents him from praying. He wonders whether or not he would even be able to receive heavenly forgiveness, since he is still reaping the benefits of his sin. After an internal struggle, Claudius eventually manages to kneel in repentance. Unseen, Hamlet enters the room. Seeing Claudius kneeling, Hamlet draws his sword, declaring that this would be the perfect time to kill Claudius and avenge his father. Hamlet takes pause, however, when he sees that Claudius appears to be praying. Hamlet wonders whether killing Claudius while he is purging his sins might cause Claudius to go to heaven. Remembering how his own father was cruelly killed before he had the chance to repent for his sins, Hamlet decides that he should wait until Claudius sins again to kill him.

Act III, Scene 4:

As they wait for Hamlet to arrive, Polonius instructs Gertrude to sternly chastise Hamlet for his recent behavior. Gertrude agrees, and as Hamlet approaches, Polonius hides behind a tapestry. When Gertrude informs Hamlet that he has offended his father, he bluntly replies that she is the one who has offended his father. Hamlet forcefully tells his mother that she cannot leave until he shows her the reflection of her innermost self, causing her to cry out for help. Gertrude’s cries prompt Polonius to also yell for help from behind the tapestry. Hamlet thrusts his sword through the tapestry, suspecting the spy to be Claudius. When Hamlet sees Polonius’s dead body, he criticizes him for being foolish and meddlesome. Hamlet insists that his mother listen to what he has to say, though she bristles at his rudeness. He accuses her of committing a terrible act, and when she claims not to know what he is talking about, Hamlet produces two pictures—one of Claudius and one of his late father. Contrasting the two, Hamlet asks how she could have forgotten his good, noble father and married such a poisonous villain, declaring that lust must overrule all reason and virtue. Visibly upset, Gertrude begs Hamlet to stop, saying that he has forced her to recognize the blackness and guilt within her soul. Hamlet continues to berate his mother, however, until he is interrupted by the appearance of his father’s ghost. Unable to see the ghost, Gertrude sees Hamlet talking to nothing and assumes he’s mad. Hamlet believes that the ghost has come to scold him for taking too long to get revenge, but the ghost instructs him to comfort his mother, who is frightened and confused by Hamlet’s behavior. Gertrude insists that Hamlet is insane, but Hamlet urges her not to ease her conscience by pretending that it is madness, rather than her own sinful behavior, that makes him speak so. Hamlet encourages Gertrude to repent for her sins and counsels her to refuse Claudius’s advances in the future. After making his mother promise not to tell Claudius that his madness is fake, Hamlet tells her that he must soon leave for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he trusts as much as a “fanged” snake. Aware that there is scheming afoot, Hamlet vows to come out on top. He then drags Polonius's body out of the room, criticizing him yet again for being a foolish and pompous man.


Scene 3 gives us more insight into the character of Claudius. From his conversation with Rosencrantz and...

(The entire section is 1,424 words.)