Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4:

Page Index:

Enter Queen and Polonius:
The location of this scene is the Queen's closet. Ever since Laurence Olivier's film version of Hamlet, there's been a huge bed in the closet, and all too often Hamlet and Gertrude have bounced around on it. Forget that. Remember that Hamlet paid Ophelia his silent visit while she was sewing in her closet. The bed is in the "bedchamber," and a "closet" is a small study or sewing room.

Before he hides behind the arras (a heavy curtain) Polonius gives the Queen instructions. When Hamlet comes, she is supposed to chew him out, even threaten him. Polonius says, "Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with, / And that your grace hath screen'd and stood between / Much heat and him" (3.2-4).

Enter Hamlet:
When Hamlet comes in, the Queen follows Polonius' instructions. She starts right out with "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended" (3.4.9) Of course this offends Hamlet. By "father" she means the King, and Hamlet knows him as his father's murderer, not his father. He throws her words back in her face with "Mother, you have my father much offended." This sort of exchange continues until the Queen threatens to "set those to you that can speak." She means that she'll get somebody else to talk to him, someone who will make him listen. At this point we might wish that Shakespeare had written more stage directions, because there seems to be some action of Hamlet's that frightens the Queen very badly. Perhaps she starts toward the door and he grabs her and throws her into a chair as he says, "Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge; / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you" (3.4.18-20). Or perhaps he just accidentally rests his hand on his sword. Whatever Hamlet's action is, somehow his tremendous anger makes contact with her guilty conscience, and she screams "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?" When she screams, Polonius yells "help," and Hamlet says, "How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!" He stabs through the arras, killing Polonius, whose last words are "O, I am slain." (This is realistic in a physical sense. A person who has a sword driven through his heart has about enough time for four words before he dies.)

Hamlet stabs through the arras:
After Polonius, still unseen, dies behind the arras, there is a moment that raises many questions. Here it is:
QUEEN   O me, what hast thou done?
HAMLET   Nay, I know not:
Is it the king?
QUEEN   O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET   A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
QUEEN   As kill a king!
HAMLET   Ay, lady, 'twas my word.   (3.4.25-30)
We may ask just what Hamlet intended when he stabbed through the arras. And what does he mean by "Nay, I know not: / Is it the King?" Did he mean to kill the King? Or did he strike blindly and the next instant hope that he had killed the King? If he meant to kill the King, how could he have thought it was the King behind the arras? About three minutes ago (in stage time) Hamlet walked away from the King, leaving him on his knees in apparent prayer. If he struck blindly, why? There was no imminent danger.

In addition, Hamlet's words, "almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother," constitute a direct accusation that his mother participated in the murder of her husband. If this is a fact, it's a very important fact, and a new one, because the Ghost made no such accusation. On the other hand, later in the scene Hamlet calls the King a "murderer and a villain" (3.4.96), and the Queen doesn't deny it or express any surprise. Whatever the case, we never find out whether or not the Queen was an accessory to the murder of her husband. After Hamlet says, "Ay, lady, 'twas my word," he drops the subject, and it doesn't come up again. (There is a version of Hamlet  called "Q1" by scholars, in which the Queen says that this is the first she knew about the murder, but that version is not considered particularly reliable.) Critics have referred to Hamlet  as a "mystery story," but no good mystery would let such a long thread dangle.

These questions lead to more. Is the uncertainty about Hamlet's motivations and the Queen's actions something that Shakespeare wanted in the play, perhaps to indicate the characters' lack of self-knowledge? Or is the "uncertainty" just the result of our thinking too hard about a scene that was meant to be performed quickly?

Returning to the story, Hamlet now draws back the arras and finds the body of Polonius. He has only a few contemptuous words for the body. Hamlet says he thought Polonius was the King, and that Polonius now knows that it's dangerous to stick your nose in other people's business.

Immediately after this, Hamlet turns back to his mother, tells her to stop wringing her hands, shut up, and sit down, so that he can "wring [her] heart" (3.4.35). What follows is one of the most harrowing passages in the whole play. In a storm of words, Hamlet overwhelms the Queen's feeble attempts to defend herself. Hamlet tells her that what she has done makes meaningless "modesty," "virtue," "innocent love," "marriage vows," and "sweet religion." He shows her pictures of her two husbands, King Claudius and King Hamlet. He is very rough with her psychologically, and maybe physically, too. Often in performances, the picture of Hamlet's father is in a locket that he wears, and the picture of the King is in a locket that the Queen wears. Hamlet then uses the chain of the Queen's locket to jerk her towards him and make her look. When she looks she should see that King Hamlet had features like the gods, so that the whole world could see that he was a real "man" (3.4.62). She should see that Claudius is "like a mildew'd ear, / Blasting his wholesome brother" (3.4.64-65). And she should see that she can't really see, that taking King Claudius instead of King Hamlet shows that she has "Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight, / Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all" (3.4.78-79).

She pleads with him to "speak no more," but he rushes on to the heart of his anger, which is that she is living "In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty" (3.4.92-94). He is shouting or weeping, or perhaps doing both at once.

Enter Ghost:
If performed with passion, this scene is nerve-wracking. Hamlet is not asking his mother a question she can answer, or making a request that she can possibly fulfill. He is simply unloading on her, and there seems to be no end in sight, until the moment when, as Hamlet continues to rave on about the King, the Ghost appears to him.

When Hamlet speaks to the Ghost, his mother, who sees nothing, concludes that he's mad. Hamlet has a different analysis of himself. He asks the Ghost, "Do you not come your tardy son to chide, / That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by / The important acting of your dread command? (3.4.106-108). We can understand why Hamlet considers himself "lapsed in time"; a few minutes ago he had an opportunity to kill the King and passed it up. More interesting is "lapsed in . . . passion." He is acknowledging that he'd rather chew out his mother than revenge his father.

The Ghost has two messages for Hamlet. Hamlet is to take revenge, but right now he is to help his mother, to "step between her and her fighting soul (3.4.113). So Hamlet, considered mad by his mother, must make sure that she doesn't go mad. Following the Ghost's command, Hamlet asks his mother how she's doing, and she replies by asking him what he's looking at. Wanting him to calm down, she describes him to himself. "Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep," she says, and "Your bedded hair, like life in excrements , / Starts up, and stands on end" (3.4.121-122). "Excrements" means "outgrowths," not what it means now, and his hair is "bedded" simply because it's combed. She is saying that his hair, standing on end, seems to have taken on a life of its own. This description of Hamlet repeats what the Ghost had predicted would happen if Hamlet learned the "secrets" of his "prison-house." That knowledge, the Ghost said, would "Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, / Thy knotted and combined locks to part / And each particular hair to stand on end" (1.5.17-19). Perhaps it is impossible for any actor playing Hamlet to make his hair stand on end, but this is how we should see him in our mind's eye. We can understand why his mother thinks he's mad.

Hamlet points to the Ghost and tries to make his mother see, saying "His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones, / Would make them capable" (3.4.126-127). He means she should be able to see and hear the Ghost, because the Ghost's appearance, together with the story of his murder, would make the very stones understand. Then he speaks to the Ghost, and asks him to not look at him, "Lest with this piteous action you convert / My stern effects: then what I have to do / Will want true color; tears perchance for blood" (3.4.128-130). Hamlet is a thinking man, but here he seems to not be thinking, only reporting a strange emotional encounter with himself. He is afraid that the pitiful image of the Ghost will be so powerful in his mind that he will weep, rather than kill. (Or perhaps it's his mother who is looking at Hamlet, and perhaps it's his pity for her that will overcome him and make him forget his promise to take blood revenge.)

Exit Ghost:
After the Ghost "steals away," the Queen tells Hamlet that his vision of the Ghost is an effect of his madness. Hamlet seems offended. He offers to "reword" what he has said in order to prove his sanity, and then returns to the attack. He tells her that she's only flattering herself if she thinks the problem is his madness rather than her "trespass." He concludes with the sarcastic request that she "Forgive me this my virtue" (3.4.152).

Her response is, "O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain" (3.4.156). If she means that she has a deep inner conflict, it's hard to see just what it is. A little earlier, she said that Hamlet was turning "mine eyes into my very soul; / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct" (3.4.89-91). But what are those "spots"? She has not admitted any complicity in King Hamlet's murder, and she has not agreed with Hamlet's idea that her intimate relations with her husband are naturally nasty.

Nevertheless, Hamlet proceeds as though she knows she's committed a terrible sin. He says "Good night," but then asks (or commands) her to stay out of her husband's bed. He tells her that if she at least pretends to be virtuous, she will becomes virtuous indeed. And he explains that virtue will get easier as she goes along, until it is habitual. He says, "Refrain to-night, / And that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence: the next more easy" (3.4.165-167). At this point it is impossible to keep from noticing what Hamlet does not say. He doesn't ask for any information about his father's murder. He doesn't ask for his mother's assistance in revenging his father's murder. His seems to be interested in only one thing: his mother's sexual relationship with his uncle.

Apparently the Queen has no idea of how to respond to her son. His tone softening, Hamlet says "good night" again and promises to ask her blessing if she should ask for his. He notices Polonius' body and says he repents killing him, although he seems to be only sorry for the trouble that Polonius' death is going to cause. He says, "heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister" (3.4.173-175). He means that he is an agent of heavenly justice, and that being an agent of heavenly justice is itself a punishment. He knows that he's going to have to answer for Polonius' death, and perhaps is looking for a little motherly sympathy, but when he says "good night" for the third time, she still doesn't respond. Finally, he demands "One word more, good lady," and she answers "What shall I do?" (3.4.180).

What else could she say? Hamlet's anger has made her feel guilty, but how could she go to her husband and explain that because her mad son considers him to be an ugly, murdering villain, she's not going to have sex with him anymore? Her "What shall I do?" makes Hamlet angry again. He sarcastically bids her to "Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed; / Pinch wanton on your cheek" (3.4.182-183), so that--and here his speech veers wildly into new territory--she will "ravel all this matter out, / That I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft" (3.4.186-188). This is the first time that we've heard that she's supposed to know that he's only pretending to be mad. And it's also a surprise to learn that Hamlet now thinks that his mother should stay out of her husband's bed so that she won't tell her son's secret. And Hamlet's not done. He compares her to a "famous ape" who climbed a rooftop, where he let some birds out of a basket, and then, thinking that the basket might enable him to fly, too, climbed into the basket, whereupon the basket fell to the ground, breaking the ape's neck. It's not clear how all the points of the ape story relate to the Queen, but it is clear that he's suggesting that if she tells his secret, she may well get herself into more trouble than she knows how to get out of.

Whether she's afraid of Hamlet, or loves him, or both, the Queen promises that "I have no life to breathe / What thou hast said to me" (3.4.198-199). Hamlet then asks if she knows that he "must to England." She does. (How Hamlet got the information, we don't know.) She's sorry that he has to go, but Hamlet boasts that he knows that he can't trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that he will outdo their "knavery." In fact, it will be fun, "For 'tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard" (3.4.206-207). The picture that Hamlet paints is indeed somewhat comical, in a cartoonish sort of way. An "engineer" is a soldier who digs tunnels ("mines") to the walls of a castle. The idea is place a bomb ("petard") at the foundations of the castle and blow a hole in the castle wall. So the engineer who is "hoist with his own petard" is one whose own bomb explodes in his face, blowing him up through the roof of the tunnel.

Finally, Hamlet is done with his mother. Looking at Polonius, he says, "This man shall set me packing: / I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room" (3.4.211-212). There seems to be something about Polonius that inspires Hamlet to make puns, because he makes a couple at Polonius' expense as he is dragging out the body, the last of which is "Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you" (3.4.216). He means that he drawing toward the end of his dealings with Polonius, as he is drawing (dragging) him out of the room. And with a final "Good night, mother," he is gone. The Queen never does say "good night" to him.