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FREE CHAPTER SUMMARY / NOTES FOR HAMLET BY SHAKESPEARE
ACT III, SCENE 3
In a private room of the castle, the King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that it is not safe to let Hamlet's "madness range" and openly admits that Hamlet's insanity poses a personal threat to him. He commissions both the courtiers to accompany the Prince on his visit to England. The courtiers promise to do their best and express their loyalty to the King; they clearly accept that it is their duty to protect the King against all kinds of dangers. Polonius then arrives to tell Claudius the news that Hamlet is going to the Queen's room and that he himself will hide as planned behind the curtain in order to eavesdrop on their conversation. Before leaving, the Chamberlain adds that he will immediately report whatever he learns to the King.
Left alone, Claudius is struck with remorse. For the first time he realizes how serious his crime has been. He reveals he has been unable to pray since he committed the murder and knows that he cannot hope for forgiveness since he still enjoys the fruits of his evil-doing -- his crown and his Queen. In a state of total desperation he calls upon the angels for help and kneels down to pray.
Hamlet enters the room carrying a drawn sword. He has come with the explicit intention of murdering Claudius, but restrains himself when he sees the King in prayer; his mercy, however, is neither kind nor selfless. He reasons that killing Claudius while he is praying will earn him divine mercy and send his soul straight to heaven. Hamlet, therefore, decides to kill Claudius at a time when he is either drinking or sleeping with his "wife." Hamlet leaves Claudius' room to go and see his mother. As Hamlet departs, Claudius gets back on his feet, aware of the inefficacy of his prayers, since while his "words fly up," his "thoughts remain below."
This scene is crucial for many reasons. It humanizes Claudius to a small degree, showing that he is remorseful and afraid. Acknowledging the horror of his actions, he falls to his knees and again tries to pray. When Hamlet, now filled with a balance of reason and passion, enters the room to murder Claudius, he hesitates. Seeing the man in prayer, he does not want to kill him and send his soul to heaven, negating his revenge. Many critics have chastised Hamlet for still another delay.
In many ways, Hamlet's choice not to kill Claudius at this juncture represents the most significant moment of the tragedy. If Hamlet had acted as planned, the needless deaths of Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude, and Laertes could have been avoided. Indeed, Hamlet himself might have lived. Ironically, the play, however, would have lost its high sense of tragedy, and Hamlet would have been less a tragic hero by stabbing Claudius from behind as he knelt in prayer.
ACT III, SCENE 4
Polonius arrives to inform the Queen that Hamlet is on his way, then takes his hiding place behind the arras. Hamlet's approach to his mother is reserved and reproving. He answers her questions satirically and makes it plain that he disapproves of her incestuous marriage to her husband's brother. Queen Gertrude is alarmed by the vehemence of Hamlet's answers and his insistence that she sit down and listen to him. Hamlet takes the occasion to chastise her severely for her role in murder and incest. He tells her that he will make her see what a monstrous woman she is. She misunderstands her son, thinking he means to harm her. Polonius, hidden behind the arras, echoes the Queen's cries for help, thinking Hamlet will hurt her. Hamlet, mistaking Polonius for the King, runs his sword through the arras and kills him. The Queen cries out in horror, but Hamlet angrily remarks, "A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a King, and marry with his brother." Unrepentant over the accidental murder of Polonius, Hamlet tells his mother that the man was an interfering and meddling fool.
Hamlet grows increasingly angry, castigating his mother for having committed an act wholly devoid of modesty and virtue. He accuses her of accepting Claudius out of lust and adds that there is no comparison between her first husband, the King, and her new husband, the murderer. The Queen begs Hamlet to stop torturing her, admitting she has acted in poor judgment. Hamlet is not appeased by her sorrow, however, and continues to yell.
The ghost appears, visible only to Hamlet, and reminds him of his mission to avenge the murder. The apparition also tells Hamlet that he should not upset his mother; instead, he should help her fight the battle of conscience raging in her soul. The Queen, to whom the ghost is invisible, listens to Hamlet's conversation with "nothing" and is now convinced that her son is mad. When Hamlet calls upon her to see the apparition of her late husband, she can only conclude that he is hallucinating. When Hamlet asserts that he has not uttered anything in madness, there is cogency in his argument and clarity in his speech. He states that he is perfectly in his senses and can repeat what he has already said, proving that he is not insane. He tells his mother that she should not unburden her conscience by pretending that what he has told her comes from the tongue of a raving madman. Hamlet then implores Gertrude to give up her life of vice, returning to her past life of virtue; he further advises her not to sleep with Claudius and defile her soul further.
His passion spent, Hamlet then turns to Polonius' body and expresses regret that he killed the Lord Chamberlain. Before leaving, he pleads with his mother not to reveal his sanity to Claudius. He tells her that he suspects something underhanded in his mission to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and is certain that Claudius plans to dispose of him, with the help of Hamlet's longtime friends. In a mood of fierce determination, Hamlet leaves the Queen's closet, dragging away the lifeless body of Polonius.
Hamlet enters his mother's closet in a state of frenzied excitement and rage. He believes she has been an accomplice in the murder of the late King, if only by abandoning his memory too soon. His anger and disgust are increased when Gertrude, following Polonius' advice, lets Hamlet know that "his pranks have been too broad to bear with" and begins to upbraid him for his behavior toward Claudius. Hamlet's passion rises to a feverish pitch, and he turns on Gertrude with anger. His words act like daggers that shatter Gertrude's peace of mind and make her realize her failure to live up to the ideals of fidelity and constancy. The picture that Hamlet shows Gertrude of her soul is unbearable for her. She misinterprets the situation and, believing that she is in physical danger of being assaulted, cries out for help. Her cries for help are echoed by Polonius, who is hiding behind the arras. Hamlet, thinking the hidden observer is Claudius, runs his sword through the arras in a fit of passion, killing Polonius. At this stage, it becomes clear Gertrude is innocent of direct involvement in King Hamlet's death; she is totally stunned by Hamlet's words and repeats them in confusion. Polonius is not so innocent; instead he is a victim of his own despicable character. From the beginning of the play, he has been a busybody who spies on others. Ironically, his spying leads to his death.
The killing of Polonius is a complication for Hamlet, for he has now become a murderer without a just cause. Even though he has innocent blood on his hands, he is unable to repent, justifying his action by saying the Polonius was a meddling fool. Still the Prince fears that he is no longer God's minister, but a scourge destined for damnation. It is fairly certain at this point that Hamlet will have to pay for his misdeed, for unjustifiable murder cannot go unpunished, and Laertes is certain to want revenge for his dead father. Hamlet's careful deliberation and planning have been done in a quick moment of passion.
Hamlet's criticism of his mother has the desired effect, and she cries out in anguish as she recognizes the foulness of her sin; but she refuses to abandon her current husband in spite of her son's demands. When he chastises her further, she begs Hamlet to stop and admits the existence of the "black and grained spots" in her soul. But Hamlet's passion is furiously aroused, and his words to his mother grow increasingly bitter and sharp. At this point, the Ghost of the late King appears to remind Hamlet of his promise not to harm Gertrude and to hasten him towards revenge against Claudius before it is too late. Gertrude cannot see the ghost to whom Hamlet speaks and decides that her son is really mad.
Hamlet's interview with his mother has been the focus of elaborate critical and psychological commentary. The Freudian approach, which attributes Hamlet's delay in killing Claudius to his inability to resolve his oedipal feelings for his mother, holds that Hamlet's conduct in this scene is due to the fundamental instincts of jealousy and sexual affection for his mother. There is, indeed, a strong undercurrent of sexual imagery in the scene, and the language is charged with passion. In contrast, the traditional Shakespearean critics view Hamlet as a moral idealist who rightly castigates Gertrude in an effort to save her soul from damnation. They claim that he does not unduly exaggerate her guilt, nor does he try to unburden himself by laying the blame on her.