Window to the Mind – A Soliloquy from Hamlet (Act III)

 Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
In the presence of Polonius and Ophelia, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude question Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern about their recent conversation with Hamlet; the pair report that although Hamlet confessed to

being “distracted,” he would not reveal the cause, evading questioning with “a crafty madness.”
Hamlet’s friends also report that Hamlet was pleased to learn of the visit of the traveling players, and that he
has arranged a performance for that night, to which he has invited the King and Queen. The two men leave,
and Claudius instructs Gertrude to leave also so as not to encounter Hamlet, for whom he has secretly sent,
“That he, as ‘twere by accident, may here / Affront Ophelia.” Gertrude obeys, confiding to Ophelia her hope
that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is the cause of his “wildness,” and that her “virtues / Will bring him to his
wonted way again. . . . ” Claudius and Polonius instruct Ophelia to pretend to be reading a book of devotions
so that Hamlet will find her solitude plausible. They depart just as Hamlet enters.
The Prince speaks to himself regarding the relative merits of life and death, “To be, or not to be.” He weighs
the troubles of living against the unknown nature of death and the afterlife. He compares death to sleep, sleep
which is full of dreams which “must give us pause.” When he notices Ophelia at her devotions, he asks her to
pray for his sins. She tells Hamlet that she wishes to return some “remembrances” of his, but he denies that
he gave her anything. She protests that he did give them, along with “words of sweet breath,” which he also
Hamlet then urges Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery,” that all men are “arrant knaves,” not to be believed.
He then decries marriage in general, and says that “Those that are married already—all but one—shall live. The
rest shall keep as they are.” He exits, leaving Ophelia to lament his apparent insanity.
Polonius and Claudius emerge from their concealment. Claudius notes that Hamlet’s words did not sound
either like love or like madness, and announces that he will send Hamlet to England to collect overdue tribute.
He hopes the change of scenery and the ocean voyage will get rid of the “something in his soul” which is
bothering Hamlet. Polonius agrees to the King’s plan, but urges one more attempt to discover the cause of
Hamlet’s “grief.” after the play, Gertrude is to sound him out, and Polonius plans to eavesdrop. If this plan
does not work, Polonius tells Claudius to send Hamlet to England, “or confine him where / Your wisdom best
shall think.” Claudius agrees, and says the “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” They exit.
This act begins with a stage crowded with those characters most closely associated with Hamlet, with the
exception of Horatio and Laertes: Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As
each one is assigned his task in the discovery of Hamlet’s malaise, that character departs. When at last the
stage is empty but for Ophelia, Hamlet enters.
Every character is involved in duplicity at this point: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not being completely
honest with Claudius, as they were not completely honest with Hamlet; Gertrude disappears so Hamlet does
not suspect that he is being set up; Claudius and Polonius conceal themselves so they can eavesdrop; and
Ophelia pretends to be in maidenly devotions in order to engage Hamlet in conversation.
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis 23
Hamlet, meantime, has conceived of the Mousetrap in order to trick Claudius into exposing his guilt. The
Prince then proceeds to lie to Ophelia, denying that he gave her “remembrances” or that he spoke lovingly to
her; she is convinced he is insane. At Polonius’ suggestion, Claudius continues his deceit with the plot to ship
Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, supposedly to collect overdue tribute.
Even after overhearing Hamlet’s interlude with Ophelia, Polonius urges one final attempt to discern the cause
of Hamlet’s mental state: the scene in Gertrude’s closet which, ironically, causes his own death. Polonius is
not only overbearing and pompous, self-important and self-righteous; he is bent on orchestrating every step of
every dance. It is his job to give counsel to the King; but he insists on giving advice to everyone: his son, his
daughter, Hamlet, the Queen, Reynaldo; he even admits to having played Julius Caesar in the university, “and
was accounted a good actor”—presumably he would advise the Players, if called upon.
Hamlet’s remarks to Ophelia about marriage are worth noting. He says that all men are “arrant knaves,”
which is certainly the case in Claudius’ court, as we have seen. But he also decrees that everyone who is
presently married shall live, but one; and the rest “shall keep as they are,” presumably unwed. Remember that
Claudius and Polonius are eavesdropping; Claudius hears this “all but one.” Surely he senses Hamlet’s
intent, for a few moments later, Claudius announces his plan to send Hamlet to England. As Claudius later
reveals to the pair, this move is more for his own protection than for Hamlet’s well-being.
Once again Polonius lays his heavy hand on the details, urging the King to either send Hamlet to England “or
confine him where / Your wisdom best shall think.” Polonius seems unconcerned whether Hamlet is a threat
to his daughter’s virtue or to Claudius’ reign; Polonius sees an opportunity to exercise control and influence,
and takes it—again and again.
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Hamlet enters, giving instructions to several of the Players on the appropriate and most effective delivery of
the “speech” which he has prepared for insertion into the evening’s performance. As the Players exit,
Polonius enters with Rosencrantz and Guilden¬stern, who inform Hamlet that Claudius and Gertrude have
agreed to attend the play. Hamlet urges the trio to go help hasten the Players, then summons Horatio. Hamlet
expresses his love and respect for Horatio, then asks Horatio to scrutinize Claud-ius during the one scene
which “comes near the circumstance . . . of my father’s death.” Horatio agrees.
Gertrude invites her son to sit beside her, but he refuses in favor of a seat with Ophelia, whom he engages in
risque banter. The dumb show (pantomime) begins, enacting the murder of a King by one who pours poison in
his ears; the widowed Queen at first appears disconsolate, but eventually accepts the love of the man who
murdered her husband. Hamlet assures Ophelia that the actors will explain the meaning of the dumb show.
Following a brief Prologue, the Player King and Player Queen speak of love, death, and remarriage. The
Player King and Queen discuss the likelihood of her remarriage after his impending death; she vows she will
not, but he argues that when we make decisions in the heat of the moment, we fail to carry them out when the
emotion fades: “What to ourselves in passion we propose, The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.” The
Player King also notes that fortune does not follow our desires; so “’tis not strange That even our loves
should with our fortunes change.”
The Player Queen declares that she would rather starve, be imprisoned, be without trust, hope, and joy, and
have “lasting strife, If, once a widow, ever I be wife!”, especially if the second husband had murdered the
first. She says such a marriage would be for reasons of “thrift, but none of love,” but the Player King argues
that “So think thou wilt no second husband wed, / But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead.”
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis 24
When Claudius asks if this play is meant to give offense, Hamlet assures him “they do but jest, poison in jest;
no offense i’ th’ world . . . we that have free souls, it touches us not.” But as the play progresses and the
actor portraying Lucianus (the king’s nephew) pours poison in the sleeping king’s ear, Hamlet comments,
“You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.” Claudius bolts from his seat,
Polonius ends the performance and calls for lights, and everyone leaves except Hamlet and Horatio. They
believe they have exposed Claudius, proving the Ghost’s validity.
Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern enter, and urge Hamlet to obey his mother’s request that he come to her
before he goes to bed. The pair attempt to persuade Hamlet to reveal the “cause of distemper,” but he evades
their questions and accuses them of trying to play upon him like the recorders the Players have just entered
with: “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.” Polonius enters
and repeats Gertrude’s request, which Hamlet says he will heed. When all others have departed, Hamlet
resolves to hold his anger in check, rebuking his mother but not harming her.
The second scene also opens with a full stage as Hamlet addresses the Players about dramatic delivery; as the
Players depart to make ready, Polonius enters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet quickly moves that
trio offstage to “hasten” the Players. Then Horatio enters, and he and Hamlet speak as dear and close friends.
Horatio, who had earlier been enlisted by Claudius and Gertrude to sound out Hamlet, now sides with his long
time friend and school mate—more duplicity.
This technique repeated from Scene 1, of many becoming few, stresses the increasing intensity of the
machinations of the opposing forces: Claudius’ in the first, and Hamlet’s in the second. They mirror each
other, but are inverse images: evil for good. But now the stage again fills to overflowing with the Players, the
members of the royal court, the lords and ladies attendant thereon, and Guards with torches. Hamlet refuses
his mother’s invitation to sit beside her, going instead to Ophelia and engaging in bawdy innuendoes.
Shakespeare has crowded the stage and placed Ophelia and Hamlet front and center with seemingly
inappropriate and confusing dialogue. When Hamlet comments that his mother has remarried not “two
hours” after his father’s death, Ophelia remarks that it is “twice two months.” But when he restates the
matter, he makes it only “two months.” Likewise, the Players were originally scheduled to perform
“tomorrow night;” but moments later, they are hurrying to make ready for the performance “presently” that
very night. This seeming confusion over chronology is really Shakespeare’s way of telescoping time, lending
urgency to the matter at hand—Hamlet’s revenge on the murderer of his father.
As the dumb show concludes, Ophelia asks Hamlet what it means; he answers “mischief,” referring to his
plan to expose Claudius. The Prologue does not satisfy Ophelia’s curiosity, and she notes that “’Tis brief,
my lord.” Hamlet answers, “As woman’s love,” returning to his theme of his mother’s infidelity to her dead
husband’s memory. Hamlet, pursuing his “mischief,” asks his mother, “how like you this play?” Gertrude
answers, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” suggesting that from her perspective, remarriage would
not be an impossibility for a widow. Hamlet replies, “O, but she’ll keep her word,” implying that the Player
Queen, at least, is faithful to her vows—an invidious comparison that surely is not lost on Gertrude.
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, sent to summon Hamlet to his mother’s room, reveal that Claudius is “in . . .
marvelous [distemper],” not from drink, as Hamlet suggests, but from “choler” (anger). Hamlet’s suggestion
that they should rather be summoning a doctor to purge the king and make him well is a foreshadowing of the
imagery he will use when he finds Claudius at prayer: “This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.” When
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report back to Claudius a few moments later, they speak of the necessity of
protecting the king’s health against any harm that may be intended by Hamlet. Their remarks make clear that
the life of “majesty,” upon whom so many other lives depend, is of far greater importance than an ordinary
man’s life.
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis 25
This conversation helps to justify Hamlet’s later action of sealing their death warrant; they have tried to
“play upon [him]”, taking Claudius’ part against him. Hamlet explains to Horatio that he does not feel guilty
for their fates; the pair simply got caught between the thrustings “of mighty opposites.” His pragmatic view
ironically echoes their own attitude, that the life of the king is more important than any other’s; since Hamlet
had hoped to become king (by election) at his father’s death, he is the “majesty” this time around, not
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Claudius enters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Claudius is convinced that Hamlet, in his “madness,”
means to harm him in some way. He proposes to send Hamlet to England, along with Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, for safety’s sake. They agree, noting that the fortunes of “Majesty” always affect the lives of
many others besides itself. This voyage is to commence at once.
Polonius enters to inform Claudius that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude’s private room; Polonius announces
that he will hide “behind the arras,” in order to “o’erhear” their conversation. Polonius says he expects
Gertrude to severely scold Hamlet, but notes that, as Hamlet’s mother, she will be biased toward anything he
may say to her. Thus, “’Tis meet that some more audience than a mother” should hear Hamlet’s remarks.
Polonius promises Claudius that he will return with a full report before the king goes to bed.
Claudius then soliloquizes about his guilt over the murder of his own brother, which he compares to the
murder of Abel by Cain. Claudius laments the fact that he is unable to pray and thus receive mercy, which
would cleanse him of this sin. He suspects that his offense would not be forgiven, since he retains all the
benefits deriving from the murder: “My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.” Perhaps on earth one
can “[Buy] out the law. But ’tis not so above.” At last, the king manages to kneel in a final attempt at
Hamlet enters, sees Claudius apparently at prayer, and reasons that to murder Claudius now would “send [this
same villain] To heaven” rather than to hell. He vows to wait and kill Claudius—as Claudius had killed
Hamlet’s father—”full of bread, / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May,” while the king is “about
some act / That has no relish of salvation in’t—. . . . ” Hamlet notes that Claudius’ prayer has only postponed
his eventual death.
Ironically, as Hamlet exits, Claudius rises, and discloses that he has still been unable to pray and receive the
spiritual peace he seeks: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to
heaven go.”
Prominently foregrounded in this scene is Claudius’ guilt and the fear which attends it. He imagines—rightly
so—that Hamlet means to harm him. And he feels the need to repent before heaven in order to escape eternal
damnation. Thus Claudius fears both earthly and divine retribution, and in this scene both are postponed.
Hamlet waits until a more suitable time to kill the king, and Claudius finds himself unable to pray with
satisfactory results.
The importance given to Claudius’ life, as “majesty,” is ironic; for Claudius has murdered his brother—also
“majesty”—and Hamlet, likely to be elected “majesty,” is on Claudius’ trail. The question of whose life is
most important in the grand scheme of things is therefore moot, since the former King, Claudius, and Hamlet
all have a claim to that coveted seat.

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