Fearing that Hamlet is a threat to his life and throne, the King summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and instructs them to hurry and take Hamlet to England. The men agree, acknowledging that any threat to Claudius is a threat to the people of Denmark, so they will keep Denmark safe by removing Hamlet from its shores. They leave, and Polonius enters to inform the King that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude and that Polonius plans to hide there and eavesdrop on the conversation. Promising to report back to Claudius before Claudius retires to bed, Polonius leaves.
Claudius then prays at his private altar, although he says his sin is so great that it renders him incapable of praying. He admits before God that he has committed the "primal eldest curse" by carrying out his "brother's murder." He admits that his contrition is unforgivable since he is unwilling to give up the spoils of his ill-won battles. He begs instead that some divine assistance might bow his knees and soften his heart so that he can ask for forgiveness.
Hamlet enters and sees Claudius in prayer. He recognizes his perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, but stops himself. He remembers that Claudius killed King Hamlet without allowing him any opportunity to make amends for his sins, and that King Hamlet now languishes in purgatory awaiting entry to heaven. Believing that Claudius is praying for forgiveness, Hamlet knows that by killing Claudius now, he would send the King straight to heaven. Claudius would escape the eternal punishment that is his due.
From the top of the scene, any ambiguity concerning Claudius' character disappears. He identifies Hamlet as his enemy and plots to have him dispatched to England. He conspires with Polonius to spy on Hamlet yet again. Then, kneeling in prayer before sleeping, the King confesses the depth and severity of his crime. He likens himself to Cain, the primal or first murderer, and admits that he cannot bring himself to ask for God's mercy. "But oh, what form of prayer / can serve my turn?" Claudius knows that he will never abdicate the throne, nor will he give up Gertrude and all "those effects for which I did murder," such as his power and position. He expects to spend eternity in hell.
Hamlet enters as the King kneels with his back toward Hamlet. Hamlet reaches for his sword, and the ambiguity shifts to Hamlet. His Christian morality informs him that because the King appears to pray, he is probably confessing. By ending his life in mid-confession, Hamlet would allow the King to go straight to heaven by virtue of his cleansed soul. Hamlet would prefer to send the King to hell. He has no problem with the immorality of robbing a man of his salvation. Hamlet is capable of imitating King Claudius' cruelty.
Some critics believe that Hamlet vacillates yet again in yet another self-deception of word play. In fact, this moment represents the pivotal point in the play — the moment of truth. Had Hamlet taken charge and acted rather than retreating into his words, he would have prevented the six deaths that follow. Most importantly, the tragic hero might not have met his inevitable end. Then, of course, the play would have been cut short, and no tragedy would exist. Had Hamlet killed Claudius here, he would have more closely resembled Macbeth who murdered innocence — in Macbeth's own words, "Macbeth hath murdered sleep" — by taking the life of an unprotected, unaware King. The action would label Hamlet a villain, not a hero. Claudius survives in order to preserve Hamlet's character.
weal a sound or prosperous state; well-being; welfare.
cease of majesty death of a king.
mortis'd firmly joined.
arras a tapestry wall hanging.
tax him home take him to task.
primal eldest curse that is, the one pronounced upon Cain in for the murder of his brother. Primal here means original.
broad blown in full blossom.
hent to grasp; in this case, a time for action.
physic the art or science of healing.