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Summary Act III


Distressed to hear, that despite their best efforts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had failed to get at the source of his nephew’s distemper, Claudius eagerly becomes an accessory to another one of Polonius’ spying schemes. This time Ophelia is to confront Hamlet and to dissimulate a spurned lover. The trap is sprung, but what follows--a scathing diatribe of humankind in general--is so far off from what Polonius believes to be the source of Hamlet’s distemper, that Claudius, fearing for his own safety, decides to send Hamlet to England at once, arguing that a change of scenary would do his nephew good. However, Polonius, who still believes that unrequited love is the source of Hamlet’s distemper, despite all the evidence to the contrary, dissuades Claudius, insisting that he--Polonius--should be allowed to spy on Hamlet one more time before the decision is acted upon. His wish is granted.


Additional character(s): P. King--the actor's role depicting the king in Hamlet's play within the play; P. Queen--the actor's role depicting the queen in Hamlet's play within the play

Hamlet is making final preparations for the play that he had conceived for the express purpose of provoking the king when Polonius appears to announce that the king and queen would be in attendance soon. Hamlet takes a moment to confide in Horatio. They will both keep a close eye on the king for how he reacts to the play will determine the credibility of the ghost and of its claims. By and by the king and queen emerge and with them Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The play begins with a prologue that depicts a king and a queen in love which love is cut short by the poisoning of the king by the king’s rival who then proceeds to woo the widowed queen. Claudius questions Hamlet if he thinks the play is in good taste, and Hamlet replies that the play is make-believe, that any spectator whose conscience is free would take no offense. The play proper begins and again a king and a queen in love is depicted. They are discussing the nature of their love, the king resigned to the inevitability of his mortality and the probability that his queen would take another husband were he to die before her. The queen rejects the king’s supposition, arguing that her faith to her first husband is for all time and that any queen who would take a second husband is committing an act equal to killing her first husband. Suddenly King Claudius rises, demands that lights be turned on, and then flees the scene. Hamlet is ecstatic and prances about only to be censured by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They tell him that he is report to his mother, a message seconded by Polonius.


King Claudius urges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make preparations for their departure to England where they are to escort Hamlet. Alone, the king tries to pray. However, is it possible, he asks himself, to ask for and be granted forgiveness when he is yet in possession of those things he had gained as a result of his crimes? He doesn’t think so, but out of desperation he tries to pray anyway. Almost simultaneously, Hamlet, who is en route to his mother’s room, espies his uncle in the act of praying. He has a mind to kill his uncle only to suspect that he might be doing his uncle a favor. Indeed, as his uncle has done to his father, so Hamlet would do to his uncle. Vengeance will be exacted when his uncle is in the midst of vice and sin.


Polonius hides behind an arras as Hamlet appears before his mother. The mother castigates the son, but the son is remorseless. Indeed, the son is critical of the mother, in turn, which upsets her to the extent that she decides to end the conference there and then. Hamlet bars Gertrude from doing her will, however, alarming her. Her distress is felt by Polonius who in a panic betrays his concealment. Hamlet draws his rapier and slays the spy, suspecting and hoping it is the king. Discovering the slain body to be Polonius, Hamlet pities the old fool and proceeds with the business at hand. He is determined to convince Gertrude that her having wed Claudius is a betrayal of the worst kind. Hamlet is merciless as he elaborates on her crime when the ghost, the spirit of his dead father, appears and reminds Hamlet that his mother is to be spared. Hamlet acknowledges, baffling Gertrude to whom the ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s imagination. Hamlet assures her that he is not mad, and that his words and conduct will eventually show themselves to be unimpeachable. Dragging Polonius’s body away and informing Gertrude that he is slated to leave for England as per the king’s command, Hamlet bids his mother adieu.

William Shakespeare