Though Gertrude’s speech in this scene is largely limited to brief reactions to Hamlet’s lengthy denunciations of her, it is our most revealing look at her character. As the scene progresses, Gertrude goes through several states of feeling: she is haughty and accusatory at the beginning, then afraid that Hamlet will hurt her, shocked and upset when Hamlet kills Polonius, overwhelmed by fear and panic as Hamlet accosts her, and disbelieving when Hamlet sees the ghost. Finally, she is contrite toward her son and apparently willing to take his part and help him. For Gertrude, then, the scene progresses as a sequence of great shocks, each of which weakens her resistance to Hamlet’s condemnation of her behavior. Of course, Gertrude is convinced mainly by Hamlet’s insistence and power of feeling, illustrating what many readers have felt to be her central characteristic: her tendency to be dominated by powerful men and her need for men to show her what to think and how to feel.
This quality explains why Gertrude would have turned to Claudius so soon after her husband’s death, and it also explains why she so quickly adopts Hamlet’s point of view in this scene. Of course, the play does not specifically explain Gertrude’s behavior. It is possible that she was complicit with Claudius in the murder of her husband, though that seems unlikely given her surprised reaction to Hamlet’s accusation in this scene, and it is possible that she merely pretends to take Hamlet’s side to placate him, which would explain why she immediately reports his behavior to Claudius after promising not to do so. But another interpretation of Gertrude’s character seems to be that she has a powerful instinct for self-preservation and advancement that leads her to rely too deeply on men. Not only does this interpretation explain her behavior throughout much of the play, it also links her thematically to Ophelia, the play’s other important female character, who is also submissive and utterly dependent on men.
Hamlet’s rash, murderous action in stabbing Polonius is an important illustration of his inability to coordinate his thoughts and actions, which might be considered his tragic flaw. In his passive, thoughtful mode, Hamlet is too beset by moral considerations and uncertainties to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, even when the opportunity is before him. But when he does choose to act, he does so blindly, stabbing his anonymous “enemy” through a curtain. It is as if Hamlet is so distrustful of the possibility of acting rationally that he believes his revenge is more likely to come about as an accident than as a premeditated act.
When he sees Polonius’s corpse, Hamlet interprets his misdeed within the terms of retribution, punishment, and vengeance: “Heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this, and this with me” (III.iv.157–158). Though Hamlet has not achieved his vengeance upon Claudius, he believes that God has used him as a tool of vengeance to punish Polonius’s sins and punish Hamlet’s sins by staining his soul with the murder.