Act III – Scene.iv
Polonius arrives in Gertrude’s bedroom and hides behind
a tapestry. Polonius tells Gertrude to be completely forthright with her son.
Hamlet arrives and Gertrude scolds her son for offending his father, meaning
Claudius. Hamlet responds by saying that she has badly offended his father, meaning King Hamlet.
Hamlet bullies Gertrude and she fears for her life, and Polonius makes a reaction from behind the tapestry. Hamlet draws his sword and thrusts it through the wall-hanging killing Polonius. Hamlet lifts the tapestry expecting to see Claudius, but there is Polonius instead. Hamlet turns on Gertrude saying that his father was God-like, full of courage and that Claudius is like an infection in King Hamlet’s ear. He accuses his mother of gross sexual wantonness. Gertrude begs him to leave.
Just then, Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, but Gertrude sees nothing
and thinks that her son is hallucinating. Hamlet says he is not mad, and he begs her to confess her guilt to him, and to heaven.
At least she should stop sleeping with Claudius and prevent him from ‘paddling in your neck with his damned fingers’.
He asks his mother whether she knows that he is to be sent to England with
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who he mistrusts. He suspects that Claudius means him harm. She confesses that she is aware of the exile and then Hamlet exits, pulling Polonius’ body behind him.
The reader should pay careful attention to the
instructions in the script of the play.
Hamlet meets Gertrude in her closet, which was a private room in her
quarters, as opposed to the bedroom, which was meant for receiving visitors.
Shakespeare clearly intends the audience to think that there was an
unnatural relationship between Gertrude and her son.
Over the centuries this fact has been brushed off in the majority of productions. It was only in 1947 that Laurence Olivier rekindled Shakespeare’s true intention for the scene. Gertrude, played by Olivier’s wife, was dressed seductively, making it quite clear that there was an incestuous relationship between mother and son. This is an important factor in understanding Hamlet’s reaction to discovering someone behind the tapestry, and gives some credence to his highly charged behavior.
Clearly for Polonius hiding behind the tapestry, this revelation was
shocking and is possibly a factor as to why he is discovered. Hamlet’s reaction by killing Polonius is impulsive, inflamed as he is with his sexual tension.
Finally, the floodgates have opened and we now see the start of his bloody
It is ironic that Polonius has been sent to trap Hamlet and finds himself
Gertrude finally realizes that her son may be truly mad, and condemns him
for killing ‘the unseen good old man’.
She thinks her son is hallucinating for she says that she cannot see the ghost, or perhaps she refuses to see the ghost because of her own guilt. In any event, she pretends not to see the ghost.
There is at last some indication as to Gertrude’s involvement in the murder
of King Hamlet. The reader must assume that she is at least partly innocent, because Hamlet says ‘a bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother. As kill a king and marry his brother’. She
responds in surprise ‘as kill a king?’ and then asks Hamlet why he is being so cruel to her. This, together with the fact that the King’s ghost requested Hamlet to leave Gertrude alone, gives the audience the
impression that she is an unintelligent person, just needing the security of love and stability.
The discussion concerning Hamlet’s exile adds further confusion to
Gertrude’s character. She merely offers to think further about the situation and offers little reassurance to her son.
Shakespeare deliberately is ambiguous at certain times throughout Hamlet,
whether it is with the action, or how to play a character.
There is still the doubt as to whether Gertrude is innocent or guilty, but Shakespeare is clear on other aspects and actors must ensure that where the stage direction is clear, they should not depart from this.
All the characters now are clear, with the exception of Gertrude, where some
doubt still remains.