Act III - Scene IV

[The Queen's closet.]

Enter [Queen]Gertrude and Polonius.]

He will come straight. Look you lay home to him.
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. I'll silence me even here.
Pray you, be round with him.(5)
I'll warrant you;
Fear me not. Withdraw; I hear him coming.

[Polonius hides behind the arras.]

Enter Hamlet.

Now, mother, what's the matter?
Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Mother, you have my father much offended.(10)
Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
Why, how now, Hamlet?
What's the matter now?
Have you forgot me?(15)
No, by the rood, not so!
You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And—would it were not so—you are my mother.
Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak.
Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge.(20)
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?
Help, help, ho!
What, ho! Help, help, help!(25)
How now, a rat? [Draws.] Dead for a ducat, dead!
O, I am slain!

[Falls and dies.]

O me, what hast thou done?
Nay, I know not. Is it the King?
O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!(30)
A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
As kill a king?
Ay, lady, it was my word.
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!(35)
I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune.
Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger.
Leave wringing of your hands. Peace! sit you down,
And let me wring your heart; for so I shall,
If it be made of penetrable stuff;(40)
If damned custom have not braz'd it so
That it be proof and bulwark against sense.
What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?
Such an act(45)
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty;
Calls virtue hypocrite; takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love,
And sets a blister there; makes marriage vows
As false as dicers' oaths—O, such a deed(50)
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words! Heaven's face doth glow;
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,(55)
Is thought-sick at the act.
Ay me, what act,
That roars so loud and thunders in the index?
Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.(60)
See what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill:(65)
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildew'd ear(70)
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this Moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble,(75)
And waits upon the judgment; and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense sure you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense
Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstacy was ne'er so thrall'd(80)
But it reserv'd some quantity of choice
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,(85)
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax(90)
And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will.
O Hamlet, speak no more!(95)
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,(100)
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!
O, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in mine ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet!(105)
A murderer and a villain!
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings;
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole(110)
And put it in his pocket!
No more!

Enter the Ghost]

A king of shreds and patches!
Save me and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?(115)
Alas, he's mad!
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?
O, say!(120)
Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But look, amazement on thy mother sits.
O, step between her and her fighting soul!
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.(125)
Speak to her, Hamlet.
How is it with you, lady?
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?(130)
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hairs, like life in excrements,
Start up and stand on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper(135)
Sprinkle cool patience! Whereon do you look?
On him, on him! Look you how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable.—Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert(140)
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true colour—tears perchance for blood.
To whom do you speak this?
Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.(145)
Nor did you nothing hear?
No, nothing but ourselves.
Why, look you there! Look how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he liv'd!
Look where he goes even now out at the portal!(150)

Exit Ghost.

This is the very coinage of your brain.
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.
My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time(155)
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have utt'red. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will reword; which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul(160)
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;(165)
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.(170)
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.
O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half,
Good night—but go not to my uncle's bed.
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.(175)
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,(180)
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And [either master] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. Once more, good night;(185)
And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.(190)
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind;
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.(195)
What shall I do?
Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,(200)
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him know;
For who that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise,(205)
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib
Such dear concernings hide? Who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top,
Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape,(210)
To try conclusions, in the basket creep
And break your own neck down.
Be thou assur'd, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.(215)
I must to England; you know that?
I had forgot! 'tis so concluded on.
There's letters seal'd; and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,(220)
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and ' shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines(225)
And blow them at the moon. O, 'tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
This man shall set me packing:
I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.
Mother, good night. Indeed, this counsellor(230)
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you.
Good night, mother.

The exit, [Hamlet, tugging in Polonius.]


  1. Hamlet refers to the flames of youthful passion. He criticizes his mother for marrying her brother-in-law, whom Hamlet considers a very low specimen of humanity. Hamlet argues that, to be tempted into marrying such a person, his mother's virtue must "be as wax;" it melts in the presence of fiery passion.

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Shakespeare wasn't the first writer to use the phrase "send someone packing," but he certainly popularized it and brought it into our modern lexicon. Hamlet knows that killing Polonius has escalated the drama and that once he's discovered, he'll be "sent packing" (which in this case likely means killed or imprisoned).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. It's very likely that Hamlet will already be dragging the body or trying to get a good grip on it when he says good night to his mother. If so, he'll necessarily be leaning over the body, looking up from his work at his mother, who of course still thinks that he's mad (though she can see that there's more to it than insanity).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. Hamlet means that it's particularly gratifying when two plans at cross-purposes meet and only one is successful. On a metafictional level, Shakespeare uses this line to speak to the joys of verse dramas, in which two major "crafts" or plot lines can meet in a single line of poetry.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. A "petar" or petard is a bomb made of a small box filled with powder, which is then used to blow a hole in a door or a wall. To be "hoisted" by a petard would mean to be lifted up by the force of the blast, or to have the explosion backfire on you. Hamlet wants this to happen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, eventually, to Claudius.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. A "knave" is a particularly disagreeable and dishonest person, often contrasted with the fool, who has no knowledge of how they come across to other people, unlike the knave, who knows all too well. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will "marshal" Hamlet to knavery means that they intend to make him look bad in front of the English nobility and give Claudius reason to act against his madness.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. An "adder" is a snake or a serpent-like creature that is often used to describe a deceitful or untrustworthy person, like Claudius. Hamlet compares his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to adders so Gertrude will know that he's already figured out Claudius' plan and is making moves against it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. This line would seem especially sinister to Gertrude, who knows that he's telling her what not to do and warning her that there will be consequences if she breaks Hamlet's confidence. When he says, "It's good that you tell him," he's daring her to try it, pretending momentarily that it would be fine when in reality they both know she mustn't say a word.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. Hamlet takes this question to mean that Gertrude is looking to him for guidance, asking what she should do next. It's possible, however, that she's wondering what to do with him, given that she thinks he's mad. She may also be wondering what he expects her to do with the body of Polonius, which has been bleeding there this whole time.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. Hamlet thinks his cruelty (in demanding that Gertrude abstain from sleeping in her marital bed and in frightening her so) is another form of kindness, because he's cleansing her soul, like a minister. From his perspective, he's doing it for her benefit. To the audience, he's trying to get his way by any means necessary.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Hamlet wants Gertrude to refrain from sleeping in her martial bed and instead invoke her right as a woman to sleep in her own room (a practice fairly common amongst the nobility). He assures her that abstaining one night will make it easier a second night, but doesn't, notably, care to speculate on how Claudius will respond to her sudden coolness.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. Notice that Hamlet still believes he's in the right, despite having killed Polonius without first knowing it was him. In this construction, Hamlet is the virtuous party who is asking the sinful party (Gertrude, specifically, but also Claudius) for enough freedom to address their sins by avenging his father's murder. He will continue to think of this vengeance as a righteous act.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. In other words, Hamlet urges his mother not to think him mad, especially when it is her actions that have made him behave the way he has. It would be a lie (or "flattering unction") to believe that Gertrude's marriage to Claudius (her "trespass") hasn't had any effect on what's happening. What follows is an extended metaphor about wounds, unctions (anointing oils or medicines), and infections.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. A "gambol" generally refers to a leap made by a horse, but in this context refers to a caper or bit of spirited movement, particularly from an actor or player on the stage. Hamlet doesn't directly tell Gertrude that he's been feigning madness here, but it's clear from this line that he intends to prove his sanity (if not tell her his whole plan).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. Hamlet puns on the idea of a heartbeat as music, suggesting that a healthy or normal heart "keeps time" like an instrument maintaining a rhythm. He insists that he isn't mad at all and that his pulse is completely normal (which is unlikely considering how angry he's been with Gertrude throughout this scene).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. Meaning, everything that's there or corporeal. Gertrude subtly asserts that there's nothing else to see and that Hamlet shouldn't be able to see or speak to anything or anyone but her. She's convinced now that Hamlet is mad, but, like a good mother, she wants to understand the nature of her son's madness, presumably so that she can help.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. Note the violence of this dash, which cuts between two actions. In the first lines of this passage, Hamlet points to the Ghost, in effect saying, "He's here! Right here, Mom! Can't you see him?" When he realizes that she can't, he snaps at her, telling her not to look at him that way (with such sadness). In all likelihood, this only makes her feel sorrier for him.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. Gertrude sounds dismayed, having given up hope that Hamlet isn't mad. In this passage, we'll see her come to terms with what appears to be Hamlet's madness and attempt, in her own way, to soothe him, as he attempted to rid her of any shame she might've felt about sex. Gertrude's sadness here should indicate just how much she loves her son.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  19. "Incorporeal" means immaterial or having no bodily structure. Ghosts, for instance, are incorporeal because they're floating and "vacant," as Gertrude says. Gertrude knows that Hamlet is having a conversation and not just ranting because he pauses where the Ghost's dialogue is. If she weren't so sad and frightened, she might ask him who he's talking to.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  20. In Hamlet's time, women were considered the weaker sex, and thus susceptible to persuasion and outside influence. The word "conceit" here means an idea or thought that the Ghost wants Hamlet to feed to Gertrude, because if it comes from him (a well-educated man) it's supposed to work well on her (a "weak" woman).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  21. A "diadem" is a crown typically worn by royalty, and a "cutpurse" is a thief. Hamlet calls Claudius a thief who stole from the kingdom to rule the kingdom, making him perhaps the worst kind of villain. Note that someone who plotted against the king like this would be considered an enemy of the state. Claudius is very lucky to have gotten away with it thus far.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  22. A "tithe" is a 10% portion of one's income which is paid to the church or a government as an expression of piety. Hamlet calls Claudius one twentieth of one tenth (or, in other words, one half of one percent) of the man King Hamlet was. Now that he's finally put a number on Claudius' worth, we can see how much Hamlet really hates his uncle.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  23. "Enseam" means to make greasy, and "rank" means smelly. Hamlet's trying to make Gertrude and Claudius' marriage bed as disgusting as possible, likening the ugliness of their "incestuous" marriage to the foulness of their passion. Its degree of foulness, however, suggests that Gertrude and Claudius have been making heavy use of it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  24. Like fire, frost or snow burns to the touch, since it's so cold that it hurts. Hamlet tells Gertrude not to be ashamed of desire or the loss of virtue, because being virtuous (or cold) burns just as terribly, as we see with Ophelia. Likely, Hamlet says this to console his mother and to try to get her to confess.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  25. To "cozen" means to deceive or beguile, whereas "hoodman-blind" refers to the game of blind man's buff, wherein a blindfolded player tries to touch the other players. Hamlet sexualizes the game by implying that Gertrude has been tricked into touching (or having sex with) her brother-in-law. Unfortunately, Gertrude agreed to the game in the first place, which still makes her complicit.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  26. Regardless of whether or not Gertrude was involved in the murder plot, she still had a choice to make: to marry Claudius or not to marry him. From what we've seen thus far, it seems as though Gertrude has fallen in love with Claudius, so it's unlikely that she suspects him of faking his love for her in order to secure his position. If that's true, then Gertrude's situation is incredibly sad.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  27. Hamlet thinks madness wouldn't "err" or stray from its intentions, but instead stick doggedly to its course. He knows this from experience, having portrayed the part of the mad man for the last two acts of the play. It's important to note, however, that Hamlet has spent the last acts waffling and taking advantage of opportunities that came to him, rather than creating them for himself, calling into question the reality of his madness.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  28. To be "apoplex'd" means to suffer from apoplexy, a debilitating illness that arrests or halts sense and motion. Hamlet has punned on the word "sense," first saying that Gertrude must have her senses intact, otherwise she wouldn't be able to move, then saying that her senses have been apoplex'd, meaning that she doesn't have good sense or faculties of reasoning.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  29. "Moor" in this context most likely refers to a piece of marshland, but its capitalization in the middle of a line implies that Hamlet may also be using the word in its derogatory sense to suggest that Claudius has darker skin than his brother, like a Moor (Shakespeare's Othello was called a Moor because his skin was black). In either case, Hamlet intends this word to denigrate Claudius, who is nothing compared to King Hamlet.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  30. Hyperion is a Titan from Greek mythology and was known as "the High One." He was said to have fathered the sun, Helios. Hyperion is here suggested to have been very beautiful and powerful, like Jove, king of the Roman pantheon; Mars, the Roman war god; and Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Comparing King Hamlet to all of these gods elevates him and suggests that he was a much better king than Claudius will ever be.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  31. A "visage" or face appears "tristful" when it is sad or feeling dreary. In this case, the visage belongs to Hamlet, whose entire body ("solidity and compound mass") feels the effects of the terrible act of murder. Hamlet in this case refers to the murder of his father, King Hamlet, but may also be speaking more generally about murder itself, which leaves him upset ("thought-sick").

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  32. "Dicers" in this context are gamblers whose oaths mean nothing, because they're bluffs without any substance. Hamlet has essentially given a laundry list of ways that murder can destroy beautiful things: the modest become immodest, the virtuous lie, the innocent grow up and get sick, and sacred vows become worthless.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  33. As queen, Gertrude relies on her marriage to Claudius for her power, making her technically no more powerful than Hamlet, whose power also comes from his relation to the king. Since Hamlet doesn't think much of her power, Gertrude threatens to send someone in who can wield their power over him.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  34. "Rood" refers to the cross and to Jesus Christ's crucifixion. Saying "by the rood" is equivalent to swearing on the cross, which would've been an even more powerful oath then than it is today. Hamlet swears that he hasn't forgotten Gertrude, meaning that he hasn't forgotten her place in society. Of course, he doesn't think much of her place, and therein lies the problem.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  35. Up until this point, Gertrude has had no reason to believe her son's madness would turn against her. She went into this conversation with high expectations, telling Polonius not to worry, but fears that it was a mistake to confront Hamlet this way. Perhaps if she'd approached it more delicately, this conversation would've gone well, but now that Hamlet's angry things will devolve pretty quickly.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  36. In other words, Hamlet has been evading her unstated question (why has he been treating Claudius so badly?) and Gertrude wants him to stop dodging and get to the point. She said something similar to Polonius earlier, when she said, "More matter, with less art." Hamlet, of course, has all the art but no real matter (that he wants to reveal to his mother, anyway).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  37. At this point, Gertrude hasn't been the butt of any of Hamlet's pranks or jokes (that she knows of), so she has no real reason to tell him to stop picking on Polonius. Hamlet's disdain for Polonius has clearly irritated him and bruised his ego, and now he's complaining to Hamlet's mother instead of talking to Hamlet himself. Of course, this isn't going to work.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  38. "Heat" here refers to danger that Gertrude has "screen'd" or protected Hamlet from by virtue of her being the queen and him being the prince. If Hamlet weren't a prince, Polonius implies, he'd never be able to get away with such terrible behavior. Polonius, of course, has no right to say this to a queen and should be more worried about the "heat" he's bringing on himself.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  39. In Hamlet's time, women were considered to be more sexually active because of their excess of yellow bile, which made them "hot." As women aged, the humours allegedly "cooled," making women less promiscuous. This is all to say that Gertrude can't be biologically motivated to desire Claudius, because she's past her "heyday."

    — Jamie Wheeler
  40. It is obvious from Gertrude's response that she can't see the Ghost. Yet, in Act I, Shakespeare went to great pains to show the audience that the Ghost wasn't just in Hamlet's head. It is possible that Gertrude doesn't see the Ghost because the Ghost doesn't want to be seen by her. It is also possible that this time Hamlet really is seeing things.

    — Noelle Thompson
  41. A "rat" in this context has the same derogatory meaning it does today (where a rat is a traitor who spies or tells on someone). Hamlet isn't sure who's behind the curtain, but has suspected from the beginning that this is a trap and strikes out at the "rat," assuming it's his enemy. He's right, of course, and that makes this act seem less like madness and more like self-preservation.

    — William Delaney
  42. Notice that Hamlet has given Gertrude three orders (to stop wringing her hands, to be quiet, and to sit down) and that she follows them all in quick succession. It's no wonder she obeys: Hamlet can't sheath his sword while it's still bloody, and now he's standing over Gertrude, looking as mad as she suspected. Fear makes her subdued.

    — William Delaney
  43. Gertrude mistakenly referred to Claudius as Hamlet's father, and now Hamlet turns those words back on her by insisting that she offended his real father, King Hamlet, by marrying Claudius. Hamlet hates being reminded that he is, in some ways, Claudius' son, and it's this hatred that leads him to snap at his mother, though he may have originally intended to be polite.

    — William Delaney
  44. Gertrude's response to Hamlet's accusation strongly suggests that she has no idea what he's talking about. Hamlet might think she's an accomplice, but there's little reason for her to have been: she was already the queen and needn't have killed her husband and married his brother. More likely, she was seduced after the fact, as in the play within the play.

    — William Delaney