Why does Polonius plan to spy on Hamlet's conversation with his mother?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet has people wondering about the reason for his strange behavior. Claudius and Gertrude have already retained Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him, but they didn't come up with anything useful. Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia's "private" conversation, thinking her rejection might be causing the spurned lover's lunacy, but Hamlet probably suspected they were being overheard.

By act III, scene 3, they are running out of ideas and new spies to recruit. Claudius has decided to send Hamlet to England with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern as his guards, ostensibly to protect Denmark from his madness.

Polonius has shown himself loyal to Claudius and willing to spy for him. It is possible he feels guilty for contributing to Hamlet's breakdown by making Ophelia reject him. It may also be that he believes Claudius's claim that Hamlet's behavior will potentially endanger others.

It is Polonius who informs Claudius that Hamlet is headed for his mother's room and offers to hide there and listen. He praises Claudius for "wisely" saying that someone else should overhear them, as Gertrude probably wouldn't objectively report on what her son said.

Behind the arras I'll convey myself

To hear the process; I'll warrant she'll tax him home:

And, as you said, and wisely was it said,

'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,

Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear.

Polonius seems to have little insight into the human psyche. He gives both his children poor advice and does not figure out that Hamlet knows everyone is spying on him. He seems genuinely foolish rather than calculating. Regardless, his errors in judgment soon cost him his life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Polonius is attempting to help King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and step-father, ascertain the cause of Hamlet's strange behavior.  Though Hamlet's behavior changed with the death of his father and the very quick remarriage of his mother to his uncle, his oddness has deepened in ways that seem inexplicable.  They worry that he is going "mad."

To get to the bottom of this, Polonius and Claudius stage a scene where they can observe an interaction between Hamlet and Polonius's daughter, Ophelia, who used to be in a relationship with Hamlet until Polonius made her break it off.  Polonius believes, having heard the two speak together, that "The origin and commencement of his grief / Sprung from neglected love" (3.1.191-192).  In an effort to get Hamlet to reveal the cause of his grief, Polonius suggests that they "Let his queen-mother all alone entreat him" to open up to her (3.1.196).  He says, 

Let her be round with him;
And I'll be placed, so please you, in the ear,
Of all their conference.  (3.1.177-179)

Polonius volunteers to hide himself in the room so that he can hear everything that Hamlet says and report it faithfully back to Claudius.  He elaborates on this a bit more, later, when he says,

'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
The speech of vantage. (3.3.34-36)

In other words, since mothers are partial to their children, Gertrude might be naturally inclined to report the conversation to her husband somewhat less faithfully than one who sees Hamlet more objectively.  Polonius doesn't imply that she would have any intention to deceive, but, rather, that she would inherently want to protect her son and keep his confidence.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial