Act III - Scene III

[Elsinore.]

[Enter King, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.]

KING:
I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you.
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you.
The terms of our estate may not endure(5)
Hazard so near us as doth hourly grow
Out of his brows.
GUILDENSTERN:
We will ourselves provide.
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe(10)
That live and feed upon your Majesty.
ROSENCRANTZ:
The single and peculiar life is bound
With all the strength and armour of the mind
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests
The lives of many. The cess of majesty(15)
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it. It is a massy wheel,
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoin'd; which, when it falls,(20)
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the King sigh, but with a general groan.
KING:
Arm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage;
For we will fetters put upon this fear,(25)
Which now goes too free-footed.
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN:
We will haste us.

Exeunt Gentlemen

Enter Polonius.

POLONIUS:
My lord, he's going to his mother's closet.
Behind the arras I'll convey myself,
To hear the process. I'll warrant she'll tax him home;(30)
And, as you said, and wisely was it said,
'tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
The speech, of vantage. Fare you well, my liege.
I'll call upon you ere you go to bed(35)
And tell you what I know.

Exit [Polonius.]

KING:
Thanks, dear my lord.
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder! Pray can I not,(40)
Though inclination be as sharp as will;
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand(45)
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this twofold force,(50)
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder?'
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd(55)
Of those effects for which I did the murder—
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,(60)
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but 'tis not so above:
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,(65)
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,(70)
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.(75)

[He kneels.]

Enter Hamlet.

HAMLET:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.(80)
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,(85)
'tis heavy with him; and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
No.
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.(90)
When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At game, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,(95)
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Exit.

KING:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.(100)

Exit.

Footnotes

  1. Here, Claudius kneels and prays to God. Though he has just recognized his damnation and "rank office," Claudius does not pray for forgiveness but that he will get away with his crime. He does not see Hamlet, who enters and decides not to kill him. With these lines Claudius recognizes that prayers without thought, in other words without repentance, will not reach God or sway his judgement. They are invalid.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Just as Hamlet had hoped, the play did expose the conscious of the King. Claudius confesses to his deed and uses this metaphor to explain the stain that his deed has placed upon his kingship. The murder was so evil, so vile, that it has created a rank oder that wafts up to heaven where God himself can smell it. In imagining the smell reaching heaven, Claudius recognizes that he will be punished in the afterlife. However, he refuses to repent because it would mean giving up his earthly spoils. This soliloquy represents the moment at which Claudius recognizes what he has done and chooses his sin over repentance.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. A "physic" refers not to a physician but to a medicine. The "medicine" Hamlet speaks of is Claudius' continued existence, which prolongs his mother's sickness (incestuousness in marrying her brother-in-law). In other words, Hamlet is giving his mother her medicine, and he isn't going to feel bad about it. He's waiting for the perfect moment to kill Claudius.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. A reference to Ezekial 16:49: "Pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness." Hamlet thinks Claudius struck King Hamlet down out of pride and a kind of arrogance born out of privilege and well-being. Only someone in as secure a position as Claudius was would think of murdering his own brother and marrying his sister-in-law.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. In one sense, this line means Claudius should be held accountable for his crimes, because as a villain he hasn't yet been repaid in kind for his sins. In another sense, Hamlet has been hired by the Ghost to avenge his death, and thus this revenge isn't so much for Hamlet as it is for his father. Thus, Hamlet becomes a mercenary, hired to do a job and paid a salary for his services (in the form of becoming king).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. Recall that in Act III, Scene II, Hamlet likened himself to an instrument with strings and notes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were incapable of playing. Shakespeare repeats the image to show that Claudius can be played like an instrument, unlike Hamlet, and that he already has been, in responding so dramatically to the play within the play.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. In Heaven, we can't shuffle or try to hide our crimes, but are instead required to give evidence or testify against ourselves before God. To pretend that he's been absolved would give Claudius a false sense of security and make him think that he'd gotten away with his crime.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. "Gilded" meaning golden. Claudius speaks both generally (in saying that the world's corrupt and people often get away with their crimes) and personally (referring to his own hand as gilded because now he's the king and presumably wears rings and carries a golden scepter). It makes Claudius' sins seem at once common and singularly offensive.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. Notice that Claudius wants to claim the benefits of prayer (absolving one sin and stopping someone before they commit another) without actually praying. He's trying to rationalize his behavior to soothe his conscience, telling himself that what's done is done, but the fact that he feels the need to do this proves that his guilt will not be so easily assuaged.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. Claudius says he can't pray because he feels guilty, and he can't fully feel guilty because he knows he wants to pray and absolve his sins (proving that he still has some good in him). However, by neglecting both his guilt and his desire to pray he places himself in an even worse position where his failure to pray is as damning as his guilt.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Claudius' speech mirrors that of Lady Macbeth in Act V, Scene I of Macbeth, in which she attempts to wash her hands clean of King Duncan's blood but feels she can't because she's guilty. Both lines speak to the extreme guilt caused by committing a murder (of a king in particular).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. Polonius believes that mothers are naturally partial to or protective of their children and more likely to overlook certain things that Polonius himself might not. Therefore, he's going to spy on Gertrude's conversation with Hamlet, just in case he says something to her that she doesn't worry about because she's his mother.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. "Fetters" are chains or shackles meant to hold or imprison someone. It's unclear whether "this fear" refers to Hamlet or his madness, which can in itself be figured as a "fear" or a "fright" in the sense of it being a kind of monstrous enemy. More likely, Claudius think of the fear as Hamlet, whom Claudius thinks has been allowed to walk too freely.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. In other words, when a king sighs, the general populations sighs, too. Thus, Hamlet, who isn't a threat to the general public, becomes an enemy of the state because of his personal problem with Claudius. Rosencrantz may only be saying this to stay in Claudius' good graces, but then again, he may still be angry with Hamlet for treating him so unkindly in the last scene.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. A "mortise" is the architectural term for a hole that's created to accept a "tenon" or part that joins two pieces of a structure together. In this case, the mortises are the holes into which the spokes of the wheel are fit, and there are thousands of them to represent the number of citizens over whom the crown presides.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. "Weal" being short for "wealth." Rosencrantz essentially says that, as king, Claudius has to act against Hamlet in order to protect himself and the country, and that his ability to govern depends on his treating Hamlet's madness like an annoyance that keeps him from doing his job (regardless of what his real intentions are).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. Rosencrantz inverts a sentiment expressed by Hamlet in his "To be, or not to be?" soliloquy in Act III, Scene I: that it's nobler in the mind to suffer in silence. Rosencrantz instead says that we shouldn't suffer and that we're bound to rid ourselves of any annoyances ("noyance") like Hamlet and his madness.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. In Hamlet's time, kings were considered to have a divine right to rule and weren't subject to the laws of the land, instead drawing their authority directly from God. Thus, if Claudius wants to spy on Hamlet, there's nothing anyone can do to stop him, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are required to tell him that he's being a good king.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  19. Claudius has decided to commission Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as ambassadors to England, and Hamlet will accompany them as the royal attache on their diplomatic mission. Of course, Claudius would rather kill Hamlet and be done with it, but on the surface he must appear to be handling the problem of Hamlet's "madness" in a way befitting both a king and a prince.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  20. Claudius refers to the first biblical curse on Cain, who was cursed for the murder of his brother Abel, of whom he was jealous because God favored his offerings better. For his crime, Cain was compelled to live the rest of his life as a "fugitive and a vagabond." Genesis 4:10-12

    — Katie Rounds