Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Summary of Act III, Scene 1

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confer with Gertrude and Claudius. They say that they have not found out the cause of Hamlet’s moods, but that Hamlet did seem delighted to see the players. Gertrude and Claudius agree to see the play that night as well. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Gertrude leave as Polonius and Claudius conceal themselves to watch the set-up scene between Hamlet and Ophelia unfold.

Hamlet enters, speaking to himself about the question of whether or not it is proper to commit suicide to eliminate the pain of human experience. He says that life is so miserable no one would willingly endure it unless they were terrified of the afterlife. Because we don’t know what will happen after death, we would rather deal with the troubles we have and know.

Hamlet breaks off this train of thought as Ophelia enters. Following her orders from her father, Ophelia tells Hamlet that she wishes to return his love letters. Hamlet angrily denies ever having given Ophelia anything; he complains about the dishonesty of beauty, lamenting that women paint their faces to look more beautiful than they are. Pausing, he asks Ophelia where her father is. He claims both that he loved Ophelia once and that he has never loved her at all. He urges Ophelia to enter a nunnery rather than add to the misery of humankind by breeding “sinners.” At the height of his rage, Hamlet denounces Ophelia, women, and marriage in general. He storms out, and Ophelia quietly laments how Hamlet has apparently gone mad.

As Hamlet leaves, Claudius and Polonius come out of hiding. Claudius notes that Hamlet’s strange behavior does not seem to be due to spurned love, and that he doesn’t sound insane. He fears that instead, Hamlet’s melancholy mood points to brooding on revenge. He declares that he will send Hamlet to England, hoping that a change of scenery will be good for him. Polonius agrees with this plan, but continues to believe that Hamlet’s mood is due to his love for Ophelia. He asks Claudius to send Hamlet to Gertrude’s chamber after the play. Polonius plans to hide himself there and see if Hamlet really is mad with love.

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