As promised, Polonius arrives in Gertrude's room before Hamlet and hides himself behind an arras. He instructs Gertrude to be entirely blunt with her son. Hamlet enters challenging, "Now, Mother, what's the matter?" Gertrude tells him he has badly offended his father, meaning Claudius; Hamlet answers that she has badly offended his father, meaning King Hamlet. Hamlet intimidates Gertrude, and she cries out that he is trying to murder her. Polonius reacts from behind the curtain and yells for help. Hamlet draws his sword and thrusts it through the tapestry, killing Polonius. When Hamlet lifts the wallhanging and discovers Polonius' body, he tells the body that he had believed he was stabbing the King. He then turns his attention to punishing Gertrude. He presses contrasting pictures of Claudius and his brother in Gertrude's face. He points out King Hamlet's godlike countenance and courage, likening Claudius to an infection in King Hamlet's ear. He accuses Gertrude of lustfulness, and she begs him to leave her alone.
King Hamlet's Ghost reappears to Hamlet, but only Hamlet can see him. Hamlet believes that the Ghost has come to chide his tardy son into carrying out the "dread command," but Hamlet then perceives the Ghost as his mother's protector. The Ghost tells his son to be kinder to her. Gertrude is utterly convinced now that her son is hallucinating from a devil-inspired madness, but Hamlet tells her that it is not madness that afflicts him. He begs her to confess her guilt to him and to heaven. At the very least, he begs her, don't sleep with Claudius or let him "go paddling in your neck with his damned fingers."
He asks if she knows that Claudius is sending him to England; she had forgotten. He tells her that he distrusts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that they are undoubtedly taking him to England to do some foul bidding for Claudius. She confesses that she knows about the exile. He bids his mother good night and exits, pulling Polonius' body behind him.
Although a closet was a private room in a castle, and a bedroom was meant for receiving visitors, the convention since the late 19th century has been to stage the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in Gertrude's bedroom. Staging the scene in the closet rather than in a bedroom is more in line with the Freudian psychoanalysis of an Oedipal Hamlet — a man resembling the Greek character Oedipus who bedded his mother and killed his father. If Gertrude received him in her closet, she treated him more as an intimate than as a son.
Up until this scene, one can dismiss the notion that Shakespeare envisioned a prince whose love for his mother was unnatural and itself incestuous. One can rationalize Hamlet's hysteria over Gertrude's marriage to Claudius in light of the Renaissance notion of family honor and the prevailing definitions of incest, which implicated Gertrude and Claudius. But in Act III, Scene 4, no better way exists for the modern thinker to justify Hamlet's behavior than to suppose that he has a Freudian attachment to Gertrude.
Though not the first to cast Hamlet in an Oedipal light, Laurence Olivier popularized the notion of an untoward love between Hamlet and his mother in the 1947 Royal Shakespeare Company production and again in the 1948 film version. In the film, Olivier, playing Hamlet opposite his wife in the role of Gertrude, staged the scene so that it was stripped of all its ambiguities. He dressed Gertrude's bed in satin, and he dressed the Queen, awaiting her son's arrival, in the same suggestively folded satin and silk. The two engage in a verbal exchange that possesses the breathless engagement of foreplay, and Hamlet then presses himself onto his mother in an overtly sexual way. The scene is believable played this way, especially given that Claudius will tell us shortly that Gertrude "lives almost by his looks," and because Hamlet's melodramatic reaction to his father's passing seems so wooden without that underpinning of deep emotion.
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