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Scene 3.1

Scene 3.1 - Within the Castle

The following day Claudius interviews Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping they have discovered a possible source for Hamlet's madness. They have little to report and - fearful further conversation might reveal that Hamlet knows full well of their mission - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern quickly change the subject, talking instead about the players who have arrived. Polonius adds that Hamlet has invited the King and Queen to see the play this very night. Happy to hear Hamlet is enthusiastic about the play, Claudius and Gertrude readily agree to attend. Claudius then asks Gertrude to leave because Hamlet will be arriving soon, and Claudius would like to be alone with Polonius to witness the encounter with Ophelia. Before departing, the good-natured Gertrude wishes Ophelia well, saying she hopes it is indeed Ophelia's beauty that has caused Hamlet's "wildness," for her virtues should then be equally able to restore him. Polonius next prepares Ophelia for Hamlet's impending visit. Claudius, prompted by an offhand comment Polonius utters about the goodly outside of falsehood, makes a stunning confession in an aside to the audience: he is in fact guilty of the former King's murder! Hamlet, however, isn't yet privy to this information.

Hamlet then enters and speaks the most famous soliloquy of English literature: "To be, or not to be, that is the question - / Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep - / No more; and by a sleep to say we end / The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to - 'tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished." There is no consensus among scholars on what "the question" exactly is, but two of the most frequent interpretations are 1) that Hamlet is discussing whether it is more noble to endure a difficult life or to commit suicide or 2) that Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" more precisely means "To act, or not to act," and that he is presently wracked by his indecision and lack of resolve. In either case, it seems clear enough from the speech that Hamlet is deeply troubled, at a complete loss as to what he should do next. He concedes that the uncertainty of what comes after death leads most people to bear their burdens rather than commit suicide, especially since the latter is unacceptable in the eyes of God - "thus conscience does make cowards of us all." It is this same conscience that prevents Hamlet, despite his earlier promise to the ghost, from striking down Claudius before he is fully convinced of the King's guilt: "the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." That is, thinking at length about right and wrong, good and evil, salvation and damnation, has obscured his initial resolve to revenge his father's murder.

On this gloomy note the hapless Ophelia enters. Hamlet says he loved her once, only to follow with the comment that she shouldn't have believed him, for he loved her not. Stunned, Ophelia says she was deceived, for she was quite certain he did in fact love her. Harsh Hamlet spouts "Get thee to a nunnery," the only place where she can escape the wicked inclinations of others and herself. Some critics have taken "nunnery" to mean "brothel" (a connotation it sometimes had in colloquial speech) - which would make Hamlet's comment all the more cruel - but this remains a much-disputed reading. It seems clear enough that Hamlet's disgust with humanity lies behind these words: it is best that no one reproduce, the sooner to make an end of humankind's sinfulness. He therefore wishes infertility on Ophelia should she ever marry. Aghast at Hamlet's wounding words, Ophelia bemoans the mind that she witnesses here overthrown as Hamlet walks off stage saying "To a nunnery, go." Claudius and Polonius enter on the heels of Hamlet's departure. "Love?" Claudius questions. There is no doubt in his mind that Hamlet is not suffering from the unrequited love of Ophelia, as Polonius suggested, nor does he think his nephew-son is completely crazy. Claudius detects something else but isn't sure what. Perhaps a trip to England - the fresh ocean air, a different country - will shake Hamlet out of this funk? England, after all, is late in paying its tribute to Denmark and Hamlet could act as collector. Polonius concurs, although he remains convinced Hamlet's grief is really just love-sickness for Ophelia. Before shipping Hamlet off to England, however, Polonius proposes that he arrange and overhear a conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude in which she tries to draw out the source of his madness. If this last-ditch effort fails, Claudius and Polonius agree, then off to England it is for Hamlet.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Scene 1.1
Scene 1.2
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scene 1.5
Scene 2.1
Scene 2.2
Scene 3.1
Scene 3.2
Scene 3.3
Scene 3.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7
Scene 5.1
Scene 5.2


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