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, aware that this would be the perfect time to kill Claudius and avenge his father. He pauses, however, upon noticing 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. Suspecting the spy to be Claudius, Hamlet thrusts his sword through the tapestry. 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, remarking 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...
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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 offers significant insight into the character of Claudius. From his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, there can be little doubt that he sees Hamlet as a dangerous threat. However, Claudius is first and foremost a politician, and he recognizes that Hamlet’s popular appeal will make him difficult to dispatch. Alone, Claudius openly admits his guilt over the murder of his brother, comparing it to the biblical crimes of Cain: “It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t— / A brother’s murder!” Unwilling to give up Gertrude and the crown (the spoils of his treachery), Claudius understands that while he may escape justice in the “corrupted currents of this world,” he will not be able to escape divine punishment. Claudius thus finds himself torn between his desire to repent for his sins and his certainty that they cannot be forgiven. In showing the audience how heavily guilt weighs upon Claudius, Shakespeare complicates his antagonist, making it clear that Claudius is not merely a one-dimensional villain but a nuanced and morally complex character.
When Hamlet spies Claudius (apparently) at prayer, he sees this brief, unguarded moment as an opportunity to finally take his revenge. However, Hamlet’s revenge is once again delayed by his contemplative nature. Remembering that Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet forced the old king to go to the afterlife uncleansed of sin, Hamlet worries that Claudius may actually go to heaven if he is murdered in the very act of cleansing his soul. Hamlet wants Claudius to suffer just as much as his father did, and his decision to wait and kill Claudius when he is once more engaged in “some act / That has no relish of salvation in’t” highlights the theme of retributive justice that runs throughout the play.
It is difficult to know whether Hamlet’s hesitancy in this scene truly stems from his desire to punish Claudius to the fullest extent or whether it is just a tactic to delay a violent act that Hamlet truly does not want to commit. Hamlet’s wish to uncover strong evidence of Claudius’s guilt before taking action was understandable, yet Hamlet now seeks the answers to abstract and ultimately unanswerable questions about the nature of the soul and divine justice. Ultimately, it's left up to the audience to decide whether Hamlet’s decision to spare Claudius in this moment stems from a desire for the perfect revenge or a reluctance to commit murder.
In scene 4, Hamlet’s desire for revenge unexpectedly fuels another’s quest for revenge. By killing Polonius, Hamlet has robbed Laertes of a loving father—just as Claudius once did to Hamlet. For the first time, Hamlet acts without thinking, but in his haste, he accidentally kills the wrong man. Though Hamlet’s immediate reaction to killing Polonius is quite callous, he later appears to regret his actions. This unexpected murder sets the stage for the intense and passionate tone of Hamlet and Gertrude’s conversation. Many scholars and productions of Hamlet interpret this tense scene between Hamlet and Gertrude from a Freudian perspective (this explains why this scene is often staged in a bedroom, though the stage directions indicate that it takes place in the queen’s “closet” or private rooms).
It is somewhat unclear what Hamlet wants from Gertrude: does he want her to admit her wrongdoing, or is he simply venting his feelings at her? In any case, Gertrude’s confused response to Hamlet’s insinuation that Claudius killed his father suggests she likely had no knowledge of Claudius’s treachery. Despite Gertrude’s apparent blamelessness, Hamlet continues to forcefully outline the faults in her behavior. His graphic references to sex (“In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love”) have led many scholars to wonder whether Hamlet has an unconscious, incestual desire for his mother—what Freud called the “Oedipus Complex.” For her part, Gertrude is relatively passive in this scene, indicating that she, like Ophelia, is at the mercy of the powerful men surrounding her. When the ghost reappears, he is visible only to Hamlet, though Marcellus, Horatio, and Barnardo were all able to see the ghost in act I. Shakespeare’s decision here can be interpreted in a variety of ways: does Gertrude’s blindness to the ghost indicate her inability to see her own guilt? Is the ghost’s new invisibility to those other than Hamlet a sign that Hamlet has truly gone mad? Ultimately, Shakespeare leaves these questions open, allowing room for different interpretations.