Hamlet, Act 3


In Act 3 it’s interesting that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is a soliloquy that’s presumably overheard by Polonius and the King as well as by Ophelia. Its center seems to embrace acting, but the thoughts of afterlife lead to conscience, which is then diminished as the native hue of resolution is “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Is that pale cast of thought a good thing or a bad thing? Should he just act in this enterprise of great pith and moment? The rhetoric of the soliloquy seems to spur action. But the opposite thoughts of judgment and the afterlife seem to rein him in. I think again of that “taint not thy mind” command.

Ophelia’s speech is, I think, the only characterization we have of the earlier Hamlet. She describes him as the ideal renaissance courtier and laments his and her loss of that.

With Hamlet’s advice to the players, I think back to his “rogue and peasant slave” speech, where he seems to fall into exactly the kind of acting he reprehends at the climax of the soliloquy. And of course the groundlings, whose ears might be split, might already have been split, are right there in front of him. His reference to Herod is another metatheatrical moment, one that has preoccupied me, and presumably was known to at least some in the audience. And in what follows we may have Hamlet expressing some of his creator’s opinions about the purpose of playing.

Hamlet’s praise of Horatio as the perfect stoic perhaps expresses some of what Ophelia had valued in Hamlet himself, in particular the man who is not passion’s slave. Where does this leave the revenger?

Did the actor who is playing Polonius play Julius Caesar the previous season? A metatheatrical in-joke?

In a modern production we could get away with just the dumb show, which expresses the essence of what Hamlet wants Claudius to see. But the actual play does make explicit what the Ghost has described. Can we identify the speech that Hamlet wrote and asked the player king to insert? What the player king speaks about mutability could be Hamlet’s. Or maybe what the player queen speaks in apparent response? Or both?

When “Lucianus” comes in after the interruption, he speaks in an archaic theatrical style, very different from the earlier language. What do we make of Hamlet’s forcing of the play’s conclusion? Is Claudius responding to this or to the play itself? In terms of Hamlet’s purpose, it probably doesn’t make a serious difference. He has what he wanted. And Horatio confirms it.

What follows with R & G breaks Hamlet’s friendship with them. And his mocking of Polonius seems a similar elated mood. The king’s decision to send Hamlet to England with R & G will be taken as understood by Hamlet in his discussion with Gertrude (surely a slip on Sh’s part). He learns of it later, doesn’t he?

The end of this scene is, I think, the central irony of the play. Claudius attempts to pray for forgiveness, admits his guilt, and kneels in apparent prayer. Hamlet enters at this final point and considers enacting his revenge. Now he could do it “pat,” and says he will do it. It will fulfill his revenge. But then he imagines Claudius’ apparent prayerful state will cause him to be saved. So he further imagines himself as the instrument of Claudius’ redemption. And consequently puts his sword up. If this isn’t tainting his mind, against which the Ghost warned him, nothing is. The irony is that Claudius has been unable to pray; his death at this point might well have been his damnation.

And immediately Hamlet goes to his mother. And he begins by casting her guilt directly at her. We don’t have a stage direction at l. 20, but Gertrude expresses her fear at his violent action in throwing her down or into a chair, fearing her murder. Her fear causes her to cry out, which causes Polonius to reveal himself, which causes Hamlet to use his sword to kill him. And so the second part of the Ghost’s injunction is violated. Moreover he has, unintentionally, become Claudius, a murderer, to Ophelia and Laertes. The rest of the scene has Hamlet not leaving her to heaven and the thorns that in her bosom lodge. Understandable no doubt, but not as he was commanded.


I too noticed that Act III is very long (four of its five scenes over 100 lines), as opposed to Act IV (where five of the seven scenes are under 100 lines). Is it typical for Shakespeare to vary the lengths of his acts like this?

You’re right about the elective monarchy, but it’s curious that Shakespeare only reveals that point, and other details about succession, late in the play, in 4.5 (“Laertes shall be king”), 5.2 (“. . . ‘tween the election and my hopes”), and 5.2 (“. . . the’election lights/ On Fortinbras”). In 3.2 Rosencrantz says that Hamlet “has the voice of the king for the succession in Denmark.” It’s not clear what that means — will Claudius name him king or recommend him as successor? In any case, the matter of succession is muddy until late in the play.

Yes, Hamlet veers back and forth from sensible/rational to “antic.” But I think he is never “mad.” When teaching the play I routinely used to ask my students if they thought Hamlet was play-acting or was really deranged, and asked them to consider evidence that suggested one or the other. This time I find myself thinking that Hamlet is always clear-eyed and conscious of what he is doing. Sometimes he acts impulsively, and sometimes is full of self-doubt, but I think a strong case can be made that he is never out of his mind.

I don’t know what to make of the metatheatricality, apart from the fact that the play recurrently suggests that Hamlet and others are play-acting, “putting on” an act, pretending, either for good or ill: Hamlet tells Gertrude to “assume a virtue, if you have it not” and that “use can almost change the stamp of nature.” The gap between playing and acting can be quite small: an actor “plays” the role of the player king who plays the role of king. Even “put on” is ambiguous. In 3.1 Hamlet is said to “put on” confusion. In 5.2 Fortinbras says that if Hamlet had been “put on” (i.e., made king), he would have “proved most royal.”

I too think it significant that “To be or not to be . . .” is a soliloquy that is overheard. I think the standard view is that the speech offers a window into Hamlet’s mind. But I think that’s much too simple. My sense is that Hamlet knows he is being overheard, and is here doing more of his play-acting, so as to throw Claudius and Polonius off the scent, to make them think that he is suicidal and cowardly, unlikely to carry out his resolutions or to act. It’s not clear whether the speech succeeds. Claudius concludes that Hamlet is neither love-lorn nor mad, and senses that he is dangerous.

One element of the content of the speech seems inconsistent with what we know of Hamlet’s thinking. In Act 1 he frankly notes regretfully that self-slaughter is a sin. Here in 3.1 he says nothing about sin or judgment or an afterlife in heaven or hell. Instead, he says he has no idea what comes “after death”: it’s an undiscovered country. But maybe Hamlet’s play-acting comes close to the ‘truth’ of what he is in fact feeling: we know from other speeches that he at least imagines that his love for Ophelia has been “despised,” and that he is troubled by the gap between “will” and “action.”

One other detail in the speech needs to be spoken carefully by an actor. “To die, to sleep — /No more. . ” might seem to hint that death is not sleep but the end of sleep. But in the context of the full sentence it has to mean, at least primarily, that death is “no more” than sleep. So that “no more” is voiced in a light and dismissive tone. Or do the words in fact look forward to the next stage of Hamlet’s speech: that “the sleep of death” is not like other sleep, but perhaps invaded by dreams, and to the stage after that, in which death seems to be “something” dreadful?

I too paused over Hamlet’s praise of Horatio as a man who is not “passion’s slave.” I thought back to “To be, or not to be .. .”, with its catalogue of sufferings that most men will find unbearable. By contrast, Horatio, “in suff’ring all . . . suffers nothing.” Hamlet’s praise of Horatio invites at least two thoughts: one, that Horatio, for better and worse, is quite different from Hamlet (and would not make a very good revenger), and two, that Hamlet in fact aims at Horatio’s Stoicism, and largely succeeds. (The second thought would support the idea that “To be . . .” does not in fact represent Hamlet’s mind, but is only play-acting.)

In 3.2 what is the speech of eight or ten lines that Hamlet asks to have inserted in the player king’s part? Is it lines 261-66?

I love your idea that the actor who originally played Polonius had played Julius Caesar the previous season.

Yes, it’s odd that Hamlet forces the play’s conclusion, like a child insisting on telling the end of a story before the storyteller has finished. It would appear to be an instance of his impulsiveness, his over-eagerness. A modern director might want to have Claudius give himself away before Hamlet speaks those last linesj.

I think the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern makes clear that Hamlet is fully rational, and that he can put on or drop his “antic disposition.” So too does the scene with Gertrude, where Hamlet says he is only “mad in craft.”

In 3.3 it’s odd that Rosencrantz gets such a long speech about the effects that a king has on the people (and the consequences of a king’s death).

What strikes me now about Hamlet’s reaction to the praying Claudius is that he (Hamlet) seems to have forgotten completely what he had a little earlier said comes “after death.” Here Hamlet seems certain that if you are killed while praying you will go to heaven, and if you are not you will go to hell. That appears to confirm the idea, which includes no heaven or hell, that “To be . . .” is play-acting. If we take Christian beliefs in the afterlife seriously, as the play seems to from the outset (the Ghost in purgatory), then Hamlet has a legitimate reason not to kill the king at this point. And indeed in the next scene Hamlet, so he thinks, kills the king as he is hiding behind the arras. (Had it been the king, I suppose the play would have been over — because Claudius would be removed and Laertes would have no grievance.)

Why is it only Hamlet who sees the Ghost? Presumably because the Ghost is only present to Hamlet — i.e., is a projection of his brain. (This represents a change in “the rules” about ghosts, since several people see the Ghost back in Act 1.) In a sense the Ghost serves to remind Hamlet of the need to act, but he had just acted very impulsively only a few lines earlier.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell