Act 3 Scene 4, often referred to as ‘the closet scene’, is the first time we see Hamlet and Gertrude alone together and is a pivotal scene in an already fairly dramatic play. In this scene Hamlet releases his anger and frustration at his mother for the sinful deed she has committed and tries to persuade her of the evil that she has done by marrying his uncle, the murderer of his father. We can see that Gertrude is most likely unaware that her late husband was murdered when she says “As kill a King!” (line 31) although this can also show the Queen’s apprehension at what may now be revealed. It is also the first time she confronts her own behaviour:
“O Hamlet, speak no more.
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.”
By this point of the play, Hamlet has finally convinced himself that Claudius murdered his father, after being told by his father’s wandering spirit at the very beginning of the play, and will now, supposedly, try to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius. However, by now we know Hamlet to be a man of words but no action especially seeing as in the previous scene, Hamlet talked himself out of killing Claudius when it was the perfect opportunity to do it.
So when Hamlet kills Polonius after only 25 lines of this scene, the drama – which always accompanies a murder – is increased tremendously because it’s completely unexpected from a character like Hamlet and almost unbelievable. Not only does the sudden action by Hamlet surprise us, it is also the first murder we actually witness in the play and therefore is all the more shocking.
Whilst Hamlet hopes that he has killed Claudius, it turns out to be the King’s willing accomplice, Polonius and though Hamlet seems to commit the murder with great passion – “How now! A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!” with the repetition of ‘dead’ and the exclamation marks suggesting strong emotion – he then swiftly becomes indifferent and seems to forget all about Polonius, his next line being:
“A bloody deed! – Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.”
This then leads on to Hamlet’s intense denouncement of Claudius in front of the Queen and the only other times he makes reference to Polonius, it’s extremely callous:
“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! …”
“I’ll lug the guts … a foolish prating knave…”
These comments cause the majority of the audience, and in some respect, Gertrude, to dislike Hamlet and create tension between, not only the characters on stage, but also between those watching and Hamlet. This in itself adds more drama to the scene and almost makes it seem like an episode of a modern soap opera, adding suspense by the second.
The heated discussion that follows between Gertrude and Hamlet, although hugely one-sided, continues to build the layers of friction and drama, especially as Hamlet is “so rude” to his mother.
Not only does he accuse her of being some kind of prostitute (“…From the fair forehead of an innocent love, And sets a blister there; makes marriage vows as false as dicers’ oaths…” – prostitutes of the time were marked with a sign or ‘blister’ on the forehead) he also seems to be obsessed with his mother’s and Claudius’ sex life, giving possible credibility to the theory that Hamlet has incestuous feelings for his mother.
He compares Claudius to his father and says that there is no chance Gertrude could have married Claudius out of love “…for at your age The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble…” so therefore only married him because she wanted Claudius for sex: “…Sense [sexual desire], sure, you have…” Shakespeare then makes Hamlet compare their bed to a sweaty pig sty and uses food imagery to suggest a gluttonous occupant, either referring to Gertrude, who has ‘taken’ another husband, or Claudius, who has taken his brother’s wife and crown.
And whilst Hamlet is berating his mother for marrying Claudius, the ghost of Hamlet’s father arrives.
In Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare’s plays were written and first performed, ghosts were very popular among the people so the inclusion of a spirit would have made this scene quite crowd-pleasing. The excitement that would have been emanated by the audience would also contribute to the dramatic atmosphere. However, in modern times ghosts are more associated with stories of a chilling nature which contain a more mysterious feel, although the appearance of a ghost still gives a rather dramatic effect.
The arrival of King Hamlet’s spirit comes most appropriately after Hamlet has reached a high pitch of frenzy in his abuse of the current King. The ghost then proceeds to tell Hamlet that he hasn’t come to reproach his”…tardy son…” who “…let’s go by Th’important acting of [his] dread command…” but instead is here to warn him that Gertrude’s imagination, overwhelmed by the horror of what she has done, is working frantically and may cause her actual bodily harm. The ghost tells his son to intervene as he, King Hamlet, is naturally sympathetic to the Queen in her misery. He also mentions the fact that Hamlet’s mother looks rather bewildered to witness her son apparently speaking to thin air.
The ghost’s invisibility to Gertrude raises the question of Hamlet’s sanity. We could interpret Shakespeare’s choice to blind Gertrude to the ghost’s presence – and to deafen her ears to her son’s insistence that the ghost exists – to mean that Shakespeare does imagine Hamlet as now being a madman and no longer merely acting the part. Of course, one can also interpret the scene as an incrimination of Gertrude – she cannot see the ghost because of her own guilt as her heart, with the “black and grainï¿½d spots”, impedes her vision and refuses her the sight of her loving husband. Others argue that perhaps Gertrude does see the ghost and only pretends not to so as not to be called mad like her son.
Then again, the scene could also be interpreted as more proof of Gertrude’s innocence and lack of participation in the plot of King Hamlet’s murder. She doesn’t seem to know that her husband has been murdered and that his spirit has been doomed to walk the Earth forever because he died without repenting.
In any case, the possible suggestion that Hamlet is imagining the ghost, or that perhaps the ghost is refusing to show itself to Gertrude, once again increases the level of suspense in the scene, especially at the point when the ghost has left and Hamlet questions his mother:
Hamlet: “Do you see nothing there?”
Gertrude: “Nothing at all; yet all is that I see.”
Hamlet: “Nor did you nothing hear?”
Gertrude: “No, nothing but ourselves.”
This almost has the air of a murder-mystery programme, not only because of the appearance of a ghost but also due to the fact that this snippet of conversation between Hamlet and his mother sounds very much like a questioning between investigator and suspect.
Once the ghost has departed, Hamlet confesses to Gertrude that he is not really mad, only putting on a false act to trick the King, and begs his mother to see sense and not let Claudius “…tempt you again to bed; Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse; And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers, Make you to ravel all this matter out…”.
Gertrude is torn between betraying her new husband, whom she now has suspicious doubts about, or her son, whom she loves dearly: “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.”
The strong vocabulary and imagery used throughout this scene gives us only a partial idea of how thrilling it would be coupled with the moves performed by the actor. The violent and unprovoked act of murder by Hamlet or the heartbreak of Gertrude, dramatic just in script, would be so much more so on stage.