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Free MonkeyNotes-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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ACT III, SCENE 3

Summary

In a private room of the castle, the King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that it is not safe to let Hamlet's "madness range" and openly admits that Hamlet's insanity poses a personal threat to him. He commissions both the courtiers to accompany the Prince on his visit to England. The courtiers promise to do their best and express their loyalty to the King; they clearly accept that it is their duty to protect the King against all kinds of dangers. Polonius then arrives to tell Claudius the news that Hamlet is going to the Queen's room and that he himself will hide as planned behind the curtain in order to eavesdrop on their conversation. Before leaving, the Chamberlain adds that he will immediately report whatever he learns to the King.

Left alone, Claudius is struck with remorse. For the first time he realizes how serious his crime has been. He reveals he has been unable to pray since he committed the murder and knows that he cannot hope for forgiveness since he still enjoys the fruits of his evil-doing -- his crown and his Queen. In a state of total desperation he calls upon the angels for help and kneels down to pray.


Hamlet enters the room carrying a drawn sword. He has come with the explicit intention of murdering Claudius, but restrains himself when he sees the King in prayer; his mercy, however, is neither kind nor selfless. He reasons that killing Claudius while he is praying will earn him divine mercy and send his soul straight to heaven. Hamlet, therefore, decides to kill Claudius at a time when he is either drinking or sleeping with his "wife." Hamlet leaves Claudius' room to go and see his mother. As Hamlet departs, Claudius gets back on his feet, aware of the inefficacy of his prayers, since while his "words fly up," his "thoughts remain below."

Notes

This scene is crucial for many reasons. It humanizes Claudius to a small degree, showing that he is remorseful and afraid. Acknowledging the horror of his actions, he falls to his knees and again tries to pray. When Hamlet, now filled with a balance of reason and passion, enters the room to murder Claudius, he hesitates. Seeing the man in prayer, he does not want to kill him and send his soul to heaven, negating his revenge. Many critics have chastised Hamlet for still another delay.

In many ways, Hamlet's choice not to kill Claudius at this juncture represents the most significant moment of the tragedy. If Hamlet had acted as planned, the needless deaths of Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude, and Laertes could have been avoided. Indeed, Hamlet himself might have lived. Ironically, the play, however, would have lost its high sense of tragedy, and Hamlet would have been less a tragic hero by stabbing Claudius from behind as he knelt in prayer.


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