Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act III, Scene 4

Hamlet clearly enters his mother’s room with an agenda, but its content isn’t clear. Is he trying to get to her to admit that she knows Claudius killed her father, thus implicating herself? Or does he want to know whether she actually participated in the murder? Does he want to confess his own deceptions to her, to get her on his side?

While any or all of these are possible, what Hamlet actually does is to urge his mother to repent choosing Claudius over his father, her former husband. Rather specifically, he urges her to avoid sleeping with Claudius, using a number of rather graphic details to describe what she should not be doing with him. In this scene, the theme of incest developed earlier in the play through Laertes’ rather graphic conversations with Ophelia and Hamlet’s initial problems with his mother and uncle marrying come back to the fore.

Hamlet’s speech to his mother also develops the play’s motif of words working as poison that enters through the ears; he uses multiple metaphors regarding ears, hearing, and poison, all of which have to do with what his mother has heard others – specifically Claudius – say about him.

This scene also provides the most nuanced development of Gertrude’s character, another topic that has divided critics for centuries. Some critics see Gertrude as a hidden villain, complicit in her first husband’s murder as a way to get rid of him and marry Claudius. Others see her as desperate to preserve her social standing, thus driving her to marry Claudius in order to remain queen. Whatever the case, Gertrude goes through a number of emotional changes in this scene. She is haughty at first, becomes genuinely afraid Hamlet will hurt her, is shocked when Hamlet kills Polonius and when he accuses her of being involved in his father’s death, terrified as Hamlet harangues her, and disbelieving when Hamlet sees the ghost. The scene ends with Gertrude, completely broken down by the series of emotional shocks she endures, contrite and willing to do whatever it is Hamlet asks.

Some critics have interpreted Gertrude’s compliance at the end of the scene as evidence that she tends to be dominated by powerful men and to need a man to tell her what to think and how to feel. This explanation would also explain why she married Claudius so soon after her first husband’s death (whether or not she participated in the murder) and why she is so willing to take Hamlet’s side in this scene – as well as why she immediately reports Hamlet’s behavior to Claudius when he asks, even though she had promised Hamlet not to do so.

Hamlet’s stabbing of Polonius is perhaps the only decisive action he takes until the play’s final scene, making it highly significant. While it is decisive, it is also undertaken blindly – he stabs through the tapestry without thinking about the possible consequences or even knowing who is actually on the other side. If Hamlet had stopped to think, he almost certainly would not have acted. When he realizes what he has done, Hamlet interprets his actions in the same terms of sin and retribution he used when deciding whether or not to kill Claudius at prayer.