At the top of Scene 3, Claudius' sycophants report in, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern desperate to ingratiate themselves despite their failures (this is often cut from productions as there is something necessarily tedious about it), and Polonius to inform him of his plan to hide in the Queen's closet. We then get to the heart of the matter as Claudius confesses his crime in a prayer/soliloquy. This is where Shakespeare lets go of any ambiguity concerning the crime, but to better forge a cruel irony. Hamlet walks in, sees an opportunity to kill Claudius, but stays his hand because the King is at prayer and his soul thus likely to rise to heaven, whereas his father's is trapped in hell. Or it is just another excuse not to commit to his action, regardless of his previous soliloquy. Hamlet is yet a man of words, not of action. Before we look at the play's various featured productions, and how they staged this very theatrical double-aside, let's look at Shakespeare's text (in italics) and shine some light on some of the lines.
SCENE III. A room in the castle.
Enter KING CLAUDIUS, ROSENCRANTZ, and GUILDENSTERN
KING CLAUDIUS: I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you;
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you:
The terms of our estate may not endure
Hazard so dangerous as doth hourly grow
Out of his lunacies.
The hazard, at this point, is that Hamlet gives Claudius away and reveals his guilt more plainly to Court and Country. After the next scene, he'll be better able to justify the exile as a different "hazard" is realized violently on Polonius.
GUILDENSTERN: We will ourselves provide:
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.
As if knowing the punishment (exile) doesn't fit the crime (putting on an outrageous play), R&G immediately jump to Claudius' defense, justifying his order for him and making sure he knows they are absolutely on his side. Without meaning to, Guildenstern creates a Hamletian image of a rotting King on which maggot-subjects feed. Words and kingly diets will turn up again soon.
ROSENCRANTZ: The single and peculiar life is bound,
With all the strength and armour of the mind,
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depend and rest
The lives of many. The cease of majesty
Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw
What's near it with it: it is a massy wheel,
In Rosencrantz' wheel metaphor, one might see the Wheel of Fortune, Hamlet's strumpet, and an again-accidental warning that what goes around, comes around, proclaiming another king's death in the future. He should do well to heed his own prophecy, because he's one of the lesser things annexed to that royal wheel, and will share its fate. The King will sigh (his last), and he will groan.
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoin'd; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.
KING CLAUDIUS: Arm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage;
Small ironies: Claudius "prays" them, and in a few more lines will pray God. From the lowest to the highest, but with no change in intensity or value.
For we will fetters put upon this fear,
Which now goes too free-footed.
ROSENCRANTZ GUILDENSTERN: We will haste us.
Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN
LORD POLONIUS: My lord, he's going to his mother's closet:
Behind the arras I'll convey myself,
To hear the process; and warrant she'll tax him home:
And, as you said, and wisely was it said,
'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
The idea here is that Claudius does not trust Gertrude, and believes she will always be biased in Hamlet's favor. This is a variation on the first arras scene, in which Gertrude was sent away.
The speech, of vantage. Fare you well, my liege:
I'll call upon you ere you go to bed,
And tell you what I know.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thanks, dear my lord.
Here begins Claudius' confession, and one might compare it to "To be or not to be", in that it is a strong example of something losing "the name of action". If Hamlet refuses to commit murder (or self-murder, if you believe he's really talking about suicide), Claudius refuses to repent. Both men have this moment of weakness where they cannot do what they should. In both cases, we can invoke pride. These men follow "To thine own self be true" to the letter and are doomed by it. Though they can reflect on the possibility of change, change is actually beyond them (at least, at this point in the play). We will discover over the next few weeks if directors have acknowledge this parallel between the two characters and the two scenes.
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
The same idea is explored more fully in MacBeth, in which a similar image of unwashable blood represents guilt tempered by ambition. There as here, the true villain's ambition triumphs over his guilt and he resolves not to repent, but to commit further murders to hide the first. MacBeth is, in truth, an anti-Hamlet that may deserve its own entry one day, a Hamlet told from Claudius' perspective and where rashness replaces delay.
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
If Denmark is a moral universe, now corrupted, then it could be that once Hamlet has done his own murders and set the country's moral compass a-right, he has to die. Hamlet will not retain the advantages of the deaths he has caused, and Denmark passes into the hands of an entirely different monarch.
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
In another mirrored moment from "To be or not to be", Claudius wonders at the undiscovered country himself, and he too sees it as a place to fear, a place where he cannot hide from justice as he has done in our own corrupt world.
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well. [Retires and kneels]
Note that Shakespeare makes it clear Hamlet only comes in after the speech and once Claudius is on his knees. He does not hear what is said, though of course, Claudius does not hear the following words. On stage, this is often played with Hamlet standing right over him with a blade. As we'll see, films have attempted many different stagings to make this moment less theatrical and more realistic.
HAMLET: Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
Readers today may not realize how violent and even blasphemous this passage is. Hamlet is not just contemplating the murder of his king and uncle, but also of making sure Claudius' soul isn't saved so that is doomed to hell. Christian doctrine, which Hamlet adheres to, often showing a Puritanical vein, would have him allow his uncle to repent before his death/execution. Hamlet's choice puts him on the path of evil, which possibly adds an ironic layer to Horatio's invocation of angels upon his death. What undiscovered country will Hamlet go to?
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
KING CLAUDIUS: [Rising] My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
And there's the punch line. The irony is that Claudius' prayers are empty and that he was basically communicating his refusal to repent. Hamlet could have killed him then after all. Hamlet's words are truer than he realizes. It is indeed a "physic", i.e. purely physical state. that prolongs Claudius' days. Of course, different stagings and performances may change how we perceive this scene. Is Hamlet convinced by the prayer, or just looking for yet another excuse to delay his action? Does the setting, both physical and temporal, change how we interpret these Christian ideas? The next articles will address these issues and more.