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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT III, SCENE III

Claudius, now worried that he really is in danger, has decided to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with Hamlet to England. He orders them to prepare for the trip quickly. They agree, echoing his fears with pious phrases about how death or injury to a king is destructive to his country as well.

NOTE:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's speeches are good examples of what is called unconscious irony. They do not know that the phrases they use to flatter Claudius have a double meaning to him, since he is not a legitimate king. The evils they describe as resulting from a king's violent death are already happening in Denmark, and their words give a foretaste of how they, too, will suffer.

As they leave, Polonius comes in to announce that Hamlet is finally on his way to his mother's room, and that he will spy on him. As Claudius has wisely pointed out, mothers are partial to their sons, and someone more objective should be listening.

NOTE:

Balance, or symmetry, is important in the structure of a Shakespeare play. For example, this scene parodies Hamlet's scene with Horatio before they go to watch the play- the two scenes differ only in terms of the motives and the degree of honesty of the characters. The hero or protagonist must be challenged by an antagonist of equal strength, as Hamlet is by Claudius; and each must have a confidant, as Claudius has Polonius and Hamlet has Horatio. Shakespeare is never satisfied, though, with obvious symmetries, as we are about to see.

Polonius leaves, and Claudius unexpectedly throws himself on his knees and tries to pray. In a soliloquy with many similarities to Hamlet's outbursts, he confesses his guilt and says his crime has "the primal eldest curse upon't, / A brother's murder!" He cannot pray, though he would like to; he is trapped in indecision. He knows he should repent, but cannot while he is

still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

(lines 56-58)

In this world wealth and power can make people ignore a crime, but there is no "shuffling" [trickery] in heaven. He therefore calls to the angels for help, and kneels in silent prayer, hoping against hope that "All may be well."


NOTE:

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.

NOTE:

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.

(lines 100-01)

 

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