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HAMLET BY SHAKESPEARE: FREE BOOKNOTES
ACT III, SCENE 1
King Claudius and Queen Gertrude question Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet's conduct, but the "spies" are unable to explain their old friend's behavior, noting that he has conducted himself "with a crafty madness" and resisted their attempts to draw out the cause of his state. They report, however, that Hamlet's mood seems somewhat improved because of the arrival of the acting troupe. Polonius corroborates this information and adds that the King and Queen have been especially invited by Hamlet to attend a performance of the players.
Claudius is pleased to hear that Hamlet has at last shown interest in something and agrees to attend the play, unsuspecting of the trap being laid for him. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to continue their good work and dismisses them. He then asks Gertrude to leave as well. The arranged meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia is about to happen, and he and Polonius are supposed to act as spies. In preparation for the event, Polonius instructs Ophelia to walk back and forth pretending to read a book of devotions, thereby allaying Hamlet's suspicions about her unexpected willingness to receive him. Polonius and Claudius then withdraw to their hiding place behind the arras (curtain) and wait for Hamlet's approach.
Hamlet enters giving a soliloquy about existential dilemmas, not yet aware of Ophelia's presence. It is here that he speaks his most famous line: "To be, or not to be - that is the question." In his misery, Hamlet is again contemplating suicide, wondering whether it would not be better to end his life than to face the trials and tribulations ahead. When Hamlet sees Ophelia, he ends his soliloquy to praise her beauty and acknowledges to himself the great affection he has for her; however, his mask of insanity prevents him from expressing his love. Ophelia, acting out the part given to her by Polonius, tells Hamlet she wants to return the various gifts he has given her. Hamlet, playing out the part of madness, denies ever having given her anything. He goes a step further, cruelly questioning Ophelia's honesty, declaring he has never loved her, stating that her children will be sinners, and claiming that she herself will never escape slander. Ophelia is heartbroken and unable to contain her grief. When Hamlet leaves, she prays to heaven to restore Hamlet's wits again.
Claudius and Polonius come out from their hiding place. Claudius remarks that Hamlet's tirades against Ophelia suggest that his unrequited love is not the real cause of his insanity. He is convinced that something deeper is troubling Hamlet's mind, saying it is "something in his soul / O'er which his melancholy sits on brood." Fearful of the implications to himself, Claudius resolves to send Hamlet to England. He pretends the mission will be an effort to restore Hamlet's mind, but it is clear he grows increasingly frightened that his own villainy will be exposed. Polonius foolishly and stubbornly clings to his belief that Ophelia is the cause of Hamlet's undoing. He suggests that one last attempt be made to ascertain the source of Hamlet's despair, proposing that Queen Gertrude have a confidential talk with Hamlet. While mother and son talk, Polonius will eavesdrop one more time. If this attempt also fails to reveal the truth, then Claudius can send Hamlet to England. Claudius agrees to this plan, making one last guarded remark that "madness in great ones must not unwatched go."
This scene is filled with irony, as it develops both the plot and theme of the play. It is revealed that Claudius has begun to consider Hamlet a formidable threat, suspecting that the Prince might suspect his villainy. He skillfully attempts to disguise his fear and pretends to have a genuine concern about his nephew's well being. Ironically, Hamlet, who has begun to doubt the ghost's reliability, is less sure about Claudius' villainy, while Claudius grows more worried about his exposure. No one seems to be sure what is real and what is appearance.
Hamlet's most famous speech takes place in this scene as he ponders the value of suicide. The essence of his soliloquy is that it is cowardly to live cautiously and risk nothing, but brave to court death and take action. He believes his own hesitation comes from a fear of the consequences; yet he is miserable and filled with guilt and shame over his failure to act in killing either Claudius or himself. His subsequent encounter with Ophelia in the nunnery scene is painfully sweet. He is overcome with her beauty and his affection for her, but frustrated by the fact that he cannot communicate his love to her because of his feigned madness. The obedient Ophelia, doing her father's bidding, returns Hamlet's gifts; in return, he treats her cruelly. Whether Hamlet is genuinely striking out at her or merely acting his part is not clear, but his responses contain calculated meanness. Many critics believe that Hamlet realizes that Polonius and Claudius have a part in Ophelia's actions; as a result, his cruelty is a result of his sense of betrayal.
It is important to note that there is double meaning in the word "nunnery" when Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to one. In Elizabethan times, a nunnery often referred to a brothel. Such a meaning would be consistent with Hamlet's attack on Ophelia's character. On the other hand, there is the very real suggestion that Hamlet, still deeply in love with the innocent Ophelia, wants to protect her and send her away from the evil world of Denmark. Once again the theme of appearance vs. reality comes into play.
Finally, the plot begins to move rapidly toward its dramatic climax in this scene. Claudius, wanting to free himself of Hamlet's threat, resolves to send him to England on the pretense of finding a cure for him there. The egotistical Polonius is still, however, convinced he can find out the real reason for Hamlet's madness and begs the king to allow Gertrude to question her son. Claudius probably agrees to Polonius' plan because he wishes to put on an appearance of being genuinely concerned about the Prince's well being; in reality he is consumed with thoughts of his own survival.