Claudius' soliloquy is one of the play's great surprises, first because it reveals him as human and pitiable; second because it points up his similarity to Hamlet, even in the way they think. If you look back at the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy you will see that Hamlet describes the state that Claudius is in now. Comparing their words, however, also makes us aware of the differences between them. Claudius has committed a hideous crime. He hesitates to atone for it, however, because he is afraid of the consequences and reluctant to give up his comfortable position. Hamlet, on the other hand, has been hesitating to commit a crime, even under the extreme pressure of an order from his father's ghost. Now, at the moment when Hamlet is finally convinced of the heavenly justice of the act, Claudius is taking his first step toward repentance. The play seems to be reversing itself, turning upside down as if on an enormous pivot. There's no telling what may happen next.
While Claudius tries to pray, Hamlet passes by on his way to his mother's room. He sees the king unarmed, kneeling, defenseless. Will he kill him? It is the perfect opportunity. He could kill Claudius "pat" [right now], he says, but a man killed in the act of praying will go to heaven, while Hamlet's father burns in hell- "This is hire and salary," Hamlet tells himself, "not revenge." No, Hamlet will put his sword back in its sheath and wait for a "more horrid" opportunity, when Claudius is drunk, or angry, or "in the incestuous pleasure of his bed," or in some other act "that has no relish of salvation in't." That way Claudius will go to hell where he belongs. Remembering that his mother is waiting impatiently, he leaves, with a last threat to Claudius.
Whether Hamlet truly seeks a "more horrid" revenge, or is simply finding an excuse for his inability to act, is an issue on which critics passionately disagree. You can find evidence for both interpretations.
Hamlet's speech has shocked many people over the years by its seeming cruelty and immorality. As a good Christian Hamlet does not want to murder Claudius at all; it was only a little while ago, in the Play Scene, that he was finally persuaded that the act of revenge is a just one. What he doesn't realize is that Fortune is playing a cruel joke on him: Claudius' prayer is not true prayer, since he will not show true repentance, and Hamlet's killing him now would certainly send him to hell by any Christian terms. He has let his great opportunity to avenge his father go by, and he will never get a better one.
Claudius, unaware of the danger he has just been in, gets up from his prayer too late to see Hamlet pass by. In the couplet that rounds off the scene he reaffirms that his attempt to pray has been false and futile:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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