Summary and Analysis Act IV: Scene 3


In a public show of concern, Claudius explains to his assembled courtiers that he cannot jail his nephew because Hamlet remains too popular with the people. A riot would inevitably occur if he punished Hamlet for his part in Polonius' death, so instead he will send the young man into exile.

Rosencrantz enters to report that Hamlet will not reveal Polonius' whereabouts. Guildenstern and the Guards then bring Hamlet in, and Claudius demands to know where Hamlet has put Polonius. Hamlet engages in yet another word play with Claudius, taunting him with images of rotting flesh and the corruption of death. He pointedly tells Claudius that just as a fisherman eats a fish that has eaten a worm that was in the grave eating at a king, every man can progress through the guts of beggar. Then he tells Claudius that even if a messenger was sent to heaven, the messenger could not find the old man. He says that Claudius should seek Polonius in hell, even though the old man would not have arrived there yet either. Instead, Hamlet tells him that, within a month's time, the smell "up the stairs into the lobby" will reveal to them the whereabouts of the body. As attendants go to retrieve Polonius' body, Claudius tells Hamlet that a boat waits to take the Prince to England.

As soon as Hamlet and the guards leave, the King soliloquizes a plea to England to finish the Prince quickly and cleanly. The king of England owes him a favor, and he's calling it in by asking the death of Hamlet.


Critics puzzle endlessly over the reason for Hamlet's cat and mouse game with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Claudius over the whereabouts of Polonius' body. Hamlet's apparent madness is both amusing and disturbing. Hamlet is cruel and heartless. He seems to enjoy meting out his measure of torture. His perverse and cruel behavior wholly departs from the heroic figure Hamlet should be. In fact, Hamlet displays characteristics far from heroism in this scene. He exhibits, yet again, a fascination with and terror of death. Unready to face death himself, he imprisons himself more deeply in words and avoids having to kill Claudius. Having murdered Polonius, he has at least been active and need not push himself. Hamlet seems confused, terrified, conflicted; he is coming undone.

The courtiers assemble to learn of Polonius' death, and Claudius maps out the consequences for Hamlet's actions. Hamlet expounds on his worm's meat motif, a repetition of language that Shakespeare uses several times in the play, and that apparently preoccupies Hamlet's mind. The images are gross, troubling, and rife with Hamlet's biting satirical wit. In his rant about the physical realities of death, Hamlet explains is that the fact that all men feed the earth and are, therefore, worm's meat is the great equalizer. The King inquires after Polonius' whereabouts, and Hamlet answers that Polonius is at supper — not supping but rather being supped upon: "Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat King and your lean beggar is but variable service — two dishes but to one table. That's the end."

The moral of his rambling is that, because a man may fish with a worm that has eaten the body of a king, and afterwards eat the fish he has caught, that man has, in essence, devoured a king. Thus, the king passes through the stomach of a beggar and only the worm reigns supreme. Even so, the worm, the king, and the beggar are equal now — they are all dead. Elaborately, Hamlet has called the King a worm.

Hamlet's horror and amusement over death underscore his ambivalence toward his duty. He will reiterate several more times his paradoxical will to die and fear of death before he finally commits his act of vengeance. Yet, he never fails to show his love for the feel of the words he prattles. He allows the words to linger on his tongue; he swills them around and savors them, even when seemingly out of his mind.

Claudius responds by banishing Hamlet to England, and Hamlet tells Claudius that he knows the King's purpose in sending him away. Claudius apparently misses or overlooks the warning and chooses instead to respond to Hamlet's insulting, "Farewell, Mother." Claudius corrects him, offering him an opportunity to apologize. Hamlet then completes the insult by explaining that because man and wife are of one flesh, Claudius is indeed Hamlet's mother. With this insult, Hamlet digs another barb into Claudius about the incest, which always weighs on Hamlet's mind. Claudius finally perceives the depth of the danger Hamlet poses and entreats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to hurry him to England to get him out of the way. Although unknown to everyone but the audience, Claudius now sees that he must instruct the king of England to kill Hamlet. The lines between good and evil appear clearly now as the gray areas that have masked Claudius' dark purposes vanish. Claudius' evolution into the consummate villain is complete.


Deliberate pause a deliberate step, taken after due consideration.

convocation of politic worms a political assembly of worms; an allusion to the Diet of Worms (1521), a convocation held by the Catholic Church to allow Martin Luther to explain his reform of doctrine. He had first set his beliefs forth in Wittenberg, where Hamlet and Horatio have studied.

variable service different courses.

cicatrice scar or wound.

thy free awe your submission even after our armies have been withdrawn.

congruing agreeing.

present immediate; of or at this time.

hectic fever; red or flushed , as with fever.

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