This lesson consists of a summary of Act 4, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Hamlet,’ as well as analyses of some of the most significant quotes from that scene.
Claudius Exercises Caution
Claudius enters a room in the castle at the beginning of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, still at a loss for what to do about the Danish prince. He thinks it’s dangerous to let Hamlet run loose around the country, but he also knows that he must act carefully because ”He’s loved by the distracted multitude, who like not in their judgment, but their eyes,” meaning that the uninformed people of his kingdom like Hamlet; not for any moral reason, but more for his appearance. Claudius thinks they’ll be angry with him if he punishes Hamlet too harshly. Criticizing people for the importance they place on appearances seems like an ironic statement coming from Claudius, who is very concerned with appearances himself and would not fare well if people judged him solely based on his morality.
Rosencrantz enters and Claudius asks what has happened, seeing that he does not have the body of Polonius. Rosencrantz answers that they could not get Hamlet to tell where he put the body.
Hamlet Discusses Polonius’s Remains
Guildenstern enters with Hamlet. Claudius asks Hamlet where Polonius is, and Hamlet answers with the same kind of sarcastic and puzzling tone as when he spoke to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the previous scene. He tells Claudius that Polonius is at supper.
Claudius is understandably confused, and Hamlet continues, ”Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him…we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.” Hamlet, in this riddle, is saying that Polonius is in the ground, probably being eaten by worms. He goes on to say that we all end up as food for worms, no matter how important we are while we’re alive.
This strange response indicates that Hamlet has a fatalist viewpoint, which means that he is resigned to the idea that death is inevitable and, whether good or bad, rich or poor, we all are going to end up in the same place. This is radically different from a viewpoint Hamlet displayed earlier, when he refrained from killing Claudius while he was praying because he thought dying while praying might get him into heaven.
Claudius continues to prod Hamlet to reveal where he put Polonius, and Hamlet answers, ”In heaven;if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself” Hamlet is telling Claudius that he should go to hell to look for Polonius himself. Eventually he reveals that he put the body of Polonius under the stairs in the lobby of the castle, and Claudius sends a servant to go look for it.
Claudius then carefully explains to Hamlet that because of his murderous deed, they will be sending him to England for his own safety. Everyone knows that Claudius was planning to send Hamlet away before he murdered Polonius, but he wants Hamlet to think it is because he is trying to protect him. Hamlet is surprisingly agreeable about being sent away.
Claudius Reveals a Plan
Hamlet exits the scene, and Claudius urges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to follow him and make sure that he gets on the ship as soon as possible. When they leave, Claudius muses to himself that he hopes the sealed orders he is sending to the powers that be in England are obeyed; we learn that he is ordering Hamlet put to death. The scene ends, as many before it have, with Claudius uttering a rhyming couplet to himself: ”till I know ’tis done, Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er begun.’ In other words, Claudius will not be happy again until he knows that Hamlet is dead.
In Act 4 Scene 3 of Hamlet, Claudius plans his next steps carefully because he does not want the public to turn on him if he punishes Hamlet too harshly for killing Polonius. This further reinforces Claudius’s character in that he is more concerned with preserving public opinion than with doing the right thing. After some ambiguous riddles, Hamlet finally tells Claudius that Polonius’s body is hidden under some stairs in the castle. Claudius gently explains to Hamlet that he needs to be sent to England for his own safety, and Hamlet easily agrees to go, which seems out of character for him based on earlier behavior; he is probably aware that Claudius does not care for his safety and is developing a plan of his own. Claudius rushes him, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern to begin their voyage immediately. When he is alone, Claudius reveals that he has sent a sealed envelope to England with the orders to have Hamlet killed when he arrives.