Hamlet - Summary and Analysis Act III: Scene 1

Summary

The King and Queen enter with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, Ophelia, and members of the court. Claudius questions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet’s madness, asking if they have found a reason for Hamlet’s behavior. Rosencrantz answers that the Prince has admitted to being distracted but will not say from what. Guildenstern says that Hamlet has been crafty in disguising his motivations. The two report that Hamlet is very excited about the play to be presented, and Claudius asks them to encourage him in this regard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave.

Claudius orders Gertrude to leave so that he and Polonius can spy on Hamlet, who has an imminent meeting with Ophelia. Ophelia enters, and the Queen, in a moment of maternal affection, tells Ophelia that she hopes that Hamlet and Ophelia will patch up their broken romance so that Hamlet can get on with his life. Gertrude exits. Polonius greets Ophelia and instructs her to pretend to read a book so that her being alone will not seem unusual to Hamlet. Ophelia complies and waits with a book while the two men hide. Hamlet enters, speaking his “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He ponders the nature of being and nothingness, and then notices Ophelia reading. Hamlet, assuming that she is reading prayers, asks her to pray for him. She tells him she wishes to return to him gifts he has given her. He responds that he has given her no gifts. She insists that he did give her gifts, and she claims that he gave the gifts to her with words that made them seem symbols of great love. Again he denies having given her the gifts at all and further denies having ever loved her. He questions her honesty and, in response to her bewilderment, tells her that all men are untrustworthy knaves and that she would be better off in a nunnery.

To Ophelia’s further consternation, Hamlet then abruptly demands that she disclose the current whereabouts of her father. She lies and says that he is at home. Enraged, Hamlet curses her, predicting a disaster for her dowry. He tells her again to go to a nunnery. As Ophelia frets over his apparently fled sanity, he says that he knows that women are two faced and cannot be trusted; they all deserve to be cast aside. Then he leaves.

Left alone, Ophelia bemoans what she considers to be Hamlet’s descent into complete insanity. Claudius and Polonius join her and assess what they have overheard and seen. The King doubts that love has ruined Hamlet’s mind; he tells Polonius that he will send Hamlet to England. Polonius, still convinced that love afflicts Hamlet, urges Claudius to make one more attempt to ferret out a satisfying reason for Hamlet’s behavior. He tells the King to send Hamlet to Gertrude’s quarters later that evening. There, while Polonius hides behind the arras, Gertrude should attempt to cajole Hamlet into revealing his innermost thoughts with Polonius as witness. Claudius agrees.

Analysis

Claudius’ entrance speech reveals two very significant aspects of his character: (1) that he is aware of the growing threat Hamlet poses for him, and (2) that he is absolutely in control and capable of decisive action. He provides a stark contrast to Hamlet, who becomes entirely incapacitated by the very idea of action. The more Claudius knows, the more he calculates and acts; the more Hamlet knows, the more he thinks and bandies words. Hamlet’s “turbulent lunacy” places them both in danger.

The characters enact two more premeditated entrapments. First, Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to continue their spying. Second, Polonius and Claudius hatch their plot to have Ophelia stage a confrontation in which Hamlet will reveal himself to Ophelia while Claudius and Polonius spy.

Claudius appears to care deeply about his tortured nephew but confesses his guilty conscience in an aside. Claudius gradually reveals the depth of his criminality and at the same time engenders sympathy — the paradox of evil — by exposing his human fallibility. He sees his guilt in Polonius’ charge that they could sugarcoat the devil. “Oh, ’tis too true,” says Claudius. “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” Even a whore can look innocent when painted, and so his ugly deed looks honorable when clouded by pretty words. Still he feels the weight of his sin. Claudius presents a formidable foe for Hamlet. Both men have now revealed their cunning and sensitive comprehension of the human condition. They are evenly matched except that Claudius has the advantage of political power — or the moment.

In this scene, Gertrude remains as the Ghost had described her the loving mother caught in Claudius’ web. She asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whether they’ve tried to amuse her melancholy son, and she tells Ophelia she truly hopes the young woman’s virtues can bring Hamlet back to his senses. Ophelia doesn’t answer the Queen, and the audience can only surmise that Gertrude has added fuel to the fire of the young girl’s consternation.

Hamlet enters, brooding “To be or not to be.” In The Story of English,Robert MacNeil writes, “When Hamlet says ‘To be or not to be: that is the question,’ he has summarized in one sentence all that follows.” Many scholars consider this speech to be one of several existential manifestos in Hamlet. (Existentialism professes that the past and future are intangible; the present is all that humans can be sure of. For humans, being — what IS — is the only truth; everything else is nothing.)

In this soliloquy, Hamlet explores the ideas of being and nothingness by asserting a basic premise: We are born, we live, and we die. Because no one has returned from death to report, we remain ignorant of what death portends. Hence, Hamlet’s dilemma encapsulates several universal human questions: Do we try to affect our fate? Do we take action in the face of great sorrow, or do we merely wallow in the suffering? Can we end our troubles by opposing them? How do we know? What is the nature of death? Do we sleep in death, or do we cease to sleep, thereby finding no rest at all?

Hamlet hopes that death is nothingness, that death will “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” that death will end thinking, knowing, and remembering. But he fears that, in death, he will be haunted interminably by bad dreams of life itself, by dreams heavy with the memory of fear and pain. Ultimately, he says, that’s why humans dread death. We fear that our consciences will torment us forever. Thus, human beings choose life, with its torment and burdens, chiefly to avoid death, the great unknown. However, death is, like life, inescapable, and Hamlet curses his luck for having been born at all.

Hamlet’s dilemma underlies the entire soliloquy. If he kills Claudius, he will assuredly be killed himself. Hamlet is not sure he is ready for death; life is all he knows, and he fears the unknown. Further, he is not yet ready to take responsiblity for sending another human being into the throes of death. He understands his duty to avenge the murder that is now disclosed, and he accepts responsibility for the Ghost’s torment, but he knows that by killing Claudius he could be consigning himself to his father’s fate for all eternity. Hamlet ends his revery when he sees Ophelia enter, engrossed in her book. He entreats her to remember him in her prayers. His words startle her, and she responds by inquiring after his health. Immediately, she recovers and launches into her assigned speech:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours
That I have longèd long to redeliver.
I pray you now receive them.

Aware that they are being watched, Hamlet stages his own response and argues that he gave her nothing and that he has never loved her. He tells her to go to a nunnery, assaulting her with another double entendre insult. In the Protestant Elizabethan world, people used the word “nunnery” as a euphemism for “brothel.” Knowing that she is working for her father and Claudius, Hamlet accuses Ophelia of prostitution. Hamlet now asks a question on which turns the entire remaining action of the play: “Where is your father?” He earlier asked her, “Are you honest? Are you fair?” To which she gave no direct reply. Now he asks her where her father is, knowing full well that he is in the room. She lies, “At home, my lord.” Hamlet flies into a rage. He calls her two-faced and accuses her and all women of painting a false face. His accusations leave her aghast and certain that his madness is complete and completely destructive.

Ophelia’s response to Hamlet’s question serves as the force that propels Hamlet’s story to its tragic ends. If Ophelia had answered truthfully, if she had disclosed her father’s whereabouts, if she had allied herself with Hamlet rather than with Claudius, if she had truly believed in her love for Hamlet, Ophelia might have saved Hamlet from his burden. The play could have been a romance rather than a tragedy. However, by confirming his belief in women’s basic dishonesty — “frailty thy name is woman” — Ophelia seals her fate and Hamlet’s at the same time.

Claudius and Polonius emerge from hiding, astounded. Claudius still finds Polonius’ case for Hamlet’s love of Ophelia dubious. Furthermore, Claudius questions Hamlet’s madness. A master of deception, Claudius suspects that Hamlet is not as he seems and, as such, is a danger. He hatches his plan to exile the Prince to England. Perhaps to save Hamlet or perhaps to buy favor with the Queen, Polonius suggests yet another trap. Send Hamlet to see Gertrude, and instruct her to beg Hamlet to leave well enough alone. Polonius will spy as Hamlet confides in his mother. The old man expects that Hamlet will confess his love for Ophelia. For reasons he does not disclose, Claudius agrees to the plan. Hamlet knows that his elders are ganging up on him. He is furious and skittish, and his judgment is entirely impaired. Polonius’ plot cannot help but backfire.

Glossary

drift of conference roundabout methods.

lawful espials spies who are justified in their action.

rub an obstacle hindrance, difficulty, or impediment.

contumely haughty and contemptuous rudeness; insulting and humiliating treatment or language.

bodkin a dagger or stiletto.

fardels burdens; misfortune.

bourn limit; boundary.

pitch and moment height and importance.

expectancy and rose bright hope ( as future king).

mould of form pattern of manly beauty and behavior.

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