Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 3 Scene 1 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 3, Scene 1

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains Act 3, Scene 1 in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Claudius and Gertrude interrogate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their discussion with Hamlet. The men have little to report except that the company of players who arrived shortly after they did seemed to have interested and pleased the prince, and that he has directed them to perform for the court this evening. Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to watch the prince and encourage him in this endeavor.

When they leave, Claudius sends Gertrude off so that he, Polonius, and Ophelia can plan the "chance" meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. Through this staged meeting, Claudius and Polonius hope to test Polonius's thought that it is Hamlet's love for Ophelia that is so distracting him. They instruct Ophelia to stroll the hall, seemingly absorbed in a book, while they hide nearby to watch and listen.

Hamlet eventually appears, lost in his thoughts and apparently contemplating suicide. Catching sight of Ophelia, he interrupts his thoughts to speak with her. Ophelia tries to return some gifts he gave her, but, suspicious of her motives, he denies they are from him. He further denies that he loved her, which serves to bewilder and wound Ophelia. The two have an impassioned discussion, reeling in confusion and a mutual feeling of betrayal. Hamlet orders her to a nunnery and leaves.

Claudius and Polonius come to Ophelia's side, shocked by what they have witnessed. Polonius insists Hamlet's love for Ophelia—love that Polonius made her refuse—is at the root of the prince's madness. Claudius, already beginning to show a guilty conscience as an earlier aside suggests, is now convinced that Hamlet is brooding on something bigger—something that could be dangerous to his position. Although he initially refutes the idea that Hamlet is mad, he does say that madness should not go unchecked. He decides to send Hamlet to England, away from the stress of Denmark. Polonius agrees that sending him abroad is the best course, but also suggests trying one last idea: sending the queen to speak with Hamlet after the play that evening, while he (Polonius) hides nearby to witness the conversation. Claudius consents.

Analysis

This scene contains Hamlet's "to be, or not to be" soliloquy, which continues as one of literature's most-quoted lines—and it captures the essence of both this scene and the entire play. When Hamlet says those lines as part of a longer soliloquy, he is at his most sorrowful and weary. With these words, Hamlet contemplates how a person deals with what he calls a "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" world. While many audiences take this passage as giving voice to a struggle between suicide and existence, another interpretation suggests this is Hamlet's dilemma with living in a way that is true to oneself or not.

The notion of living true to oneself fits nicely into the truth versus deception theme.

From their initial appearance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are doing anything but living truthfully. They have so fully aligned themselves with Claudius, it is as if they forgot the basis of what brought them here: their friendship with Hamlet.

Likewise, almost everything Claudius and Polonius do is based on deceit. The ability to act from an honest motive—to be true to themselves or to the greater good—seems to have escaped both politicians a long time ago. Although Polonius uses deceit to protect his appearance and good standing, by the end of the play, his dishonesty has contributed in a bigger way.

For instance, his meddling in the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia was primarily motivated by how Ophelia's actions might affect his reputation. He didn't stop to consider her reputation or Hamlet and Ophelia's feelings for each other.

While this interference doesn't seem of great consequence at first, it actually contributes to Hamlet's deepening feelings of isolation and sorrow and Ophelia's emotional breakdown. Claudius, meanwhile, has abandoned truth; it is a challenge to think of an action he takes that is honest—short of the discussion he had with himself about seeking pardon for his sin if he retains the profits of them.

Even Ophelia is coerced away from being true to herself, although if we consider the time, society, and, most especially, position that each of the sexes held—not to mention Ophelia's youth and apparent naïveté—her choices can be seen as less dishonest than compliant to men of authority around her.

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