Explanatory Notes for Act 3, Scene 3
From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.
1, 2. I like ... range, I do not like the look of things as regards
him, nor is it safe for us to allow his madness to have free scope;
his madness, him who is mad; you, reflexive.
3. I your commission ... dispatch, I will at once make out the
commission which you are to take to England. It does not seem
to follow at all necessarily that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are
privy to the traitorous scheme for killing Hamlet in England.
That he was to be got out of the way, they of course knew; but
the king would hardly be likey to confide to his agents what was
to be done with him when thus out of the way.
4. shall along, for the omission of the verb of motion, see
Abb. § 30.
5-7. The terms ... lunacies, the terms on which we hold sway
are not of so secure a nature that we can afford to look with unconcern upon the dangers which every moment spring from his mad freaks, and threaten us so nearly; ourselves provide, supply
ourselves with everything necessary for the voyage.
8-10. Most holy ... majesty, the anxiety you feel for the safety
of those who are dependent upon you is a most holy feeling, their
welfare being a sacred duty to one in your position.
11-3. The single ... noyance, even the individual man (who has
no one to think of but himself) is in prudence bound to use every
faculty of his mind to keep himself from injury; noyance, i.e.
annoyance, used for injury, danger, as in R. II. iii. 2. 16, Macb.
V. 1. 84, and the verb annoy in Cymb. iv. 3. 34, H. V. ii. 2. 103.
14, spirit, here little more than life, in 1. 11; the vital
15, 6. The cease ... alone, the extinction of majesty in the
death of a king is much more than the single death of an
16, 7. but, like ... it, involves the sweeping away of everything
connected with it (sc. majesty), as a whirlpool engulfs everything
that comes within its area.
18. highest mount, i.e. from which the fall will be most
20. mortised, firmly fixed; a mortise is the groove made in
timber into which the tenon of another piece of timber is fixed;
for the substantive, cp. Oth. ii. 1. 9, "What ribs of oak ... Can
hold the mortise?"
20-2. which, ... ruin, and when this massive wheel is precipitated down, everything however small, that is an adjunct of it, everything however trifling that accompanies it, is swept away
in its violent overthrow.
23. but with ... groan, without that sigh being echoed by the
groan of the whole kingdom; alone, 1. 22, is somewhat redundant.
24. Arm you, prepare yourselves.
25, 6. For we ... free-footed, for I will put restraint upon this
danger which now ranges abroad too freely; for fear, = object
of fear, ii. H. IV. iv. 5. 196, "all these hold fears Thou see'st
with peril I have answered."
28. Behind ... myself, I will betake myself to a place behind
the tapestry; that space between it and the wall being sometimes
very considerable; for arras, see note on ii. 2. 163.
29. To hear the process, to hear how the interview proceeds;
tax, a doublet of task; home, used adverbially.
30. as you said, "this was Polonius's own suggestion, which,
courtier-like, he ascribes to the king" (Moberly).
32. of vantage, "from the vantage-ground of concealment"
(Abb. § 165)
36-8. 0, my offence ... murder, 0, my crime, the murder of a
brother, is so foul that the taint of it has reached the very
heavens, and on it rests the curse pronounced upon Cain.
39. Though ... will, though my inclination and my will to
do so equally spur me on; inclination, the natural disposition
to do a thing; will, the determination prompted by the understanding.
40. My stronger ... intent, strong as my purpose is, my guilt
is stronger still, and overcomes it.
41. to double ... bound, whose attention is engaged upon two
matters of business which have nothing in common with each
42. in pause, hesitating.
43. What if, even supposing that.
45. sweet, used here in the twofold sense of kind, gracious,
and of purifying by means of rain; for the former sense, cp.
Lear, i. 5. 50, "sweet heaven"; iii. 4. 91, "in the sweet face of
heaven"; Oth. ii. 1. 197.
46, 7. Whereto ... offence, of what avail is mercy except to
overawe the face of crime so that it shrinks abashed out of
48-50. And what's ... down? and what efficacy has prayer
except the twofold one of arresting our fall, or of procuring
pardon when we have fallen? The original sense of forestall is,
says Skeat, "to buy up goods before they had been displayed at a
stall in the market"; so to anticipate, and then to prevent; cp. V. 2. 203.
50. Then I'll lookup, i.e. with hopeful eyes; take courage;
cp. ii. H. IV. iv. 4. 113, "My soveieign lord, cheer up yourself, look up."
52. serve my turn? be of service in my case? a phrase very
frequent in Shakespeare, turn being equivalent to occasion,
54. effects, the advantages which he specifies in the next line.
55. ambition. Delius explains this as the realization of ambition. It does not seem certain to me that the word, instead of being one of three "effects," is not in apposition with My crown,
i.e. my crown which was the very object of my ambition.
56. May one ... offence, is it possible for one to be pardoned
while still retaining that for which he sinned? offence, abstract
57. In the ... world, in the tainted streams of this world, i.e. in
the corrupted ways in which this world goes. Dyce and Furness
adopt Walker's conjecture 'currents, i.e. occurrents; but it seems
that there is a reference to a polluted stream, and the confusion
of metaphors is not greater than others we have had.
58. offence's ... justice, the wealthy offender is able to thrust
59. 60. the wicked .... law, a favourable verdict is secured by
the very wealth which has been wrongfully acquired.
61, 2. There ... nature, before God's tribunal there is no evading justice, there the deed is seen in its real enormity. The Cl. Pr. Edd. say that Shakespeare here uses lies in its legal sense;
but though there is probably a play upon the word in that sense,
it can scarcely be the only or even primary one.
62-4. and we ... evidence, and we cannot escape being brought
face to face with our own sins to give evidence against them; for to the teeth, cp. below, iv. 7. 57, and H. VIII. i. 2. 36, "Daring the event to the teeth"; the auxiliary verb 'are' before
compelled is to be supplied from lies in 1. 61.
65. Try, let me try.
66. Yet what ... repent? yet of what avail is repentance when it consists in sorrow only without amendment of life?
68, 9. O limed soul ... engaged! O soul entangled in difficulties,
and only more thoroughly entangled by your efforts to free yourself. The metaphor is from snaring a bird by means of bird-lime, a glutinous substance which boys smear over a stick placed across
the nest, and by which the bird when alighting is held fast, its
struggles to get free only causing it to smear itself with more of
69. Make assay! make vigorous effort to rescue me!
70. heart ... steel, naturally so unyielding.
73. Now ... pat, I could not find a time more fit for my purpose; cp. H. VIII. ii. 3. 84, "Come pat betwixt too early and too late"; "this can hardly be other than the same word as pat, a tap ... But the sense is clearly due to an extraordinary confusion
with Du. pas, pat, convenient, in time, which is used in exactly
the same way as E. pat" ... (Skeat, Ety. Dict.).
74. And so, and the consequence will be that, etc.
75. That would be scann'd, that point requires careful scrutinizing.
76. for that, in return for that.
79. O, this ... salary, such a deed as that would be something
for which I might well ask payment, i.e.. I should be doing him
the greatest possible kindness, not punishing him, as I ought.
80. He took ... bread, he took my father by surprise when in a
state of gross and luxurious living. Malone points out that full
of bread is borrowed from Ezekiel, vi. 49, "Behold, this was the
iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness."
81. With all ... May, with all his sins in full blossom, and with
his blood flowing in his veins with the lusty vigour of the sap of
trees in mid-spring; cp. below, iii. 4. 69.
82. And how ... heaven, and how his account in the next world
stands none knows but God.
83. 4. But in our ... him, but so far as we can judge by looking
at the matter from all points of view, things are in an evil plight
with him; our circumstance and course of thought, is equivalent
to the circumstantial course of our thought, the course of our
thought which goes round and round the subject and views it in
all its particulars.
85. To take ... soul, in seizing the opportunity of killing him
when he is purging his soul of guilt.
86. passage, sc. from this world to the next.
88. Up, sword, return to your sheath; suiting the action to
the word: and know ... hent, and wait to seize a more terrible
opportunity; hent, is variously explained as grasp, opportunity,
grip; it is the participle of O. E. henten, A. S. hentan, to snatch,
89. drunk asleep, in a drunken sleep.
91. At gaming, engaged in gaming; about, occupied with.
92. That has ... in 't, that, unlike his present occupation, has
nothing in it that savours of the salvation of his soul.
93. Then trip ... heaven, then give him such a fall that he will
go headlong to hell.
95. stays, is waiting for me.
96. This physic ... days, "Hamlet calls his temporary forbearance a physic which does not impart life to his foe, but prolongs his illness" (Delius).
98. Words ... go, mere words of prayer, into which heartfelt
penitence does not enter, never reach the throne of God.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_3_3.html >.
How to cite the scene review questions:
Mabillard, Amanda. Hamlet: Scene Questions for Review. Shakespeare Online. 27 Nov. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_3_3.html >.
Thoughts on Claudius
"When he is praying for pardon, he is all the while perfectly determined to keep his crown; and he knows it.
More -- it is one of the grimmest things in Shakespeare, but he puts such things so quietly that we
are apt to miss them -- when the King is praying for pardon for his first murder he has just made his final arrangements for a second, the murder of Hamlet. But he does not allude to that fact in
his prayer. If Hamlet had really wished to kill him at a moment that had no relish of salvation
in it, he had no need to wait. So we are inclined to say; and yet it was not so. For this was the
crisis for Claudius as well as Hamlet. He had better have died at once, before he had added to his
guilt a share in the responsibility for all the woe and death that followed. And so, we may allow
ourselves to say, here also Hamlet's indiscretion served him well. The power that shaped his end
shaped the King's no less." A. C. Bradley.Read on...
Scene Questions for Review
1. Why does Claudius plan to send Hamlet to England?
4. Why do you think Shakespeare gives this striking speech -- worthy of Hamlet himself -- to Rosencrantz? Is it tragic irony? If so, what makes is ironic?
5. Coleridge wrote that Claudius' soliloquy "well marks the difference between crime and guilt of habit." Do you agree?
6. Morris LeRoy Arnold, in his book The Soliloquies of Shakespeare, argues that Claudius' soliloquy is similar to King Henry's prayer before battle in Henry V (4.1.306-322). They both "give the impression of rhetorical pageantry rather than sincere contrition." Is this a fair statement?
7. Do you feel sympathy for Claudius in this scene?
8. Read Macbeth's soliloquy (1.7.1-29), particularly lines 19-23. Does Claudius remind you of Macbeth? How are they different? Could Claudius potentially be a tragic hero?
9. In Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996), Claudius is sitting in a confessional and Hamlet is on the other side with his dagger drawn. If you were producing the play, how would you stage Hamlet finding Claudius at prayer?
10. Does Hamlet use Claudius' prayer as an excuse for further delay because his conscience will not allow him to commit premeditated murder? For more on the argument that Hamlet's ethical nature is the root cause of his inaction, please see The Ethical Hamlet in Five Classic Solutions of the Hamlet Problem by Haven McClure.
Did You Know? ... Patrick Stewart played the role of King Claudius in the 1980 BBC production of the play, as part of the famed BBC Shakespeare series for television. He then reprised the role in the film adaptation for PBS Great Performances. You can find his soliloquy for the BBC production here (found at 3:34:22) and for Great Performances here (found at 7:33).
Do You Agree? ... "Shakespeare's business was not to explain Hamlet's irresolution, not even necessarily to understand it, but merely to make us accept it as real. The world has been more interested in this than in any other play, and in Hamlet than in any other figure of drama for centuries; and it is in consequence of the strength and universality of that interest that the desire to find a psychological explanation arises. To put the question is natural and legitimate; to answer it may even be useful, in so far as it removes an obstacle to the fullness of our aesthetic experience of the play. But we must not give it any higher value than that." (Claude C. H. Williamson. International Journal of Ethics. Vol. 33.)