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Key events and dramatic importance of Act 3, Scene 1 in Hamlet


Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet is crucial as it includes Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, revealing his existential crisis. This scene also features the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia, orchestrated by Polonius and Claudius. The scene heightens the tension and sets the stage for the play's ensuing conflicts and tragic developments.

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What are the key events in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet?

Act III scene 1 is a very important scene in this play as it represents the final attempt of Claudius and Polonius to discover whether Hamlet's supposed madness is the result of his love for Ophelia or not. To this end, they create a situation where Hamlet will stumble across Ophelia, apparently by chance, whilst they eavesdrop on the conversation they have. Before this happens, Hamlet delivers his famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be," where he contemplates suicide and philosophises about the value of life in general. When the conversation with Ophelia starts, Hamlet, although he begins it fairly innoccuously, then turns on Ophelia, insulting her and cursing her, before leaving her distraught. Polonius and Claudius then enter, talking about what they have learnt from this and how to proceed. Claudius significantly says:

There's something in his soul

O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,

And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose

Will be some danger...

Now that they have shown Hamlet's madness is not because of his thwarted love for Ophelia, it is clear that Claudius begins to suspect that Hamlet is plotting something against him, and therefore he determines to send him to England to get him away from Denmark so that he cannot threaten Claudius. Key issues that arise from this scene are the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia and then also Hamlet's state of mind, as revealed through his soliloquy.

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What is the dramatic importance of Act 3, Scene 1 in Hamlet?

One interesting note that the previous and very thorough post did not go over is the rather incredible exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia.  She has come to return to him "remembrances," signifying an end to their relationship and Hamlet is somewhat shocked, still not really aware of the fact that her father has decreed that they should no longer see each other.

He proceeds to take some of his anger out on her, but also in such a way that he urges her to protect herself in the future from men such as himself.  For even though he is passing honest, he is quite the rogue, were he to admit all that has passed through his mind.

This scene is at the same time horribly painful and remarkably interesting, as Hamlet is still desperately trying to figure out what to do about his father's death, and also in this situation with Ophelia where he lacks enough information to make a really rational decision.

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What is the dramatic importance of Act 3, Scene 1 in Hamlet?

The short passages in Act 3.1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet that concern Ros. and Guil. deal with their reporting to Polonius and Gertrude what they were able to find out from Hamlet about why he is acting "mad."  They were able to find out nothing.

The scene repeats the theme of acting and spying and pretending--that's what the two friends have been doing during their interactions with Hamlet.  Pretending to be only his friends, they are acting on the king's behalf, trying to get information out of Hamlet.  Together with Polonius and Ophelia, these two try to manipulate Hamlet and gleen information from him, while pretending to be other than what they are.

The scene also establishes Ros. and Guil. as instruments of futility (characterization).  They may or may not be fools, but they are unsuccessful in their spying, and later they will certainly be treated like fools by Hamlet--payback for their trying to play him. 

Hamlet's love for art is established, possibly, in his feeling "a kind of joy" at the news of the players' arrival.  But, more importantly, we see in his eagerness for the king and queen to see the coming performance, that he is already thinking of his plot to catch Claudius's reaction to the play, and thereby prove Claudius's innocence or guilt.  Thus, this scene furthers the plot.

Ironically, if the scene creates atmosphere, it is an atmosphere of futility and irony.  Not only are Ros. and Guil. ineffectual, but so is Claudius.  Though he is powerful and capable, he has met his match in Hamlet.  Not only is Hamlet's plan to pretend to be mad working--the king is wasting an awfully lot of time trying to figure Hamlet's madness out--but Hamlet is setting Claudius up with the "play within the play."  Claudius thinks he is playing a cat-and-mouse game with Hamlet, and he is:  the only problem for Claudius is that Hamlet is the cat.    

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What are the main events in act 3, scene 1 of Hamlet?

In Act 3, Scene 1, Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what they were able to learn about the reasons for Hamlet's odd behavior. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reveal very little. They note that Hamlet warmed to the idea of the players performing and Claudius tells them to keep Hamlet's attentions on the players, to keep him in good spirits. (Ironically, Hamlet will later use the play to expose Claudius' crime.) 

Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude discuss other ways they might figure out Hamlet's mental state. Claudius and Polonius decide to hide while Hamlet talks to Ophelia. During their conversation, Hamlet chastises Ophelia, says he'd never loved her, and denounces marriage. Ophelia is hurt. Claudius and Polonius still suspect there is something more to Hamlet's odd behavior than any love-sickness he may have with Ophelia.

Claudius determines to send Hamlet to England to get his mind off of his troubles. However, Claudius later reveals that he sends Hamlet to England for his own protection. Polonius asks for one last effort to discover Hamlet's thoughts by hiding while he (Hamlet) talks to Gertrude. 

In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet delivers the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy where Hamlet weighs the pros and cons of life and death. As the play goes on, it becomes clear that Hamlet does choose life ("to be") and that his continuing reason to go on is to carry out his revenge. 

In this scene, we see many of the characters struggling to figure Hamlet out. Complicating matters, many characters are not honest with each other. Claudius shares his motives with Polonius, but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet lies to Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are initially dishonest with Hamlet and later reveal little to Claudius. Although Hamlet is hesitant and over-thinks things, it is his apparent "madness" and strange behavior that puts everyone on edge. So, while Hamlet continues to manipulate others, those others continue to try to discern what Hamlet is up to. Everyone is second-guessing everyone else's motives and honesty. Although unaware of Hamlet's actual intentions, Claudius is intelligently skeptical of Hamlet's motives: 

It shall be so. 

Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go. (III.i.197-98) 

Aside from Hamlet's famous speech on the merits of life and death, this scene is also about the many schemes characters undertake in order to discover other characters' motives. 

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