Act 3 Scene 4 Of Hamlet Essays

Apply your understanding of early modern performance practices by editing a passage of text from a classical play to illustrate and explain the implied stage action, and your evidence for your suggestions.

‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare
Commentary Act 3 Scene 4: Lines 1-180

Act 3 Scene 4
The scene unfolds in Gertrude’s ‘closet’, which, for Elizabethans meant a private room. Lawrence Olivier, like many others, staged the scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, in his 1948 film, influenced perhaps by Freud’s interpretation that Hamlet suffers from the ‘Oedipus Complex’. Sigmund Freud wrote that Hamlet harbours, ‘an unconscious desire to sexually enjoy his mother’ (Warner: 1986).Freud further maintained that ‘all men unconsciously desire their mothers’ (Warner: 1986)in this way and named this condition the ‘Oedipus Complex’ after the protagonist in Sophocles’ play. The implied dramatic purposes of this scene could stem, therefore, from the presence of a bed, emphasizing the idea of an invasion of privacy for modern audiences, as it ‘raises the erotic temperature’ (Warner: 1986). This, of course, is dependent on the director’s and actor’s interpretation of character. The contentious point for an Elizabethan audience would probably have been Gertrude’s incestuous marriage to her brother-in-law (Frye, 1984: p152). If Freud’s idea is to be pursued in performance, then the point might be best made if Hamlet were to physically drive Gertrude onto her bed on line 18’s ‘sit you down’. Further more, Hamlet could hold Gertrude with increasing force, abuse her about her relationship with Claudius while praising his dead father. For example Olivier, in his film becomes increasingly violent as Hamlet, throwing Gertrude to the bed so breaking his promise that he would (3.2.357)‘speak daggers to her, but use none.’

Lines 1-5
In the opening of the scene, Shakespeare displays a wide range of rhetorical techniques, the first being the repetition of phrases. Typically Polonius constantly repeats instructions to Gertrude on lines 1-5 :‘Look you’, ‘Tell him’, ‘Pray you.’ Such a technique provides the actor with room to underline the dramatic purpose of the speech, in order to bring out the fastidious, controlling nature of Polonius’ character. Polonius implants an image to the audience of Gertrude acting as a fire screen,  shielding Hamlet from criticism and censure, ‘stood between / Much heat and him.’ Shakespeare’s imagery evokes a strong sense of motherhood, deepening the audience’s impression of Gertrude’s care for her son’s well being. Polonius’ language continues to be consistent of his character, saying how he will ‘silence’ himself whilst issuing a long number of instructions, ordering Gertrude to be strong in her choice of words, ‘be round with him.’ Shakespeare implants strong dramatic irony on Polonius’ line ‘I’ll silence be e’en here’ as he will later be silenced forever. In Edwards’ New Cambridge Shakespeare, Dowden interprets this line as ironic but more for the notion that it is Polonius’ shout later on (3.4.23) that causes his death (Edwards, 1985: p186).

Lines 6-12
Upon entering Hamlet calls, ‘Mother, mother, mother’ continuing the repetition. In passionate exchanges with Gertrude, the same words are repeated, Shakespeare giving emphasis to the other preoccupations of the play, ‘dead’, ‘deed’, ‘king’, and ‘act.’ In the early stages of the scene, Hamlet echoes the form and rhythm of his mother’s lines, but then modifies the words to express his anger and obsession with his father’s death. The recognizable ‘thou’ transforms into the informal ‘you’, ‘thy father’ becomes ‘my father’ and ‘idle tongue’ becomes ‘wicked tongue.’

Shakespeare moves the dialogue into stichomythia. These one-line rapid-fire exchanges or verbal rally, heighten the dramatic tension as a character’s line is swiftly and precisely challenged by another’s. Hamlet charges the altered words with the revulsion he feels:

GERTRUDE:Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.

Shakespeare simultaneously uses doubling: the repetition of words at the beginning of successive clauses, in this case the doubled words occurring immediately: ‘Come, come’ and ‘Go, go.’ Great dramatic force is given to the language as repeated words and rhythms add to the emotional intensity of the moment or scene, heightening the theatrical effect.

Perhaps the lack of rhyme in Shakespeare’s language for this scene suggests a sense of detachment and instability, as a rhyme would usually be a verbal emblem for closeness or intimacy. Rhyming couplets, by their nature, suggest a sense of harmony, however, Shakespeare disposes of such a linguistic technique in this scene in order to totally remove the audience and actors from generating any sense of affection or compassion. This scene is about Hamlet’s anger and disgust with his mother, and this is reflected in the dialogue which has the feel of something disjointed and incomplete.

Lines 13-16
One of Shakespeare’s most common linguistic technique is to accumulate phrases or words, ‘listing’ for dramatic purposes. The use of lists is dramatically evident in this scene, notably in lines 15-16. In this way, Hamlet is able to express the violence of his feelings, ‘listing’ the causes of his emotional distress, piling item upon item to heighten the impact of his words. His catalogue of family relationships is intended to emotionally wound his mother, ‘You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, / And, would it were not so, you are my mother.’ Other lists in the scene, where the actor can speak to accumulating but different effect include Hamlet’s long account of Gertrude’s offensive ‘act’ (3.4.40-51) which can be delivered as a catalogue of at least eight reprehensible items, from ‘blurs the grace’ to ‘thought-sick at the act.’

Shakespeare’s text suggests that the actor could speak these lines with increasing anguish. Similarly, Hamlet’s point by point praise of his father’s qualities (3.4.55-62) from ‘See what a grace’ to ‘assurance of a man’ could either be spoken with developing wonder and admiration or with increasing regret at what is now lost. Shakespeare allows the actor considerable room for interpretation in terms of characterisation.

Lines 17-20
In a similar vein to Polonius’ instructions to Gertrude, Hamlet’s language is full of repeated orders to his mother. Here, Shakespeare intends to display the intensity of Hamlet’s feelings through repetition: ‘Go, go’, ‘Come, come’, ‘sit you down’, and ‘Look here.’ Hamlet’s constant reproaches to his mother would not have appeared at all unnatural to an Elizabethan audience, as Gertrude was guilty of incest. Elizabethans would have regarded her marriage to her brother-in-law as reprehensible precisely in the ways Hamlet points out. However, their shock at Gertrude’s bland self-assurance would have left them curious as to how Hamlet might deal with his mother (Frye, 1984: p153). He begins by using a looking glass; ‘I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you.’ The mirror provided the Elizabethan audience with an understanding that Shakespeare pursues throughout the scene, and which renders it immensely theatrical. When Hamlet seizes a mirror and holds it up to his mother, this results in a stage tableau in which Gertrude has to study her own face and more importantly look into her soul. The glass is fundamentally metaphorical. Stage productions usually do not use an actual mirror but the idea of a woman studying herself in the mirror of self-knowledge was so widespread and popular that early audiences would surely have recognized the visual allusion. The actions of the two characters would have reinforced the verbal arguments Hamlet uses throughout this scene, forcing his mother to examine herself and repent (Frye, 1984: p154). 

Lines 21-26
The early climax of the scene occurs with Polonius’ murder. Hamlet’s vivid images convey his extreme emotions, branding Polonius ‘a rat’ evoking his character as a shrewd and conniving backstabber. Shakespeare’s unflagging and richly varied use of verbal illustration stirs the audience’s imaginations throughout the playand deepens its dramatic impact, switching between the formal, and in this case, the crude and colloquial. 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. 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. Hamlet’s extreme emotions are caught in the alliterative ‘d’ on line 24. Words beginning with ‘d’ bring out the strong emphasis on the harsh, consonant sound, dramatically accompanying Hamlet’s sudden thrusts into the arras. Such incidents provide any production with opportunities for heightened dramatic effect. For example, the stabbing could be a prolonged, savage affair, with Hamlet speaking with a breathless expectancy as he demands ‘is it the king?’

Line 27
Shakespeare’s use of doubling is the dominant feature of Gertrude’s response. The instances of the ‘doubling’, which pervades the whole play, intensify both meaning and emotional impact. They give the actor many opportunities to vary the delivery of ‘rash and bloody deed’ on line 27. Most commonly the doubling is achieved by means of the simple conjunction ‘and.’ This example is a special type of doubling known as hendiadys (Gibson, 2002: p78). Here, the two words express a single idea. They duplicate the sense rather than amplify or modify each other, as in, ‘rash and bloody.’ This tendency to use two words when one would be sufficient to convey meaning contributes to dramatic effect. In its suggestion of ‘one through two’ it echoes the play’s concern with marriage and incest (the union of separate selves). Some critics claim that these doublings contain tension or strain, and help create a sense of unease and mystery (Gibson, 2002: p79). How far these claims are valid is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that doubling is a major feature of the language of Hamlet. The critic Harley Granville-Barker claims that Shakespeare had an ‘extraordinary fondness’ (Gibson, 2002: p78)for this device, and Frank Kermode claims that it seems to be the ‘very essence’ (Gibson, 2002: p78) of the play. Kermode sees the play as ‘obsessed with doubles of all kinds’ (Gibson, 2002: p78), the play’s preoccupation with false appearance seen as a product of the playwright’s use of doubling. Duplicity runs throughout the play, with characters pretending to be something they are not. Other doublings that occur later on in the extract are (3.4.38)‘proof and bulwark’, (3.4.41)‘grace and blush’, (3.4.49)‘solidity and compound mass’, (3.4.52)‘roars so loud and thunders’, (3.4.57)‘threaten and command’ and (3.4.60)‘combination and a form.’

Lines 28-30
Gertrude’s four-word response to Hamlet’s accusation is often interpreted as her dawning realisation that her first husband was murdered, possibly by Claudius:

HAMLET: A bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.
GERTRUDE: As kill a king?

In Jenkins’ Arden edition of the play, the note on Gertrude’s echoing of Hamlet’s phrase ‘As kill a king’ suggests a confident interpretation of her response, ‘Her reaction manifests her innocence’ (Jenkins, 1982: p320). However, the New Cambridge editor, Philip Edwards, voices what may be a more widespread frustration when he says of the same line, ‘It is extraordinary that neither of them takes up this all-important matter again. Gertrude does not press for an explanation; Hamlet does not question further the Queen’s involvement’ (Edwards, 1985: p175). It would appear that Gertrude’s astonishment on line 29 at ‘kill a king’ is so patently innocent that Hamlet never again suspects her of complicity in that crime, and never mentions it again. Yet Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother in her quarters has appeared to be either perplexing or repugnant, in one way or another to many 20th century productions and audiences. Many agree with George Bernard Shaw that the ‘scene is an unnatural one: the son’s reproaches to his mother, even the fact of his being able to discuss the subject with her, is more repulsive than her relations with her deceased husband’s brother’ (Frye, 1984: p152).Such opinions can provide lively stimulus, along with the text, for dramatic and theatrical effects. The scene provides the actress playing Gertrude with the opportunity to show that, for the very first time, she suspects Claudius’ involvement in the king’s death. She is able to repeat Hamlet’s words with incredulity, but with a growing suspicion of her new husband’s evil act, ‘As kill a king?’ One of the dramatic purposes of the scene is to expose and exploit Gertrude’s impropriety in regard to her marriage to Claudius. According to her son she had transgressed not only moral and religious prohibitions, but also rules of decorum. Hamlet’s disgust would be understood by the audience, especially an Elizabethan one, who would identify with his utter condemnation of the haste and nature of the marriage.

Line 31
On line 31, Shakespeare continues his favourite language technique of ‘listing’ by illustrating Hamlet’s passion through his vehement denunciation of Polonius, ‘wretched, rash, intruding, fool.’ Hamlet’s list comprises of only single word adjectives to add to the force of his argument. Such a list intensifies the atmosphere, amplifies meaning and provides extra dimensions of character. Further more, lists provide opportunities for actors to vary delivery. In speaking, a character usually seeks to give each ‘item’ a distinctiveness by emphasis and emotional tone, and sometimes an accompanying action and expression. The dramatic implications of the text would suggest that Hamlet’s lines are spoken increasingly dismissively.

Lines 32-94
On line 38, Hamlet accuses Gertrude’s heart of being armoured ‘proof against bulwark’. On line 44, he goes on to suggest she is like a prostitute who was branded on the forehead ‘sets a blister there’ and in marrying Claudius she has made religion a meaningless jumble, ‘rhapsody’, line 48.The word ‘blister’ evokes images of disease, in keeping with image clusters in Hamlet that relate to poison, disease and corruption. Such clusters, repeated in different forms, embody and express the preoccupations of the play, its themes and issues. Social corruption is implied in images of inner bodily corruption and later in the scene Hamlet goes on to imagine Claudius’ court as (3.4.148)‘the ulcerous place.’ Caroline Spurgeon’s pioneering study of Shakespeare’s imagery notes the phrase ‘the evil smell of evil deeds’ and that the word ‘rank’ on line 92, meaning rancid and smelly, occurs in several such images. Later on (3.4.149), Hamlet warns his mother against ‘rank corruption, mining all within’ and is disgusted at the thought of her with Claudius, on line 93, in ‘the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stewed in corruption.’ According to Edwards’ New Cambridge Shakespeare, the word ‘enseamed’ is associated with grease. ‘Enseam’ could therefore mean to apply grease. It is likely that in Hamlet’s mind the idea of ‘evacuated foulness’ would dominate his insults, the word echoing ‘semen’ surely present (Edwards, 1985: p190). Thus the bed is greasy with offensive semen adding to Shakespeare’s many depictions of this sense of sickness and corruption being widespread. Shakespeare constantly uses such images to enrich emotional force and intensify meaning.

Lines 95-180
Shakespeare uses the technique of antithesis, the opposition of words or phrases against each other, for the line on 179, ‘I must be cruel only to be kind.’ This setting of word against word, ‘cruel’ versus ‘kind’, is one of Shakespeare’s favourite language devices. Antithesis powerfully expresses conflict through its use of opposites, and conflict is the essence of drama. The ‘closet scene’ is the conflict of son versus mother. The emotional conflict between Gertrude and Hamlet is expressed in all kinds of oppositions. ‘Father’ (134) is set against ‘mother’ (145), ‘hands’ (3.4.34) against ‘heart’ (157), ‘virtue’ (153)against ‘hypocrite’ (3.4.42), ‘rose’ (3.4.42) against ‘blister’ (3.4.44), ‘marriage vows’ (3.4.44)against ‘dicers oaths’ (3.4.45), ‘Heaven’s face’ (3.4.48) against ‘glow’ (3.4.48). Hamlet embarks on an extended contrast of the ‘grace’ (3.4.55)of his father with the corruption of Claudius. He is able to speak ‘your husband’  (3.4.64) with utter contempt, and emphasise the antithesis of ‘mildewed ear / Blasting his wholesome brother’ (3.4.64-65) and ‘fair mountain’ (3.4.66) versus ‘moor’ (3.4.67).Antithesis intensifies that sense of conflict, and embodies its different forms.

Edwards, P. (1985) Hamlet Prince of Denmark: The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Gibson, R. (2002) Shakespeare Hamlet: Cambridge Student Guide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Warner, W.B. (1986) Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Cornell University Press
Jenkins, H. (2001) Structural Problems in Shakespeare: Essays by Harold Jenkins, Arden Shakespeare
Frye, .R. (1984) The Renaissance Hamlet, Princeton Univesity Press
Ryan, K. (2000) Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, London: Macmillan Press Ltd

Act 3 Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay

1173 Words5 Pages

Act 3 Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's Hamlet

It is tempting to condemn Gertrude as evil, but it is probably more sensible to consider her as weak and inconstant. But when have tragedy plays ever been sensible? Like many of Shakespeare's women it is argued that their characters are somewhat "sketched in" rather than drawn in with detail like for example, Hamlet's. The way Shakespeare has "sketched in" Gertrude's character leads an awful lot down to the way she is played on the stage. When reading the play Gertrude's character is enigmatic. This leads a lot down to personal interpretation upon reading the play. We also have to take the culture of that period in time into consideration when…show more content…

The Victorian society was very familiar with death and it was a large part of their culture. Gertrude waited a whole month before announcing her love for Claudius. There are even suggestions that Gertrude was unfaithful to Old Hamlet with Claudius, she was probably quite lonely being married to Hamlet senior, seeing as he was always off at war…who else to warm the royal bed than the charismatic Claudius? This links her to the death of Claudius and weather she had a hand in it. Looking at the evidence we seriously have to ask, how can Gertrude not know about the details of her husband's death when so heavily involved with Claudius and the palace?

One of her greatest weapons is her power of deceitfulness. In act 3 scene 4 Gertrude supposedly finds out about the murder of Old Hamlet. She seems shocked and flabbergasted about the event but in control of her emotions. In the heated exchanges between the two Gertrude shows Hamlet how supposedly innocent she is and vulnerable to the evil of Claudius. Hamlet's tone moves from the bitterly accusatory, "kill a king and marry with his brother", to the almost apologetic, "I must only be cruel to be kind". This tool of vulnerability plays on Hamlet's mixed up emotions and wins him back over to her side. So when she is in a tight situation she can just play the innocent card and Hamlet will take it, due to his love for his mother.


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