Summary and Analysis Act III: Scene 4


Polonius, obscured by the tapestry, has prophetically and ironically placed himself to "silence me e'en here" and quietly observes what transpires between Gertrude and her son. In a passionate outburst, Hamlet threatens his mother, holding up a mirror and saying, "You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you." Gertrude, terrified, assumes that her son intends to murder her and calls for help, to which the hidden Polonius reacts without revealing himself. Still impassioned by his encounter with Gertrude, still inflamed with his sexual tension, Hamlet stabs Polonius. In a grandly impulsive moment, Hamlet has finally acted on his bloodlust, a bloodlust he has sublimated until this moment. According to the post-Freudian interpretation, the need to expiate his misplaced sexual feelings has caused him to stop thinking and act for a change. The irony all belongs to Polonius; he is there to trap Hamlet and finds himself trapped instead. He has said he will silence himself, and he is indeed silenced. There is both simple irony and dramatic irony.

The Ghost's invisibility to Gertrude raises the question of Hamlet's sanity. We can interpret Shakespeare's choice to blind Gertrude to the Ghost's presence and to deafen her ears to her son's insistence that the Ghost exists to mean that Shakespeare fashioned Hamlet as a madman, no longer merely acting the part. Of course, one can also make a case for interpreting the scene as an indictment of Gertrude. She refuses to see the Ghost because of her own guilt. Gertrude's black heart impedes her vision, refusing her the sight of her loving husband. On the other hand, perhaps she does see the Ghost and only pretends not to. Then again, you may interpret the scene as being another proof of Gertrude's innocence.

Up until this scene, judging the extent of Gertrude's complicity in the murder of King Hamlet has been difficult. She now implies that she is entirely innocent. Hamlet counters her horror at Polonius' death with his own accusation

A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother
As kill a king, and marry his brother.

She answers in innocent surprise, "As kill a king?" Then she asks him, "What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?"

If she is guilty, she is also an accomplished actor. According to all appearances, the Ghost was right when he told Hamlet earlier that she was only a follower — a weak woman brainwashed by her need to be loved and cared for. She can discern no other reason for Hamlet to behave in such a way except to hurt her. Gertrude remains incredulous as Hamlet perseveres with his indictment of Claudius as a "murderer and a villain." She does not agree to end Claudius' advances. Hamlet asks her to "prevent the "bloat King" from tempting her to bed again, but she never promises to confess herself and leave the King, and she never tries to convince Hamlet that Claudius is innocent. Nor does she plead for herself or try to make Hamlet see why she chose to marry Claudius.

At the scene's end, as if in a test of his mother's devotion, Hamlet tells Gertrude that Claudius is sending him to England and that he suspects foul play in his uncle's having hired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take him there. He says he does not trust them and he confides his fear. Gertrude offers no argument and provides no reassurance. She simply tells him in effect that she'll think about it and lets him leave. In a world where seeming, acting, and playing predominate, judging any character's honesty is difficult. The ambiguities enhance the character, and shroud her in mystery. These characteristics pose a formidable challenge for an actor, making Gertrude a choice role.

Hamlet's immediate acquiescence to his father's will here is significant. Whether the Ghost is real or a figment of his imagination, the old king has successfully yanked Hamlet from the preoccupation with Gertrude that has distracted his quest for retribution. Hamlet leaves Gertrude affectionately. He repeats "Good night" five times and progressively wishes for her peace. He asks her rather than ordering her to keep clear of the king's advances, and he confides his fears about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He then takes Polonius' body as a favor to her, not as obligation to the murdered good old man.

Continued on next page...

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