Hamlet, Act III

Act III is the pivotal act in Hamlet. The Prince had been dragging his feet for months trying to force himself to avenge his father’s death. At one time, he’d be certain that the ghost was truly the restless spirit of his father seeking revenge; another time he’d fret that the ghost may be a demon sent to tempt the Prince into a fatal and condemning act. In scene i, he had his famous “get thee to a nunnery” fight with Ophelia. Frustrated with his own impotence, he extended the blame of his mother’s inconstancy to all women. Maddened at the thought of Ophelia’s future marriage to someone else; maddened at what he saw as her certain inconstancy in the future, he demanded that she commit herself to a convent. His interaction with Ophelia was observed by Polonius and Claudius, who decided that he was dangerously addled and must be sent away to England (presumably with hopes that the distraction would clear his mind). 

In scene ii Hamlet made pointed remarks during a play, hoping to draw out Claudius’ guilty response. Hamlet succeeded in drawing out Claudius, who angrily retorted at the content of the play and stomped out of the room. In the immediate rush of  fear at Hamlet’s knowledge, Claudius suddenly felt his own guilt. He regreted killing his brother – not because it was a treacherous act in itself, but because he had been found out and might suffer consequences. He knelt down and prayed that God help him; he asked forgiveness while simultaneously acknowledging that he’s not really sorry that he got the Crown and the Queen, but he was very sorry that Hamlet found out about the murder. The Prince discovered Claudius praying and at first set his mind upon killing the King here (when the royal back is turned). But then Hamlet worried: if he killed Claudius now, while praying, the King’s soul would be clean and he would be dispatched to heaven. Hamlet wanted Claudius to be damned, like the late King Hamlet. The prince decided to wait.

In the final scene, Hamlet was summoned to the Queen’s chambers, where she tried to talk sense into him. There, Hamlet swelled again into his accusatory rage at the inconstancy of women. Polonius, who had hidden himself behind the curtains upon Hamlet’s entry, thought to rescue the Queen from her raving son – but when he called out, the infuriated prince stabbed at the curtains and slayed Polonius. With this act, Hamlet’s path of revenge was cemented. He had killed once, he had no choice but to continue with his revenge quickly or fail entirely. Shakespeare punctuated this pivotal act with the ghost of dead King Hamlet – who only the prince can see. Prince Hamlet’s shock at the escalation of events and the sudden appearance of the ghost muddled his already maddened state, and he ranted wildly while the terrified Queen tried to calm him. The act ends with Hamlet lugging the body of Polonius off stage.


Hamlet and Ophelia
Hamlet (1996)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Act III, Scene i: The King and Polonius decided to observe Hamlet as he interacted with Ophelia. They told Ophelia to linger where she was sure to meet Hamlet, and the two men hid. Before noticing Ophelia, Hamlet was deep in his own meditations. To be or not to be? Apparently, Hamlet was considering suicide. Did he know the King was watching? Or was his doubt genuine? There is no indication that he knew the King was near. Personally, I think Hamlet was genuinely considering suicide. He’d experienced some terrible blows in the last few months – his father died unexpectedly, his mother married her brother-in-law, and Hamlet was being haunted by the ghost of his father who was making shocking demands of the Prince. Hamlet was tortured by a feeling of failure that he hadn’t avenged his father, stress at the idea of killing the King, and doubt about the nature and intentions of the ghost. That’s enough to make any sane person consider suicide. The sudden appearance of Ophelia reminded him of yet another failure in his life. 

Like Claudius and Polonius, I observed Hamlet very closely in this scene because I wanted to consider the age-old question: was Hamlet mad or was he faking it? I saw no signs of actual insanity, despite Hamlet’s nonsensical word-play and his irrational anger at Ophelia. He seemed genuinely enraged at Ophelia’s perceived inconstancy, and he blamed her for future inconstancies which she had not yet committed; but sane lovers can also be irrational in this way. 

Another question I pondered during this scene was whether Hamlet meant to imply that Ophelia wasn’t a virgin (since Harold Jenkins, the editor of my edition, claims that there is no evidence that Ophelia and Hamlet had any pre-action action). And, frankly, I have to agree with Jenkins. There is a lot of double-meaning innuendo during this scene (and the next), but that doesn’t prove that they’d been together. Men are quite capable of innuendo in the company of maidens. That proves nothing in itself. So I leave that one open to interpretation.

The Play
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran

Act III, Scene ii: In this scene, the troupe of traveling actors put on a play which closely resembled the murder of King Hamlet. The Prince made continual jibes and probes at the King until Claudius angrily announced that he’d had enough and stomped out of the room – which was exactly the guilty reaction that Hamlet was hoping for. Now Hamlet could avenge his father’s death with confidence that Claudius is guilty.

This scene is scrutinized closely by critics. The play began with a dumbshow which silently portrayed the murder – but Claudius apparently didn’t respond to this dumbshow. The King only responded upon seeing the murder in the spoken play. Critics ask the question: did the King see the dumbshow? Why wasn’t he offended by it? Why did he wait until the second enactment of murder before retorting? Some directors believe that Claudius didn’t see the dumbshow. They have him turned away from it, chatting with a neighbor. Others believe that Claudius saw the dumbshow, and silently blanched, but wasn’t truly provoked until Hamlet’s comments during the second enactment. Harold Jenkins (forever the literalist) believes that neither of these two things happened, because otherwise it would have been mentioned in the stage directions. 🙂 A sophisticated connoisseur of Hamlet apparently watches Claudius during this scene in hopes of determining which interpretation the director has chosen.

Hamlet almost kills Claudius
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran

Act III, Scene iii: Shocked by the realization that Hamlet knew Claudius’ guilt, the King prayed for help from God. Hamlet discovered Claudius praying, and almost killed him there…but then decided that if he killed Claudius when his soul was cleansed by prayer, Claudius would achieve salvation. Hamlet wanted Claudius to be damned, so he waited a better opportunity for revenge.

The question I asked while reading this scene: Was Hamlet just procrastinating, or did he really not kill Claudius in prayer because he wanted to damn Claudius’ soul? Personally, I think he was procrastinating. He had resolved that he must kill Claudius, but he didn’t have the nerve to do it in cold blood. 

Hamlet in the Queen’s Closet
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran

Act III, Scene iv: Hamlet ranted at the Queen in her chambers. Polonius, hidden behind the curtains, moved to assist the Queen, and Hamlet stabbed him. Hamlet seemed rather surprised to discover that he’d killed Polonius. What did he expect? That the King was hidden behind the curtains? Personally, I think he wasn’t thinking. He had worked himself up into a frenzy talking to the guilty Queen, and was surprised by Polonius’ sudden call. He stabbed the curtain, not knowing what lay behind it, and only afterwards asked “Is it the King?” His confusion at finally having spilled blood – though the wrong person’s blood – was compounded by the sudden appearance of the ghost. This is the first scene where Hamlet truly appeared, to me, to have lost his wits. He was acting violently without thought of consequence or purpose. His speech was confused. He was utterly out of his depth. 

3 thoughts on “Hamlet, Act III

  1. Superb and thought provoking commentary Rachel.

    I have read and watched the play several times and still struggle with some of the questions that you tackle here.

    I totally agree about the procrastinating. It seems to me that Hamlet's hesitation may be grounded in the fact that he realizes that, at least in the Universe of the play, action, especially decisive action, never yields its intended consequences.


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