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Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 3 Scene 3 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 3, Scene 3

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

Hamlet | Act 3, Scene 3 | Summary



This scene takes place the same evening as the production of The Murder of Gonzago. After everyone has dispersed from the hall where the play was performed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet with Claudius. Claudius tells them that Hamlet, being dangerous in his madness, must be taken away to England for everyone's safety. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accept the assignment and leave to prepare.

Polonius comes to Claudius, reporting that Hamlet is headed to see Gertrude in her chambers. Polonius hurries off to hide somewhere in the vicinity so that he may observe the interaction between mother and son.

Left alone, Claudius contemplates the murder that audiences now know he committed. In a soliloquy, he talks about seeking forgiveness for his sin and praying over it—and he wonders about being pardoned for it if he retains all the power he gained in committing it. From his speech, it appears Claudius wants to be pardoned for his deed but not if getting pardoned means giving up crown and queen.

Hamlet, en route to see his mother, finds Claudius attempting to pray. He momentarily considers killing the king then and there but realizes—according to beliefs of the time—that if he were to kill Claudius while in prayer and seeking repentance (which he thinks Claudius is)—he would inadvertently send him straight to heaven. With that, he moves on to find his mother.


This scene gives the audience deeper knowledge about Claudius. From his plans to have Hamlet sent to England, to his continued scheming with Polonius, to his confession of the murder when he is alone, Claudius's character inches more and more into the light of day—finally appearing as he is: guilty, scheming, and intent on retaining his newly captured position and power.

Particularly interesting is Claudius's attempt at prayer. With possibly his last bit of inner goodness, he wonders if it is possible to be forgiven for his deed if he is still in possession of the rewards gained from it. Clearly he has no intention of giving up any of it; the power that comes with the trappings is too great, and it overwhelms any goodness left inside him. "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below," he concludes at last, realizing the futility of what he is doing.

Another fascinating moment in this scene is when Hamlet, en route to his mother's chamber, comes upon Claudius attempting prayer. Hamlet realizes this could be his moment for revenge. He hesitates, fearing that killing Claudius while he's engaged in a conversation with God will send his soul straight to heaven rather than hell. Hamlet recalls that Claudius did not give his father that benefit and so puts up his sword and continues to Gertrude's chambers. Some critics point to this as just another example of Hamlet's inability to act; Hamlet's refusal to kill Claudius in prayer is just another excuse.

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