Hamlet and Gertrude: The Agony of Love
Copyright 1999 Andy Box
After the play-within-a-play, which Hamlet uses “to catch the conscience of the King,” and Hamlet then passes up the opportunity to kill Claudius as he prays, Polonius and Gertrude wait in her chamber for Hamlet’s visit (P. 1207, II.ii.604-05; III.iv.1-1-6). Polonius hides behind a tapestry to listen as Hamlet arrives. After some sharp words from Hamlet to the Queen, she cries out in fear for her life, and Polonius responds that he will come to her aid. Hamlet, thinking he is the King, kills him. Disappointed, Hamlet then begins to chastise his mother for her relationship with Claudius and seemingly quick abandonment of his father’s memory. The events that follow in this scene, from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, highlight and reflect many of the changes which Hamlet and Gertrude experience during the play and serve as a turning point in both of their lives. Hamlet, emboldened by the Ghost’s words and his goal of enforcing morality, enters the remainder of the play ready to begin taking action and confronting his opponents later on. Gertrude, convicted and enlightened by Hamlet’s accusations, appears to repent and agrees to help Hamlet in his plan. What she actually believes about Hamlet is unclear, but it is evident that she loves him and he loves her, and this scene reveals much about themselves and their relationship.
Act III, Scene iv, Lines 76-217 center around the confrontation between Hamlet and Queen Gertrude over her relationship with Claudius and Hamlet’s perceived madness. The excerpt opens with Hamlet’s harsh criticism of his mother for her hasty marriage to her former brother-in-law Claudius so soon after King Hamlet’s death. His words open her eyes to her own sin, and she begs him repeatedly to stop. At that point the Ghost, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, appears to remind Hamlet of his “almost blunted purpose” and tell him to comfort the Queen (III.iv.111). Since she cannot see the Ghost, she becomes even more convinced that Hamlet has gone mad. Once the Ghost leaves, Hamlet further chastises her for her sin with Claudius and tells her not to return to the “enseamed bed” which she shares with him, as well as telling her that his madness is an act rather than true insanity (92). She agrees to keep this information to herself, and they bid each other good night as Hamlet drags away the lifeless body of Polonius.
This excerpt reveals much about the character of Hamlet. His mindset and emotional state vary throughout the scene from bitter hostility toward his mother and stepfather, to timid fear of the Ghost in light of his inaction, and finally to intimate resolve and benevolence as he advises his mother on how to aid her situation and his own. A similar change occurred in Hamlet before the play’s beginning. Prior to his father’s murder, Hamlet’s view of human nature closely reflected that of a typical Renaissance humanist. He called man “noble in reason. . .infinite in faculties. . . .the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals” (P. 1204, II.ii.304-07). He believed in the inherent virtue, beauty, nobility, and potential of man. He believed in the possibilities provided by human reason and the purity and optimism afforded by mankind’s angelic, almost godlike nature. Man was inherently good and virtuous, and apparently Hamlet was satisfied with this view. However, seeing his mother marry his uncle, which was considered incestuous at the time, shattered this humanistic worldview and plunged him into a chasm of disillusionment and melancholy. He regrets that God “fix’d / His canon against self-slaughter,” for he has a great deal of trouble accepting a world in which people are so full of sin (P. 1193, I.ii.131-32). The actions of Claudius and Gertrude showed Hamlet a darker, more lustful and animalistic side of human nature, particularly in his mother, who longs for Claudius “as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on” (P. 1193, I.ii.143-45). This shatters his illusions of the inherent goodness and virtue of mankind. If his own mother is corrupted by sin and lust, then how can anything or anyone in the world be truly virtuous? This disillusionment, anger, and disappointment continue throughout most of the play, and appear in this portion in Hamlet’s scathing tirades against the Queen. In one, he speaks to hell itself, yelling, “If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones, / To flaming youth let virtue be as wax / And melt in her own fire” (III.iv.84-6). If sin can corrupt an older, wiser, calmer person such as the Queen, then virtue has no value in the world and society should plunge into chaos. He angrily asks how she could be so blind, after years of marriage to King Hamlet, to marry her former brother-in-law Claudius, “a slave that is not twentith part of the tithe / Of your precedent lord” (97-8). Human virtue and order helped give Hamlet’s life a foundation, and this highly dynamic scene reflect the chaos within Hamlet’s soul as he continues struggling to accept this new view of the world. This scene also marks the beginning of true, open action by Hamlet in his pursuit of revenge. The play- within- a- play was a less-than-subtle means of testing the conscience of Claudius, but it did not involve direct confrontation with anyone. In this scene, after nearly three acts of thinking, talking, and internal debate, Hamlet finally confronts one of the people who have hurt him and shaken the very foundation of his life. Taking action here gives him the strength to take other actions later, such as the his escape from the England-bound ship, the death sentence for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and final murder of Claudius.
However, despite Hamlet’s emotional struggles with human nature and his shattered illusions, he has not completely lost his love for either of his parents, as reflected in his goals in this scene. Although his father is not present in tangible form, Hamlet retains a great deal of love and respect for his father, the murdered and dishonored King Hamlet. Hamlet’s love for him is the primary motivation for his seeking revenge against Claudius. In this scene the Ghost reappears. Hamlet treats it with respect and humble submission, almost like a child who has done wrong and hopes not to be punished. He asks for mercy since he has not carried out “th’ important acting of your dread command” (III.iv.107-08). Then, when the Ghost commands him to take care of his bewildered mother and speak to her, he immediately asks her how she is doing (115). In addition, although he spends much of the scene berating her for her actions, he shows that he loves his mother as well. His strong words not only express his own feelings of rage but help her realize her sin and lead her toward repentance. “I must be cruel only to be kind,” he tells her, and his accusations open her eyes and show her the “black and grained spots” within her soul (178; 90). Once she has repented, Hamlet then plans to seek her forgiveness for his disrespect and his sharp tongue (171-72). After his periods of bitterness, anger, and fear, he realizes that she is finally understanding his message about her actions, Claudius, and his own assumed madness. His tone changes from one of bitterness and accusation to one of almost priestly counsel as he explains to her how to remedy the situation–leave Claudius’ bed and do not tell him that Hamlet’s madness is an act. He wants to help her return to virtue and leave her sinfulness, as well as aid his revenge against Claudius.
This scene also reveals much about the character of Queen Gertrude and her parallels to her son Hamlet. She begins the scene with the intent to reprimand Hamlet for offending King Claudius, but when she hears Hamlet’s harsh accusations her demeanor changes to indignation, shock, and conviction as she realizes her sin (51-52, 94, 180). When the Ghost appears to Hamlet and not to her, she becomes confused at her son’s behavior, and then humble and penitent as she accepts instruction from Hamlet regarding the best way in which to handle the situation with her current husband. This scene parallels the time before the play when Hamlet is forced to accept the flaws in human nature when Gertrude and Claudius marry. Until now, her marriage to Claudius had made her happy. Having previously committed adultery before King Hamlet died, they enjoyed each other’s company. Except for Hamlet’s melancholy state, the first month or two of marriage had surely been pleasant. But Hamlet’s tirades help her understand– or accept, more accurately– that marrying Claudius had been wrong. Her illusions of a peaceful and happy marriage, like Hamlet’s humanistic worldview, are shattered. At first she reacts by repeatedly ordering Hamlet to stop so she will not hear any more (88; 94; 101). But later, once the Ghost appears and disappears and Hamlet tells her to confess to heaven and repent, she softens and listens to his advice for breaking free from her lustful and incestuous marriage.
Like Hamlet, despite her sin, Gertrude reveals that she still loves her son, even if she makes no indication as to whether or not she still loves the late King Hamlet or Claudius. In lines 76-217, she offers no defense of Claudius for Hamlet’s accusations of regicide, and nowhere does she affirm Hamlet’s admiration and love for his father. But she does love him and shows him her love through her actions. First, she addresses him in affectionate terms, even in moments in the scene which bring her pain, shame, and confusion. These include calling him “Sweet Hamlet” as she begs him to stop his cruel words and calling him “gentle son” when he addresses the Ghost which she cannot see (95; 122). She echoes these terms in the last scene of the play, when, rather than any address to either husband, in her dying words she cries, “O my dear Hamlet” (310). This implies that Hamlet is more important to her than either of her husbands or anyone else in the court. She also agrees to Hamlet’s request not to tell anyone about his disguise of madness, an agreement which she fulfills in the next scene (P. 1218, IV.i.7-8). In the end, the two of them have returned to a seemingly normal tone after their heated and emotional discussion. It resembles an almost casual mother-son conversation as Hamlet reminds her that he must go to England, and she responds that “Alack / I had forgot” (III.iv.200-01). Their love for each other has healed their raw wounds enough for them to speak of something other than sin and madness, and as they part Hamlet wishes her a good night (217).
The Ghost speaks only six lines in this scene, yet plays a significant role in its development. Shakespeare characterizes him here as frustrated with Hamlet and his inaction as well as concerned about his newly remarried widow. A length of time has passed between the Ghost’s first meeting with Hamlet and this scene, and in that time Hamlet has failed to avenge King Hamlet’s death. The Ghost begins his address to Hamlet with, “Do not forget! This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (III.iv.110-111). Hamlet’s play was a step forward and helped confirm the Ghost’s words for Hamlet, but Claudius still lives, and the Ghost seems frustrated. It also sees the bewilderment upon Gertrude’s face as it converses with Hamlet unseen to her eyes. He knows that Hamlet’s words have pierced her darkened heart, and that she is confused and alone and needs comfort. The desires of her body and those of her “fighting soul” are struggling for survival within her, and the Ghost asks Hamlet to comfort her and point her in the right direction (113). He knows that she needs someone whom she loves to help her through this difficult transition, and that Claudius is not the answer, but part of the problem. Hamlet responds to the Ghost with a mixture of respect, deference, and fear, desiring to please him and afraid to fail him. Upon his request, Hamlet immediately complies and begins caring for his mother by asking how she is doing (115). The ghost represents the turning point in the scene. From that moment onward, Hamlet switches from berating her out of anger to persuading her to confess and repent so her soul will be cleansed. “Throw away the worser part of it [her heart],” he begs her, “and live the purer with the other half” (157-58). Thus, the Ghost has returned “to whet thy almost blunted purpose” and to have him take care of the Queen (111). In addition, since the Ghost does not appear to Gertrude, Hamlet must convince her that he is not mad. This necessity prompts Hamlet to tell his mother that his madness is merely a disguise, which in turn prompts her to help him by keeping this secret.
Uncertainty and the conflict between appearance and reality are two of the major themes of Hamlet, and both play a significant role in this scene. These themes appear here both in relation to individual characters as well as in relationships among different characters in the play. One of the major questions of the play, and particularly of this scene, is whether Hamlet is actually insane or merely, as he claims, feigning madness to aid his cause. Hamlet tells his mother that “I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft,” meaning that his madness is not true, but invented (187-88). This is supported by Hamlet’s subsequent witty discourse with the King on supper and the body of Polonius, and Hamlet’s successful reversal of the plot against his life during the trip to England. Achievements like these require a clear and intelligent mind and suggest that Hamlet’s madness is indeed feigned. On the other hand, Hamlet’s impulsive and misguided murder of Polonius and his cruel treatment of his girlfriend Ophelia suggest that Hamlet may not have been completely sane during those times. The question of Hamlet’s sanity is raised by Shakespeare but left unresolved, further contributing to the themes of uncertainty and appearance versus reality. Another element of the scene not completely certain is the character of the Ghost. The Dramatis Personae lists the Ghost as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Barnardo, Horatio, and Marcellus see the Ghost at the play’s beginning and recognize him as looking like Hamlet’s father (P. 1190, I.i.80-81). Hamlet later speaks with the Ghost, who tells him the story of King Hamlet’s murder by Claudius and tells him to avenge his death. He also thinks the Ghost resembles his father after the first encounter with it, but also considers the possibility that it is a spirit or demon here to lead him astray and damn his soul. However, by the time Hamlet sees the Ghost again in the Queen’s chamber, he calls himself his “tardy son” and asks him for mercy (III.iv.106). These facts would imply that the Ghost is indeed real and is the ghost of King Hamlet. On the other hand, Gertrude cannot see or hear the Ghost. This could result from her blindness to the true nature of herself and others, which will be discussed later, or from a simple inability to accept supernatural phenomena. It does, however, bring into question the reality and nature of the Ghost, a question which is never fully resolved. If it is real, why can’t Gertrude see it? If it is an illusion, how does Hamlet know how his father was murdered? A third uncertain element of the scene is the state of Gertrude’s behavior in a moral sense; that is, does the Queen actually confess, repent, and leave Claudius’ bed, or does she merely let Hamlet think she will do so in order to appease him and protect herself until she can escape? Who wins the battle between “her and her fighting soul?” (113) The play does not explicitly tell whether or not she has converted to the abstinence which Hamlet recommends to her. One would think that, if she had, then Shakespeare would have included a scene in the play in which she and Claudius deal with the issue. The only subsequent instance of conflict between the two of them is the Queen’s refusal to obey Claudius’ order for her not to drink of the poisoned wine at the duel (P. 1232, V.ii.290-91). On the other hand, with all the guilt, shame, and grief which Hamlet’s accusations caused her, it is hard to imagine her returning to her old life as if nothing had happened, particularly with the possibility that her current husband had murdered her previous one. Did she know the truth about Claudius before the confrontation with Hamlet? Did she know about the murder before it occurred? Or is this scene with Hamlet the first time she heard the truth?
The themes of uncertainty and appearance versus reality also appear in several inter-character relationships. The relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude is a good example. As mentioned previously, early in the scene Hamlet appears very bitter, angry, and standoffish in his dealings with his mother. He sharply criticizes her choice of a mate, telling her that “eyes without feeling, feeling without sight / Ears without hands or eyes… or but a sickly part of one true sense / Could not so mope [be dazed]” (III.iv.78-81). Later, though, after hearing from the Ghost, he shifts his focus from her poor judgment and lust to her soul and her need for repentance. Which is the truth of how he actually feels about her and her situation? What role does Hamlet’s madness, or feigned madness, play in his emotions? Then, near the end of the scene, the Queen agrees not to reveal to anyone the truth about Hamlet’s madness or about Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. To be sure, when she meets with the King in the next scene, she tells him and the court that Hamlet is actually mad. However, does she do so because she is protecting Hamlet and trying to aid his plan, or because she actually believes that he is mad despite his words? This, too, remains unresolved. As a third example, Claudius in practice appears to be a good king. He took over power smoothly and runs the court well, treating his court and subjects with respect (P. 1207, III.i.26). Furthermore, in Act I Scene ii, he skillfully averts a war with young Fortinbras of Norway. His new wife loves and respects him, as do the members of his court such as Polonius. Although he appears benevolent and noble, in actuality he is also a murderer, adulterer, and deceiver (P. 1197, I.v.39-41). As in many other elements of the play, many relationships involving Hamlet, Gertrude, or Claudius may not be as simple as they may appear on the surface.
To reflect and reinforce these themes of uncertainty and appearance versus reality, Shakespeare fills this scene with imagery of sight and blindness. He uses the motif of sight and blindness extensively in King Lear to reflect the insight, or lack thereof, of Lear and Gloucester to their own true nature and that of others. In the same fashion, Shakespeare uses this motif in Hamlet to show how clearly the characters can see the truth about themselves and others. One form of this motif describes insight into one’s own mind and soul. Blindness to one’s own heart, motives, and sins leads one to excuse one’s sins and continue in them, as Gertrude does. Hamlet sees her blindness and discusses it with her:
…What devil was’
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope. (III.iv.76-81)
Her lust has blinded her, among other things, to the sinful nature of her incestuous marriage to her former brother-in-law. Thus, she ignored the laws of the Church and the ethics of Denmark, married Claudius soon after King Hamlet’s death, and continues tosleep with him. As Hamlet’s words batter her heart, her blindness to her sins begins to lift and lets her see “such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” (90-91). This illumination, like emergence into the sunlight after a time spent in the darkness, is painful for Gertrude, and she cries out repeatedly for Hamlet to stop. Eventually she seems to accept her sin as her eyes adjust to the light of truth which Hamlet helped her find.
Another type of blindness and sight involves the world outside oneself–a world of friends, enemies, and strangers. Some people and characters possess keen insight into the actions and characters of other people, while others are blind to the faults and virtues of others. Blindness to the nature of other people often results in poor decisions, false assumptions, and hasty actions. This is particularly true in Hamlet and is reflected in blindness/sight imagery. First, just after the scene opens, Hamlet’s sight is physically blocked by the wall tapestry in the Queen’s chamber. Polonius has hidden himself behind it so he can listen to the Queen’s conversation with Hamlet. When Hamlet realizes someone is behind the tapestry, he stabs the hiding figure, wrongly assuming he is killing Claudius. Instead, because his vision was blocked, he kills Polonius by mistake. Later, in the “what devil was’t” assault, Hamlet shows his mother that not only is she blind to her own sin, but also that her animalistic lust for Claudius had blinded her to his inferiority in comparison to her previous husband. King Hamlet was like a god, Hamlet says, with “Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, / An eye like Mars, to threaten and command. . . . [a] fair mountain” (III.iv.56-57, 66). After his death, in contrast, she marries “a murtherer and a villain! / A slave that is not twentith part the tithe / Of your precedent lord” (96-98). She did not see that Claudius had killed his brother in order to win his crown and marry her, Hamlet argues. Blinded by her love and lust, she chose to focus on Claudius’ strengths and ignore or deny any suspected sins or corruption in him. Further blindness/sight imagery fills the encounter with the Ghost. For unexplained reasons, Gertrude cannot see the ghost of her former husband when he appears to their son Hamlet, even though Hamlet can both see and converse with it. Frustrated and confused, she tells Hamlet, “You do bend your eye on vacancy,” and then asks him, “Whereon do you look?” (117, 124). He later asks her if she indeed sees nothing else in the room, and she responds ironically, “Nothing at all, yet all that is I see” (132). This symbolizes the failure of the Queen, mentioned by Hamlet in lines 53-88, to recognize the virtues of King Hamlet. Apparently she wanted more than even he could offer, which resulted in her infidelities with Claudius before the King’s murder. It also represents her previous failure to accept that Claudius is not as noble and morally responsible as she believed him to be. Her blindness to the Ghost is never lifted in the play, and her blindness to Claudius’ treachery is not definitely lifted until she dies after drinking the poisoned wine. She cries out to warn Hamlet with her dying breaths, knowing that since the King ordered her not to drink of it, then he must have played a role in the plan (P. 1232, V.ii.290, 309-310).
Another major theme expressed in this confrontation scene is the theme of morality and the relationship between reason and passion. This theme is a major concern of Hamlet himself, and he wants those around him to feel just as strongly about the issue. His morality is largely responsible for his lack of action regarding the change of revenge on Claudius. Until the play-within-a-play, Hamlet is relatively sure that Claudius is his father’s killer, but he refuses to kill him in part because he is unsure of the act’s ethical and spiritual ramifications. The Ghost could be his father’s, a spirit from heaven, or a demon from hell sent to deceive and damn him (P. 1207, II.ii.598-603). If he kills Claudius, will his own soul be blessed for having honored his father, or damned for killing an innocent man after being deceived by a demon? Restrained for a time from passionate revenge, he cannot answer until he sees the King flinch during the play- within- a- play and knows his guilt. Near the end of the confrontation scene, Hamlet takes responsibility for his accidental and passionate murder of Polonius, and also sees it as divine judgment upon both himself and Polonius:
For this same lord,
I do repent, but heaven hath pleas’d it so
To punish me with his, and this with me
That I may be their scourge and minister (III.iv.172-175).
He sees himself as guilty of this sin, but also as an instrument of heaven who passes judgment upon Polonius for his deeds. In accordance with his perceived calling, Hamlet wants other people to behave morally as well, restraining their passions through reason in accordance with morality. For example, knowing that his mother’s relationship with Claudius is sinful, he spends much of the latter part of the scene trying to persuade her to leave his bed. After the Ghost’s instruction to take care of her, Hamlet encourages her to “confess yourself to heaven, / Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come” (III.iv.149-150). He fears that if she does not repent, her soul may be condemned to eternal hell because of her sin. As a loving son, he refuses to let her continue to sin without trying to persuade her otherwise. Similarly, in a bitter effort to prevent Ophelia from becoming a “breeder of sinners,” Hamlet tells her in an earlier scene, “Get thee to a nunnery” and “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow” (P. 1209, III.i.120-21, 135). He has lost faith in the institution of marriage, seeing it as either directly resulting in sin through adultery and incest, or indirectly by producing children who will sin as well. His solution for this is to abolish all sexual relationships and live lives of chastity, a sign of his strong beliefs regarding the power and danger of sin and the value of morality. Hamlet seems to desire a return to his old humanistic worldview in which mankind is inherently good and noble. Since, as he sees initially in his mother and stepfather, mankind is inherently flawed and sinful, he compromises by demanding that others conform to his ethical standards.
As with the blindness/sight imagery which contributes to the uncertainty and appearance versus reality themes, Shakespeare employs several motifs in this scene to enrich the theme of morality and reason versus passion. One of these, used also in Henry IV 1&2, is sickness and disease. For instance, when Hamlet discusses his mother’s sin and his perceived madness, he tells her not to soothe herself by telling herself that her feelings of guilt and pain result from Hamlet’s madness rather than from her own sin. Doing so, he argues, “will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen” (III.iv.147-149). He compares her sin to a disease or ulcer which will subtly rot her soul if she ignores it. A similar motif is the image of the “unweeded garden” from Hamlet’s “O that this too sallied flesh would melt” soliloquy (P. 1193, I.ii.135). The unweeded garden represents the Garden of Eden, which was pure until Adam and Eve fell into sin and were “weeded out” and removed. Hamlet sees the world, filled with people of sinful people, as an unweeded garden. The motif appears in the confrontation scene when Hamlet tells the Queen not to “spread the compost on the weeds / To make them ranker” (III.iv.151-52). He wants her to restrain her lust and repent of her sinful relationship with Claudio, for remaining with him would only make the “weeds” of sin grow larger and more foul by feeding them.
In addition to the themes and motifs used in this scene, Shakespeare adds further depth to it through several literary techniques. Two major ones are foreshadowing and irony. In this scene Shakespeare foreshadows both the Queen’s death and Hamlet’s death. Gertrude’s death foreshadowing always comes from her own mouth, which is also the way in which she dies in the final scene after drinking the poisoned wine. Twice in response to Hamlet’s harsh words, she expresses her pain by telling him, “These words enter like daggers into mine ears” and “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (III.iv.95, 156). The latter foreshadows her death as related to Hamlet–she died by drinking poisoned wine in a toast to him–while the former both foreshadows her death and refers back to the murder of King Hamlet, who died when Claudius poured poison into his ear as he slept. A third instance is her promise to Hamlet that “I have no life to breathe / What thou hast said to me” (198-99). This scene also contains statements by Hamlet which foreshadow his own death. In one, which refers both to Hamlet and Gertrude, Hamlet tells her that “This bad begins and worse remains behind [to come]” (178). Their situation is difficult and grim now, but Hamlet knows that it will grow worse as time passes. In addition, as Hamlet says goodnight to his mother and drags Polonius’ body from the room, he tells the body, “Come sir, to draw toward an end with you” (216). This literally means “Come, sir, to finish my conversation with you,” but the pun on “draw toward an end” foreshadows that Hamlet will soon join him in death.
Shakespeare uses irony in this scene as well. When the Queen tells Hamlet, “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain,” the statement is highly ironic (III.iv.156). First of all, it is Claudius, not Hamlet, who supposedly “cleft her heart in twain” by murdering her husband, even though she was apparently not as heartbroken as some wives would have been. Secondly, rather than permanently destroying her heart as she implies, Hamlet is trying to save her soul by persuading her to confess and repent. Thirdly, in the end, Claudius is the main cause of her actual death because it is he, not Hamlet, who poisoned the wine which she drank. Another instance of irony in this scene is Hamlet’s comments on Polonius before he drags his body away. He tells the Queen that “this counselor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave” (213-215). Because it is spoken by Hamlet, who spends much of the first three acts thinking and talking about his grief and weighing his options, this statement is an example of dramatic irony. Polonius died because he spoke when he should have remained silent and acted, coming to the Queen’s rescue instead of crying “What ho, help!” from behind the tapestry (22). Similarly, although Hamlet postponed his action due to morality and fear rather than foolishness, some who read or see Hamlet may believe Hamlet talked too much and waited too long instead of taking action. It is possible that, had Hamlet killed Claudius immediately after his first encounter with the Ghost, that none of the other deaths in the play would have happened. Hamlet would have been king, and Claudius the usurper would be dead and no longer a threat to him. Instead, he waits and analyzes the situation, and ends up dead in the end. Thus, this statement by Hamlet also foreshadows his death.
This scene is Hamlet’s emotional climax. Here much of Hamlet’s pent-up rage, love, and pain are released, and Gertrude opens her eyes to the painful reality of the filthiness of her soul. The all-important mother-son relationship changes and is born in a new form, accompanied by all the pain and struggle of birth. Although still mother and son, some of the power in the relationship has shifted to Hamlet as he tries to help her restore order and purity to her life. Their love for each other is painful, but ultimately helps them grow as people and fulfill their obligations–Hamlet’s duty to avenge his father’s death, and Gertrude’s duty to repent and try to protect her son from himself and those around him.