Our Hamlet plot summary picks up with the first three scenes of Act Three.
When we left Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, he had devised a plan to use the performance of a play to “capture the conscience” (II.ii.543-4) of the king. When we rejoin Hamlet the play, Claudius enters with his queen, Polonius, Ophelia, and his spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The king asks for reports. Rosencrantz admits that Hamlet himself admits his “distracted” (III.i.5) state, but nothing more; Guildenstern feels that Hamlet’s “crafty madness” (III.i.8) hides “his true state” (III.i.10). Both Rosencrantz and Polonius note Hamlet’s “joy” (III.i.18) at the players; Claudius states his “content(edness)” (III.i.24) at the news.
At this point, Claudius sends away the courtiers and his wife, as the king and Polonius set Ophelia out as bait for Hamlet while they hide to watch. Hamlet enters and begins what most consider to be (see what I’m doing here?) the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare:
A speech of self-argument, possibly of self-slaughter. We’ll be going over the speech in much greater detail later in our deeper dives into the play, but suffice to say, there’s a lot for the audience (including both we the readers AND Claudius and Polonius) to ponder. Before Hamlet “notices” (my air quotes, not Shakespeare’s actual ones) Ophelia, Hamlet seems to come to the conclusion that either an internal moral view and/or mere conscious thought makes man a cowardly being who will naturally “lose the name of action” (III.i.88).
When he sees her, she says that she has “remembrances” (III.i.93) of Hamlet’s that she wishes to return. He refuses, claiming to have never given her any. And then the cruelty begins:
- asking if she is honest–a double meaning: truthful and chaste
- saying, “I loved you once” (III.i.115), but just as quickly, “I loved you not” (III.i.119)
- telling her, “Get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.121)–another double meaning: a convent and (by its slang) a whorehouse
- giving her (if she marries) as a dowry the “plague” (III.i.135) of slander
- claiming she is false since God has given her “one face, and (she) make(s) (herself) another” (III.i.143-4)
He leaves her in a state of torment and despair, “deject and wretched” (III.i.155), over his “noble … o’erthrown” (III.i.150) mind.
Claudius and Polonius re-enter, and the king does not believe Hamlet’s behavior has anything to do with love:
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness.
The king decides to send Hamlet to England, in hopes that the “seas and countries different” (III.i.171) will cure him of his issues. Polonius still feels that “neglected love” (III.i.179) caused all this and suggests that Gertrude try to get him to “show his grief” (III.i.183), while the old man hides, listening to their conversation. Claudius agrees to this observance, as “madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (III.i.188).
The second scene of the third act begins with Hamlet directing and advising the players on how to present their play to the king. There’s some great, and oft-cited, acting advice here which seem wonderfully anachronistic (given what we know about the more presentational [rather than representational] style of acting in Shakespeare’s day… compared to the more naturalistic style we see today).
The advice given, Hamlet then talks to Horatio and discusses the help he needs from his friend–Horatio is to watch the king during the performance; afterwards, the two will compare notes (“our judgments join” [III.ii.85]).
The audience of this play-within-a-play enters, and while Gertrude asks Hamlet to sit next to her, he chooses to sit next to (and teasingly torment with bawdy innuendo) Ophelia. His “antic disposition” (I.v.175) leans heavily toward the manic, and part of his exchange with Ophelia gives us an idea of how much time has passed since the beginning of the play: if Hamlet’s father had died roughly two months before the opening (I.ii.138), than approximately the same amount as passed since that scene (“twice two months” [III.ii.123]).
The players enter and the dumb-show prologue begins. It depicts the garden murder of
Hamlet, er, “Gonzago.” Hamlet jokes that “the players cannot keep counsel; they’ll tell all” (III.ii.136-7). The Players King and Queen enter and perform their parts, and through their dialogue we meet a sickly king and a queen who says that she’ll only marry “the second (husband) who killed the first” (III.ii.176). The scene is long, and the argument of what is to come repeated often, so much so that when Hamlet asks his mother what she thinks, Gertrude can only respond, “The Lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III.ii.226).
Claudius asks if there’s “no offense” (III.ii.228) in the play, and Hamlet responds that it’s a “knavish piece of work” (III.ii.236), in which the players “poison in jest” (III.ii.230). As Hamlet continues to talk, Ophelia tries to quiet him, but he responds only with bawdy double entendre. He goes on to narrate while the actors play their parts (including the pouring of the poison into the ear of the player king):
- III.ii.257, 259-60
At this point, the king rises, calling for light and an end to the play, and all leave Hamlet and Horatio alone on stage. Their notes don’t need much comparing: it’s obvious.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return to inform Hamlet of the king’s “choler(ic)” (III.ii.298) response and the desire of Gertrude to “speak with (Hamlet) in her closet ere (he) go to bed’ (III.ii.324-5). Seemingly disturbed by Hamlet’s manic antics, Rosencrantz asks Hamlet to reveal the “cause of (his) distemper” (III.ii.330-1). Hamlet takes one of the players’ recorders and asks Guildenstern to play a tune on it. When the courtier says he cannot, as he doesn’t know how, Hamlet pounces, saying how low Hamlet must be in Guildenstern’s estimation than if he thinks Hamlet is “easier to be played on than a pipe” (III.ii.364).
Before this confrontation can go too far, Polonius enters to reiterate Gertrude’s request for Hamlet to visit her. He leaves to meet with her, pausing only to state in soliloquy,
Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
Act Three, Scene Three finds Claudius telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is sending Hamlet away to England and that it will be their job to escort him there. Polonius arrives to tell the king that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude’s closet and that Polonius will “convey (him)self // To hear the process” (III.iii.28-9).
Once Polonius has left, Claudius delivers his first soliloquy and we learn that the Ghost was telling the truth: Claudius’ guilt “hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, // A brother’s murder” (III.iii.37-8). There is regret in his thoughts and words, and he decides to “try what repentance can” (III.iii.65).
When Claudius kneels in an attempt to pray, Hamlet arrives and considers killing his uncle there and then. But if Claudius is praying then Hamlet’s murder of him will send the guilty king to heaven. He decides instead to allow him to live for now, but to take him when “he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, // Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed” (III.iii.89-90). And Hamlet leaves the murderer at prayer.
Of course, the irony is that Claudius couldn’t bring himself to pray, as he proclaims, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; // Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (III.iii.97-8). And thus ends, Act Three, Scene Three.