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Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4 Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson will provide a summary of Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's tragedy ''Hamlet'' as well as analyze some of the most significant quotes from the scene.

Hamlet Arrives at Gertrude's Room

At the beginning of Act 3, Scene 4 of Hamlet, Polonius is already in Gertrude's chamber, getting ready for Hamlet to arrive. He encourages Gertrude to harshly scold Hamlet for his recent behavior and then hides behind an ''arras,'' or curtain-like tapestry, so that he can eavesdrop and help Gertrude and Claudius understand why Hamlet has been acting so strangely.

When Hamlet arrives, he asks Gertrude why she sent for him. She replies, ''Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended,'' meaning that he has offended his uncle and step-father, Claudius. Hamlet answers, ''Mother, you have my father much offended,'' meaning that she has offended his actual father, the late King, by remarrying his evil brother. Hamlet tells Gertrude that he regrets that she is his mother and that she should sit and not move until he sets her ''up a glass where {she} may see the inmost part of {herself}.'' In other words, Hamlet intends to make Gertrude fully realize how terrible she is for marrying Claudius and so quickly forgetting the memory of Hamlet's father.

Suddenly, there is a noise from behind the arras and Hamlet yells, ''How now! A rat?'' He plunges his sword through the tapestry without a moment's thought or without stopping to see who is there; he assumes it is Claudius. Polonius cries, ''O, I am slain!'' and dies on the spot. Hamlet shows very little regret for killing him.

1835 Delacroix painting of Hamlet and Polonius
Hamlet discovering he has killed Polonius

Hamlet then returns to shaming his mother for her deeds, showing her pictures of his father and Claudius side by side and comparing the two. Hamlet praises his father by using similes, or comparisons using the words 'like' or 'as.' For example, Hamlet likens his father to Roman gods by saying, ''The front of Jove himself; An eye like Mars, to threaten and command; A station like the herald Mercury new-lighted on a heaven kissing hill.'' In contrast, Hamlet describes her current husband, Claudius, as ''like a mildew'd ear, blasting his wholesome brother.''

Finally, the queen begs Hamlet to stop his tirade against her, claiming to see how wrong and terrible she was in marrying Claudius.

The Ghost Appears

Suddenly, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears, but only Hamlet can see him. Hamlet asks the ghost if he has come to scold him because Hamlet has not yet carried out the ghost's request to avenge his death by killing Claudius. Gertrude thinks Hamlet is mad because it looks like he is speaking to thin air; the ghost asks Hamlet to explain his presence to Gertrude and also to tell her that he, Hamlet, has only been pretending to be mad all this time. But the ghost disappears and Gertrude is not convinced although she promises not to tell Claudius about Hamlet's feigned, or false, insanity.

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