Act III, Scene iii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act III scene iii

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern assure Claudius that the King's safety is of paramount importance. They are Claudius tries to repent, Hamlet choses not to kill himgiven the job of escorting Hamlet to England.

Polonius suggests that he should hide in Gertrude's room to listen to her meeting with Hamlet.

When alone, Claudius tries to pray. He knows that he needs to repent of the dreadful sin of a brother's murder, but he cannot. Hamlet enters and sees Claudius praying. Unaware that Claudius is unable to repent, Hamlet decides not to kill him at this point in case his soul goes to heaven.

Commentary on Hamlet Act III scene iii

The cease of majesty dies not alone — the life of the Ruler is an embodiment of the welfare of the state. (See Act I scene iii, and also Religious/philosophical context: Divine right of kings).

And as you said — in fact Polonius made the suggestion that Gertrude should send for Hamlet and that Polonius should spy on the meeting (see Act III scene ii). However, Polonius uses this as a chance to flatter the King: ‘and wisely was it said'.

Cain killing AbelThe primal eldest curse — the first murder in the Bible is that of Abel, killed by his brother Cain, who was then cursed. The Ghost had described fratricide — murder of a brother — as particularly ‘unnatural' in Act I scene v. (See Big Ideas: Cain and Abel)

Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens … Whereto serves mercy? — throughout this speech Claudius is aware that, however sinful humans may be, they have, through the self-sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God, been offered the chance of redemption (being saved).

More on real repentance: God's forgiveness is offered freely to those who repent, but, because he does not want to give up Gertrude and the Danish throne, Claudius knows that he is not really sorry that he killed his brother. He is aware that true repentance can wipe out all sin, but is equally aware that he is only saying the words of repentance, not really feeling them in his heart. (For further information, see Big ideas: Penitence, repentance, penance)

'Tis not so above. / There is no shuffling — when Claudius comes to judgement before God, he knows that he will not be able to pretend or to hide his guilt.

And so he goes to heaven — Hamlet assumes that Claudius is repenting, and is in a state of grace, unlike Old Hamlet who was killed before he had time to repent. Hamlet wants Claudius to go to hell, and so decides not to kill him at this point.

My words fly up — As Hamlet leaves, the audience learn that Hamlet was wrong: Claudius has been unable to pray. Hamlet has missed another opportunity to take his revenge.

Investigating Hamlet Act III scene iii
  • Look carefully at Claudius' soliloquy.
    • What impression do we have of him?
    • Why might Shakespeare show us a murderer who feels racked by guilt?
  • Look at Hamlet's speech when he finds Claudius praying. Is his desire to send Claudius to hell:
    • a valid and equitable justice?
    • or a vindictive desire to continue vengeance beyond the grave?
    • or could it simply be an excuse for Hamlet to prevaricate yet again?
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