Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 3 Scene 4 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 3, Scene 4

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains Act 3, Scene 4 in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Act 3, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

This scene also takes place on the night of the production of The Murder of Gonzago in which Hamlet has tried to prove to himself that Claudius has killed his father. In the queen's chambers, Polonius instructs Gertrude on speaking with Hamlet and hides himself behind a tapestry before Hamlet enters.

When Hamlet arrives, he and Gertrude begin talking, with Hamlet verbally sparring and growing angry with her. His behavior frightens Gertrude, and she cries out. Polonius cries out in anger from his hiding spot. In response, Hamlet shouts that he hears a rat and stabs Polonius through the tapestry, killing him.

As Hamlet pulls aside the tapestry to find Polonius, both he and Gertrude are hysterical. She is terrified and filled with sorrow for Polonius; Hamlet rages at Gertrude with all the thoughts that have been festering in his brain, including the ideas that Claudius killed King Hamlet and, worse yet, that she may have been part of the scheme to kill his father.

In the chaos of their exchange, the ghost appears. He tells Hamlet he has returned both to put him back on task and to remind him to leave his mother alone. As Hamlet responds to the ghost, it becomes clear Gertrude neither sees nor hears the spirit, and the exchange further convinces her of his madness. Hamlet reminds Gertrude he is being banished to England, and that he knows she has hired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. He leaves her, dragging Polonius's body with him.

Analysis

For some audiences, the killing of Polonius is arguably another point of climax. Tension and emotions certainly remain high after the play-within-a-play murder scene. Audiences are relieved to know the truth, as is Hamlet, and they're also privy to Claudius's confession in the previous scene.

In his mother's chambers, Hamlet is driven both by rage and by a poignant curiosity. He confronts Gertrude to voice his beliefs about his father's murder and question Gertrude's role in it. Before they get into the heat of their discussion, however, she cries out, frightened by Hamlet's wild and impassioned state. This causes Polonius to react—and leads Hamlet to slay him—thinking he has surprised the "rat" Claudius. This is truly a point of no return for Hamlet, and the moment sets off its own chain of events.

The exchange between Hamlet and Gertrude is enough to roust the ghost for a final time—reminding Hamlet not to harm Gertrude. Gertrude, meanwhile, is unable to see or hear the ghost, and is driven to believe that Hamlet is truly mad. This is an interesting moment as well, leaving the audience wondering about the significance of the ghost's injunction. Does it suggest Gertrude's innocence of any involvement? Is it suggestive of the ghost's (King Hamlet's) feelings for the queen? Regardless, the ghost is able to calm down Hamlet.

The scene closes with a somewhat more rational conversation between mother and son, with Gertrude even asking what she should do in light of what Hamlet has told her. Although Hamlet still cannot determine whether Gertrude bears any guilt for his father's death, he warns her away from Claudius and reminds her that he is off to England. Bidding her goodnight, he leaves, dragging Polonius's body with him. Despite their conversation and Hamlet's warnings to protect her, Gertrude still believes he is mad.

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