Claudius enters with several men, whom he has told of Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, and that he has “sent to seek him and to find the body.” He tells them it is dangerous to allow Hamlet to remain at large, but that because of Hamlet’s popularity among the “distracted multitude,” his punishment must not seem too heavy; the public only judge what they can see, and weigh only the punishment, “But never the offense.” Claudius says Hamlet’s sudden leaving must seem to be part of a careful plan in order to keep things “all smooth and even.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and report that Hamlet will not reveal the location of Polonius’ body, and that Hamlet is waiting outside. Claudius summons him, but Hamlet will only tell the King, first, that Polonius is “At supper,” where he is being eaten by worms; and second, that Polonius is in heaven, or perhaps in hell. But finally he reveals that Polonius can be found “as you go up the stairs into the lobby” where he “will stay till you come.”
The King tells Hamlet that, for his own safety, he is being sent to England at once. Hamlet then bids the King farewell, calling him “dear Mother,” since “father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so, my mother.” Hamlet exits, and Claudius orders the others to follow him and get him on board ship without delay, since everything that depends on this aspect of his plan is all “sealed and done.”
Left alone, Claudius expresses his hope that England will obey the letters that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carry which call for Hamlet’s “present death.” He notes that England is still in awe of Denmark because of past defeats, and he hopes that this fear will insure their cooperation. He says that Hamlet is like a fever in his blood which must be cured, or Claudius can not have happiness, no matter what else may befall him.
Although Claudius is trying desperately to orchestrate the events to Hamlet’s disadvantage, Hamlet remains in control despite his seeming madness. All Claudius and the others can do is react to Hamlet’s inane remarks and puzzling actions. Claudius is struggling both at home and abroad—in England—to rally public opinion and political power into his own camp.