Act III, Scene iv

Synopsis of Hamlet Act III scene iv

Hamlet lifts the curtain to discover Polonius' dead bodyPolonius, with Gertrude's connivance, hides behind a wall-hanging in her chamber. Hamlet arrives, and is angry with his mother. She thinks he will attack her so calls out for help. Polonius then calls out too. Thinking it is Claudius behind the curtain, Hamlet stabs through it, and then finds that he has killed Polonius.

Hamlet launches a verbal attack on his mother. He points out the difference between her two husbands — the first a noble and worthy man, the second a foul villain — and scorns her lack of judgement.

As his tirade against her grows wilder, the Ghost appears. Hamlet senses that the Ghost has come to spur him on to take the promised revenge. However Gertrude cannot see the Ghost and thinks Hamlet is mad.

He reassures her that he is perfectly sane, and urges her to stop sleeping with Claudius. He also suggests that she may betray to Claudius that her son is not really mad, but she assures him she will not.

He reminds her that he is being sent to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whom he strongly distrusts. He then leaves, dragging away with him the body of Polonius.

Watch Act III, Scene iv

Accompanying teaching resources

Commentary on Hamlet Act III scene iv

No, by the rood, not so — the ‘rood' is the cross on which Christ was crucified.

More on the rood: It is interesting that Shakespeare makes Hamlet use this symbol of divine forgiveness when he is apparently set on revenge.

Your husband's brother's wife — Hamlet views Gertrude's relationship with Claudius as incest (see Act I scene ii and Act I scene v), as would Shakespeare's audience. (See Social/political context: The grounds for divorce).

As kill a King, and marry with his brother — Hamlet here seems to be accusing Gertrude of complicity in Old Hamlet's murder. Her shocked reaction might be evidence of innocence — but could also indicate guilt, and terror that Hamlet knows. The matter is never resolved for the audience.

Sweet religion makes a rhapsody of words — as Claudius had realised when trying to pray, religion (and in Gertrude's case her marriage vows) involves more than just saying words; the heart and soul must feel the truth of them.

The hey-day in the blood … waits upon the judgement — Hamlet expects a woman of Gertrude's age to have achieved the balance between reason and emotion which he so commended in Horatio (see Act III scene ii).

Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots — Gertrude is made conscious of the sinfulness of her marriage with Claudius. Is she also guilty of adultery and of complicity in murder?

Rank corruption … Infects unseen — an image of corruption at the court infecting the body politic; this is part of a series of images of disease, poison and death which permeate the play (see Imagery and symbolism: Corruption and disease).

That monster, custom … Of habits devil, is angel yet in this — in Act I scene iv, Hamlet had commented to Horatio that custom can be ‘more honoured in the breach' (i.e. it is better to give up habits which are evil). Here he suggests that good habits can take over from evil ones; with an effort of will we can ‘change the stamp of nature'. The contrast of devil and angel may have reminded the Shakespearean audience of morality plays where good and evil fight for the soul. (See The Theatre: Mystery and morality plays).

Heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this and this with me — Hamlet feels God has punished him — perhaps for his violent feelings of vengeance? — by the terrible consequence of Polonius' death.

Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged — Hamlet's image associates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with ideas of betrayal (the serpent in the Garden of Eden) and of poison and death (see Imagery and symbolism: Prisons and punishment).

Hoist with his own petard — the idea of being blown up by your own hidden bomb is another of the images of traps running through the play (see Imagery and symbolism: Traps).

Investigating Hamlet Act III scene iv
  • Is Gertrude's failure to see the Ghost:
    • a sign of her sinfulness, and spiritual blindness, or
    • is the Ghost now only there in Hamlet's mind?
  • Contrast:
    • this appearance of the Ghost, with
    • Act I scenes i and iv, where several people saw it.
  • By killing Polonius, Hamlet is now both the murderer of a father and also a son seeking revenge for the murder of a father. Think about the impact this has on:
    • our attitudes to revenge
    • our attitude to Hamlet
    • the structure of the play.
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