YES. AT LAST. THINGS ARE REALLY KICKING OFF NOW. Look, I swear I’m normal and everything—it’s just that we’ve gone roughly 150 pages without anyone getting murdered, and I feel like it’s about time someone fixed that. Apparently Hamlet feels this way about it, too.
Last time, Hamlet forced everyone to watch this bonkers play he made up about a nephew killing his uncle. It’s no wonder Claudius practically bolted from the room, terrified. To Hamlet, however, this confirmed what he already knew: that Claudius killed his father. In Act 3, Scene 3, Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he’s shipping Hamlet off to England so the kid can be somebody else’s problem. They are to accompany him. Being minor characters and all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no problem with this, and they leave to prepare.
Polonius shows up and says that Hamlet is on his way to chat with his mother. Since Hamlet will soon be gone for good, this is their last chance to figure out what his glitch is. Polonius will be present in Gertrude’s bedroom, hiding behind a curtain, and later he’ll tell Claudius everything that went down. Polonius says, “Fare you well, my liege,” which is exactly what I say to people when I’m definitely not about to die.
Now alone, Claudius takes the opportunity to immediately and loudly confess his sins. He says that “a brother’s murder”…“hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,” meaning he’s the Cain to his brother’s Abel—the Scar to his Mufasa. He gets down and prays, though he’s not sure if there’s any point to it. All he can really do is say “Hey, God. Sorry about that whole thing where I killed my brother. Hope we’re cool,” and just hope for the best.
While Claudius is immersed in prayer, Hamlet sneaks up behind him. He considers killing his uncle right then and there, but he figures now’s not the time. He doesn’t want to kill Claudius while he’s praying. This may sound like, you know, Good Guy Hamlet, lets a guy at least finish praying before he stabs him in the face, but the reality is much more sinister. Since Hamlet’s father was murdered without being given last rites, Hamlet doesn’t want Claudius to have the chance to “[purge] his soul.” Ergo: it’s not enough to kill him. He wants to damn him as well. Once when I was five I pushed someone off a slide for stealing my juice box, so I can relate.
What happens next is incredible. Try to stay with me, there’s a lot to unpack here.
So in Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet goes to Gertrude’s bedroom, and he’s coming in hot, firing off accusations left and right. So hot, in fact, that Gertrude, terrified, instantly gets a murder vibe and calls for help. Polonius, who’s hiding behind the curtain eavesdropping, also panics, and he too calls for help. I can only assume Hamlet’s brain looks like this currently
because out of nowhere he grabs his sword and starts stabbing wildly through the curtain on the off chance that Claudius might be in there.
Presumably he knows what Polonius sounds like and therefore could’ve recognized his voice. Also, he just left Claudius praying in a hallway like half a second ago. But remember:
Polonius reacts to being murdered the same way I hope I would react under similar circumstances:
Oh, I am slain.
Understandably, Gertrude freaks out. Hamlet doesn’t. He bids farewell to the dying Polonius, calls him a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” and caps it off by saying he thought he had killed someone more important. Which, you know, jeez. The man’s dying. The least you could do is PRETEND he’s important enough to murder.
Hamlet then starts yelling at Gertrude, accusing her of conspiring with Claudius. You’ll remember that the ghost of Hamlet’s father gave him two objectives:
Don’t yell at your mother.
But Hamlet’s a maverick, so he has complied with neither of these requests thus far. He tells Gertrude she’s evil for marrying “a murderer and a villain,” that she’s too old to have married Claudius for love so she must have done it for power, and basically that he hates her.
The ghost shows up, but Gertrude can’t see or hear him. I feel like this should trouble Hamlet more than it does. He immediately moves past “Hmm, seems a bit weird that I’m taking murder advice from an incorporeal being,” and dives straight into “MOTHER, YOU MUST DENY MY UNCLE SEX. IT’S THE ONLY WAY.” He tells her not to tell Claudius he’s been faking his madness this whole time. Presumably, Gertrude says, “Yep. Fake. This is definitely fake madness. Got it,” and agrees.
Hamlet then concludes this whole comedy of errors NOT by dramatically storming off into the night, but rather by laboriously dragging the body of Polonius out into the hallway. It’s no “Exeunt, pursued by a bear,” but it’s definitely up there.
So this is what madness looks like. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the exact moment where Hamlet went full-on crazy, but it feels like he drew the line between sanity and madness and then just set it on fire.
Interesting that Horatio could previously see the ghost, but now Gertrude cannot.
Hamlet’s fatal flaw = a complete and total disconnect between thought and action. He’s spent all this time waffling between killing Claudius and not killing Claudius, so when he was presented with an opportunity to stab maybe-Claudius, he ran with it, throwing all rationality out the window. He also says the worst is yet to come. Should be a good time.
If anyone in the comments gets all Freudian with Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s sex life, I will turn this blog around. YOU’RE PROBABLY RIGHT, BUT I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT IT.