Act III, Scene i

Synoposis of Hamlet Act III scene i

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report back to Claudius and Gertrude. They mention that Hamlet appeared pleased to hear of the players.

Polonius arrives with Ophelia, who is to be used as bait in the trap: Claudius and Polonius will hide and watch Hamlet's behaviour when he meets her.

Hamlet and OpheliaHamlet enters, and does not at first see Ophelia, as he is brooding on the question of whether or not to commit suicide. Once he notices her, he greets her gently and kindly, but she responds by giving him back the presents he has formerly given her. He reacts bitterly, and makes it clear that he sees women as false and sexually immoral.

When he leaves, Ophelia is distraught as she is sure Hamlet is mad. Claudius, however, is more cynical and astute. He feels that Hamlet has other things on his mind than just love of Ophelia. Claudius decides that Hamlet should be sent away to England.

Commentary on Hamlet Act III scene i

With devotion's visage / And pious action we do sugar o'er / The devil himself — Polonius has given Ophelia a prayer book to read (hence Hamlet's comment on her ‘orisons' (prayers) and his request that she should pray for the forgiveness of his sins). However, Polonius is aware of his own hypocrisy here; he comments that humans often pretend to be virtuous when in fact they are doing the work of the devil.

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil — Hamlet thinks about life after death; he is not certain what will happen to him after death, especially if he commits suicide.

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all — ‘conscience' here means ‘conscious thought'. Hamlet is aware that reflection can (as it has in his case) lead to inaction.

Thy orisons … Your honour — He speaks to her using the intimate ‘thou' form but she responds with the formal ‘you'. (See Act I scene ii, and Shakespeare's language: Thee, thou and you.)

Get thee to a nunnery — a nunnery (convent) is a place where women withdraw from the world to devote their lives to prayer and the worship of God. They make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

More on nunneries: Hamlet's bitter remarks make it clear that it is the chastity of women which most concerns him — though he may well have Gertrude more in mind than Ophelia. In Shakespeare's day the term ‘nunnery' was also a euphemism for a brothel, allowing Hamlet to be ironic in his bitterness about women.

Crawling between heaven and earth — in the chain of being (see Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being) humans are thought to be halfway between animals and angels (this is also an echo of Psalms 8:3-8).

Where's your father? — some critics and play-producers assume that at this point Hamlet realises that Polonius is spying on them, although there is no evidence in the text for this. Hamlet may simply suspect that Polonius would be keeping an eye on his daughter.

God has given you one face — God has endowed women with natural features but they use make-up to alter the appearance that their Creator gave them. (See Themes and significant ideas: False appearances and Imagery and symbolism: Painting).

The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword — Hamlet is here depicted as an ideal Renaissance Prince. (See Religious/philosophical context: The Renaissance).

Most sovereign reason — as we have seen earlier in the play, reason is seen as the rightful ruler of the body. (See Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being). If Hamlet is mad, his reason has given way.

Investigating Hamlet Act III scene i
  • Note down:
    • the various instances of spying and betrayal in this scene
    • references to pretence and hypocrisy
      • How much honesty is there in the Danish court?
  • Look carefully at Hamlet's soliloquy
    • What is his attitude to life?
    • Why does he appear to decide that it is better to endure a ‘weary life' than to end it?
  • Consider Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia.
    • Why does Hamlet treat her so harshly?
    • Is she to be blamed for obeying her father?
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