ACT III, SCENE IV
We now see Gertrude in her "closet," a small inner chamber used as a dressing room or
private office. Polonius tells her that Hamlet is on his way, and lays out firmly what the queen is to say to
him: "his pranks have been too broad to bear" and she has constantly had to intercede with
the king on his behalf. As they hear Hamlet in the hall outside, Polonius hides, as he has said he would,
behind a tapestry or arras covering the wall of the room. (Remember that electric light did not exist then;
the corners of a room lit only by candles and torches were dark and made good hiding places.) Hamlet
comes in with a challenging, "Now, mother, what's the matter," and the play's famous Closet
Hamlet responds to each of his mother's attempts to start the discussion with a stinging, angry
comeback. When she finally gives up trying to reason with him herself, Hamlet takes the initiative. He
tries to force her to discuss her bad conscience rather than his bad behavior, but his aggressiveness
frightens her. Thinking that her son is trying to murder her, Gertrude calls for help, a call echoed by
Polonius behind the arras. Seeing this unknown shape suddenly move, Hamlet leaps into action, draws his
sword, and stabs the figure. "Is it the King?" he asks, and is shocked when he lifts the curtain
and sees the dead Polonius' face. "O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!" the queen exclaims,
and Hamlet, keeping to his purpose in spite of the shock, replies, "Almost as bad, good mother, / As
kill a king, and marry with his brother." "As kill a king?" Gertrude repeats, and for
many readers this is the moment in the story when it first dawns on her what Claudius has done.
You can use this scene as evidence that Hamlet has always been capable of revenge, but lacked the
opportunity. You can also use it as evidence that Hamlet can only strike out blindly in anger, not
deliberately in cold blood. The stabbing of Polonius may have less to do with revenge than with Hamlet's
need to prove himself a man of action.
Hamlet makes Gertrude sit down and begins attacking her again for her remarriage. He takes out two
pictures- probably miniature portraits of the kind worn in a locket- one of his father, and one of
Claudius, and insists that she compare the two. He equates his father with the Greek gods, and Claudius
with "a mildewed ear" that spoils a healthy corn plant. He criticizes Gertrude for not acting
her age, and suggests that she may even be mad for showing such bad judgment. "O Hamlet, speak
no more," the queen pleads, admitting her own feelings of guilt over the marriage; but Hamlet
ignores her pleas to stop, saying she lives "stewed in corruption," and calling Claudius
"a murderer and a villain." As his attack on Claudius reaches its climax an astonishing thing
happens: The ghost appears. Hamlet's extravagant reaction upsets Gertrude even more, for she cannot see
the spirit and now thinks her son is surely insane. The ghost tells Hamlet that he has nearly forgotten his
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
Hamlet tries to make his mother see the ghost, but Gertrude sees nothing and insists again that
Hamlet is mad and hallucinating (Is he? Some have argued that the ghost exists only in Hamlet's mind.)
Once again Hamlet begs her to confess and repent her sins, and to give up Claudius- at least to give up
sleeping with him:
but go not to my uncle's bed.
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
Hamlet tells his mother that he will be a dutiful son again when she repents:
And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you.
He says he will give the court a good explanation for Polonius' death, and notes that "worse
remains behind" to be done.
"What shall I do?" the queen bursts out, and Hamlet again, with unpleasantly graphic
details, urges her not to make love with Claudius. (You learn in this passage, incidentally, that the king
calls Gertrude "his mouse," a phrase that gives additional meaning to Hamlet's calling the
players' play The Mousetrap.) Suddenly, still thinking perhaps of his plot against Claudius, Hamlet asks if
Gertrude knows he is being sent to England. She confirms what he has presumably heard as court gossip
that evening, and he again vows to outsmart his enemies, promising to trust his school-fellows as he
would "adders fanged." With one last "Good night, mother," he drags the body out
of the room, leaving the stricken and shattered Gertrude alone.
The Closet Scene is the emotional peak of Hamlet, just as the Play
Scene is the peak of its action. It marks a further step in Hamlet's move
toward revenge, but it is a mistaken one that will soon have tragic consequences.
Because a great deal happens in this short and emotionally charged scene,
you may want to go over it slowly, point for point, asking yourself to
what extent Hamlet is justified in each step he takes. Look at all his
reactions to what the queen says, and her reactions to what he says and
does. Add up which of his lines you think would and would not make Gertrude
think her son is insane. Ask yourself why Hamlet keeps coming back to
the question of his mother's marriage, why the ghost appears to him but
not to Gertrude, and what he thinks he is doing at each point in the scene.
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