Act IV - Scene III


[Elsinore. A room in the Castle.]

Enter King, and two or three.

KING:
I have sent to seek him, and to find the body.
How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him.
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes;(5)
And where 'tis so, the offender's scourge is weigh'd,
But never the offence. To bear all smooth and even,
This sudden sending him away must seem
Deliberate pause. Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,(10)
Or not at all.

Enter Rosencrantz and all the rest.

How now, what hath befall'n?
ROSENCRANTZ:
Where the dead body is bestow'd, my lord,
We cannot get from him.
KING:
But where is he?(15)
ROSENCRANTZ:
Without, my lord; guarded, to know your
pleasure.
KING:
Bring him before us.
ROSENCRANTZ:
Ho, Guildenstern! Bring in my lord.

[Enter Hamlet and Guildenstern with Attendants.]

KING:
Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?(20)
HAMLET:
At supper.
KING:
At supper? Where?
HAMLET:
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain
convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures(25)
else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat
king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two
dishes, but to one table. That's the end.
KING:
Alas, alas!
HAMLET:
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a(30)
king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
KING:
What dost thou mean by this?
HAMLET:
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.
KING:
Where is Polonius?(35)
HAMLET:
In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger
find him not there, seek him i' the other place yourself. But
indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall
nose him as you go up the stair, into the lobby.
KING:
Go seek him there.(40)
HAMLET:
He will stay till you come.
KING:
Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety—
Which we do tender as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done—must send thee hence
With fiery quickness. Therefore prepare thyself.(45)
The bark is ready and the wind at help,
The associates tend, and everything is bent
For England.
HAMLET:
For England?
KING:
Ay, Hamlet.(50)
HAMLET:
Good.
KING:
So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.
HAMLET:
I see a cherub that sees them. But come, for England!
Farewell, dear mother.
KING:
Thy loving father, Hamlet.(55)
HAMLET:
My mother! Father and mother is man and wife; man
and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother. Come, for England!

Exit.

KING:
Follow him at foot. Tempt him with speed aboard.
Delay it not; I'll have him hence tonight.
Away! for every thing is seal'd and done(60)
That else leans on the affair. Pray you, make haste.

[Exit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern]

And, England, if my love thou hold'st at aught—
As my great power thereof may give thee sense,
Since yet thy cicatrice looks raw and red
After the Danish sword, and thy free awe(65)
Pays homage to us—thou mayst not coldly set
Our sovereign process, which imports at full,
By letters congruing to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,(70)
And thou must cure me. Till I know 'tis done,
Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne'er begun.

Exit.


Footnotes

  1. A "cicatrice" is the scar of a healed wound, which is in this case fairly new because it still looks raw. Claudius appears to have recently had a war or battle with English troops where the Danes won and left the English in awe. That's why he's sending Hamlet there: because he knows his orders will be carried out.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. A "cherub" is a divine being typically represented as a winged baby with a round, rosy-cheeked face. Hamlet likens Claudius to a cherub because he's always smiling (and likely because his face is also red from drinking). He's subtly telling Claudius that he knows exactly what he's up to and is fairly amused by it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. A "bark" being a ship that's prepared to carry Hamlet to England in order to escape imprisonment for Polonius' murder. That the ship is already ready testifies to the desperation with which Claudius tries to get rid of Hamlet and the speed with which his plan has been set into motion.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. Claudius essentially tells Hamlet to go kill himself, as Hamlet told him to do. The two have progressed from an outwardly polite but clearly condescending conversation to an outright hostile one, and now the king is treating the prince with all the animosity he's always felt.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. Though it appears at first that Hamlet's referring to Hell here, he's most likely speaking of Purgatory, where one has the opportunity to pay for one's sin and handle any unfinished business before one can go to Heaven. Hamlet politely suggests that Claudius might go up to Heaven and "nose" or brush Polonius on the stairway, but probably thinks that Claudius will be going to Hell.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. In general, Hamlet means someone can use the worm that eats a dead body to catch a fish, thus completing the circle of life. In this context, however, "fish" should also be taken to mean fishing for information, which implies that Hamlet is using Polonius' death to figure out more of Claudius' plan.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. When we're dead and buried, maggots consume our bodies. Hamlet says that we "fat ourselves" in life both for and in spite of these maggots, knowing that they're coming but also wanting to enjoy the pleasures of life while we fat our livestock. It's a circle of life in which kings and beggars are both reduced to meals and in some ways feed off each other.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. Notice that Claudius adopts a forgiving and somewhat condescending tone in these lines, as we see when he says, "Now, Hamlet," as if speaking to a child. He's trying to coerce Hamlet into telling him the truth, and though he doesn't actually believe Polonius is at dinner, he's puzzled by Hamlet's answer. This might worry him briefly, but that worry would be quickly assuaged when Hamlet explains what he means.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. That is, when people love someone as much as they love Hamlet, they tend to judge their punishment ("scourge") far more harshly than the crime ("offense"). This is true even today, when celebrities and politicians receive more lenient sentences than those who aren't in the public eye.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. From these lines, we can assume that Hamlet is very popular with the general public and members of the nobility and that this popularity is in part due to his physical appearance. If Claudius were to throw him in jail, there would likely be a public uproar, which would reflect very poorly on the king.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Here is the evidence (often veiled to a first-time reader) that Claudius has ordered the death of Hamlet at the hands of the English king. Claudius has delivered the letter into the hands of both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Hamlet is too quick for them. Hamlet has switched the letters and orders the death of his two cronies instead.

    — Noelle Thompson
  12. Hamlet hasn't assassinated the king or given any clear indication that he intends to do so, but he has succeeded in making Claudius into a nervous wreck. Claudius figures his fear of Hamlet as an "illness" that needs to be cured, likening himself perhaps more than he intends to his stepson, whose madness he intends to "cure" by killing him.

    — William Delaney
  13. This is the only face-to-face interaction between Claudius and Hamlet in the play. Claudius has been characterized as a villain who's always smiling disarmingly. Here he wouldn't be stern, hostile, and threatening towards his presumably mad stepson, but rather smiling, friendly, and understanding. Note that he asks, "Where's Polonius?" rather than, "Where's the body?"

    — William Delaney