In Gertrude’s chamber, the queen and Polonius wait for Hamlet’s arrival. Polonius plans to hide in order to eavesdrop on Gertrude’s confrontation with her son, in the hope that doing so will enable him to determine the cause of Hamlet’s bizarre and threatening behavior. Polonius urges the queen to be harsh with Hamlet when he arrives, saying that she should chastise him for his recent behavior. Gertrude agrees, and Polonius hides behind an arras, or tapestry.
Hamlet storms into the room and asks his mother why she has sent for him. She says that he has offended his father, meaning his stepfather, Claudius. He interrupts her and says that she has offended his father, meaning the dead King Hamlet, by marrying Claudius. Hamlet accosts her with an almost violent intensity and declares his intention to make her fully aware of the profundity of her sin. Fearing for her life, Gertrude cries out. From behind the arras, Polonius calls out for help. Hamlet, realizing that someone is behind the arras and suspecting that it might be Claudius, cries, “How now! a rat?” (III.iv.22). He draws his sword and stabs it through the tapestry, killing the unseen Polonius. Gertrude asks what Hamlet has done, and he replies, “Nay, I know not: / Is it the king?” (III.iv.24). The queen says his action was a “rash and bloody” deed, and Hamlet replies that it was almost as rash and bloody as murdering a king and marrying his brother (III.iv.26–28). Disbelieving, the queen exclaims, “As kill a king!” and Hamlet replies that she heard him correctly (III.iv.29).
Hamlet lifts the arras and discovers Polonius’s body: he has not killed the king and achieved his revenge but has murdered the relatively innocent Polonius. He bids the old man farewell, calling him an “intruding fool” (III.iv.30). He turns to his mother, declaring that he will wring her heart. He shows her a picture of the dead king and a picture of the current king, bitterly comments on the superiority of his father to his uncle, and asks her furiously what has driven her to marry a rotten man such as Claudius. She pleads with him to stop, saying that he has turned her eyes onto her soul and that she does not like what she sees there. Hamlet continues to denounce her and rail against Claudius, until, suddenly, the ghost of his father again appears before him.
Hamlet speaks to the apparition, but Gertrude is unable to see it and believes him to be mad. The ghost intones that it has come to remind Hamlet of his purpose, that Hamlet has not yet killed Claudius and must achieve his revenge. Noting that Gertrude is amazed and unable to see him, the ghost asks Hamlet to intercede with her. Hamlet describes the ghost, but Gertrude sees nothing, and in a moment the ghost disappears. Hamlet tries desperately to convince Gertrude that he is not mad but has merely feigned madness all along, and he urges her to forsake Claudius and regain her good conscience. He urges her as well not to reveal to Claudius that his madness has been an act. Gertrude, still shaken from Hamlet’s furious condemnation of her, agrees to keep his secret. He bids her goodnight, but, before he leaves, he points to Polonius’s corpse and declares that heaven has “punished me with this, and this with me” (III.iv.158). Hamlet reminds his mother that he must sail to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he says he will regard with suspicion, as though they were poisonous snakes, since he assumes that their loyalties are with Claudius, not with him. Dragging Polonius’s body behind him, Hamlet leaves his mother’s room.
What is Hamlet trying to do in his confrontation with his mother? It is possible that he wants her to confirm her knowledge of Claudius’s crime, to provide further proof of his guilt. Or it may be that Hamlet wants to know whether she was complicit in the crime. Or he may feel that he needs her on his side if he is to achieve justice. While all of these are possibilities, what Hamlet actually does is urge his mother to repent choosing Claudius over his own father. More specifically, he repeatedly demands that she avoid Claudius’s bed. Actually, he’s much more specific: he tells her not to let Claudius arouse her by fondling her neck, not to stay within his semen-infested sheets, and other shockingly graphic details.
This is another point in the play where audiences and readers have felt that there is more going on in Hamlet’s brain than we can quite put our fingers on. Sigmund Freud wrote that Hamlet harbors an unconscious desire to sexually enjoy his mother. Freud maintained that all men unconsciously desire their mothers in this way, and he called this the “Oedipus Complex,” after the character in Sophocles’ play who unwittingly murders his father and has several children by his own mother. Whether or not Freud was right about this is as difficult to prove as any of the problems that Hamlet worries about, but his argument in regard to Hamlet is quite remarkable. He says that while Oedipus actually enacts this fantasy, Hamlet only betrays the unconscious desire to do so. Hamlet is thus a quintessentially modern person, because he has repressed desires.
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.