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As in the previous scene, when Claudius and Gertrude advised Hamlet to stay in Denmark and cast off his mourning, the third scene develops through a motif of family members giving one another advice, or orders masked as advice. While Polonius and Laertes seem to have a relatively normal father-son relationship, their relationships with Ophelia seem somewhat troubling. They each assume a position of unquestioned authority over her, Polonius treating his daughter as though her feelings are irrelevant (“Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl”) and Laertes treating her as though her judgment is suspect (I.iii.101). Further, Laertes’ speech to Ophelia is laced with forceful sexual imagery, referring to her “chaste treasure open” to Hamlet’s “unmaster’d importunity” (I.iii.31–32). Combined with the extremely affectionate interplay between the brother and sister, this sexual imagery creates an incestuous undertone, echoing the incest of Claudius’s marriage to his brother’s wife and Hamlet’s passionate, conflicting feelings for his mother.
The short transitional scene that follows serves a number of important purposes, as Shakespeare begins to construct a unified world out of the various environments of the play. Whereas the play up to this point has been divided into a number of separate settings, this scene begins to blend together elements of different settings. Hamlet, for instance, has been associated with the world inside Elsinore, but he now makes his appearance in the darkness outside it. Likewise, the terror outside the castle so far has been quite separate from the revelry inside, but now the sound of Claudius’s carousing leaks through the walls and reaches Hamlet and his companions in the night.
Act I, scene iv also continues the development of the motif of the ill health of Denmark. Hamlet views the king’s carousing as a further sign of the state’s corruption, commenting that alcohol makes the bad aspects of a person’s character overwhelm all of his or her good qualities. And the appearance of the ghost is again seen as a sign of Denmark’s decay, this time by Marcellus, who famously declares, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.67).
Finally, the reappearance of the still-silent ghost brings with it a return of the theme of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty, or, more specifically, the uncertainty of truth in a world of spiritual ambiguity. Since Hamlet does not know what lies beyond death, he cannot tell whether the ghost is truly his father’s spirit or whether it is an evil demon come from hell to tempt him toward destruction. This uncertainty about the spiritual world will lead Hamlet to wrenching considerations of moral truth. These considerations have already been raised by Hamlet’s desire to kill himself in Act I, scene ii and will be explored more directly in the scenes to come.