Elsewhere in the castle, King Claudius speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Badly shaken by the play and now considering Hamlet’s madness to be dangerous, Claudius asks the pair to escort Hamlet on a voyage to England and to depart immediately. They agree and leave to make preparations. Polonius enters and reminds the king of his plan to hide in Gertrude’s room and observe Hamlet’s confrontation with her. He promises to tell Claudius all that he learns. When Polonius leaves, the king is alone, and he immediately expresses his guilt and grief over his sin. A brother’s murder, he says, is the oldest sin and “hath the primal eldest curse upon’t” (III.iii.37). He longs to ask for forgiveness, but says that he is unprepared to give up that which he gained by committing the murder, namely, the crown and the queen. He falls to his knees and begins to pray.
Hamlet slips quietly into the room and steels himself to kill the unseeing Claudius. But suddenly it occurs to him that if he kills Claudius while he is praying, he will end the king’s life at the moment when he was seeking forgiveness for his sins, sending Claudius’s soul to heaven. This is hardly adequate revenge, Hamlet thinks, especially since Claudius, by killing Hamlet’s father before he had time to make his last confession, ensured that his brother would not go to heaven. Hamlet decides to wait, resolving to kill Claudius when the king is sinning—when he is either drunk, angry, or lustful. He leaves. Claudius rises and declares that he has been unable to pray sincerely: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below” (III.iii.96).
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (III.i.85–90)
In Act III, scene iii, Hamlet finally seems ready to put his desire for revenge into action. He is satisfied that the play has proven his uncle’s guilt. When Claudius prays, the audience is given real certainty that Claudius murdered his brother: a full, spontaneous confession, even though nobody else hears it. This only heightens our sense that the climax of the play is due to arrive. But Hamlet waits.
On the surface, it seems that he waits because he wants more radical revenge. Critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been horrified by Hamlet’s words here—he completely oversteps the bounds of Christian morality in trying to damn his opponent’s soul as well as kill him. But apart from this ultraviolent posturing, Hamlet has once again avoided the imperative to act by involving himself in a problem of knowledge. Now that he’s satisfied that he knows Claudius’s guilt, he wants to know that his punishment will be sufficient. It may have been difficult to prove the former, but how can Hamlet ever hope to know the fate of Claudius’s immortal soul?
Hamlet poses his desire to damn Claudius as a matter of fairness: his own father was killed without having cleansed his soul by praying or confessing, so why should his murderer be given that chance? But Hamlet is forced to admit that he doesn’t really know what happened to his father, remarking “how his audit stands, who knows, save heaven?” (III.iv.82). The most he can say is that “in our circumstance and course of thought / ’Tis heavy with him” (III.iv.83–84). The Norton Shakespeare paraphrases “in our circumstance and course of thought” as “in our indirect and limited way of knowing on earth.” Having proven his uncle’s guilt to himself, against all odds, Hamlet suddenly finds something else to be uncertain about.
At this point, Hamlet has gone beyond his earlier need to know the facts about the crime, and he now craves metaphysical knowledge, knowledge of the afterlife and of God, before he is willing to act. The audience has had plenty of opportunity to see that Hamlet is fascinated with philosophical questions. In the case of the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, we saw that his philosophizing can be a way for him to avoid thinking about or acknowledging something more immediately important (in that case, his urge to kill himself). Is Hamlet using his speculations about Claudius’s soul to avoid thinking about something in this case? Perhaps the task he has set for himself—killing another human being in cold blood—is too much for him to face. Whatever it is, the audience may once again get the sense that there is something more to Hamlet’s behavior than meets the eye. That Shakespeare is able to convey this sense is a remarkable achievement in itself, quite apart from how we try to explain what Hamlet’s unacknowledged motives might be.