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ACT III SCENE IIIA room in the castle.
KING CLAUDIUSI 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.
GUILDENSTERNWe will ourselves provide:
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.10
ROSENCRANTZThe 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,
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,20
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.
KING CLAUDIUSArm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage;
For we will fetters put upon this fear,
Which now goes too free-footed.
GUILDENSTERNWe will haste us.
LORD POLONIUSMy 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,30
‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear
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 CLAUDIUSThanks, dear my lord.
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;40
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
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;50
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?

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;60
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?
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,70
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.
[Retires and kneels]
[Enter HAMLET]
HAMLETNow 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
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;80
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;90
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
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:100
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Explanatory Notes for Act 3, Scene 3

From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.


1, 2. I like … range, I do not like the look of things as regards him, nor is it safe for us to allow his madness to have free scope; his madness, him who is mad; you, reflexive.

3. I your commission … dispatch, I will at once make out the commission which you are to take to England. It does not seem to follow at all necessarily that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are privy to the traitorous scheme for killing Hamlet in England. That he was to be got out of the way, they of course knew; but the king would hardly be likey to confide to his agents what was to be done with him when thus out of the way.

4. shall along, for the omission of the verb of motion, see Abb. § 30.

5-7. The terms … lunacies, the terms on which we hold sway are not of so secure a nature that we can afford to look with unconcern upon the dangers which every moment spring from his mad freaks, and threaten us so nearly; ourselves provide, supply ourselves with everything necessary for the voyage.

8-10. Most holy … majesty, the anxiety you feel for the safety of those who are dependent upon you is a most holy feeling, their welfare being a sacred duty to one in your position.

11-3. The single … noyance, even the individual man (who has no one to think of but himself) is in prudence bound to use every faculty of his mind to keep himself from injury; noyance, i.e. annoyance, used for injury, danger, as in R. II. iii. 2. 16, Macb. V. 1. 84, and the verb annoy in Cymb. iv. 3. 34, H. V. ii. 2. 103.

14, spirit, here little more than life, in 1. 11; the vital principle.

15, 6. The cease … alone, the extinction of majesty in the death of a king is much more than the single death of an ordinary man.

16, 7. but, like … it, involves the sweeping away of everything connected with it (sc. majesty), as a whirlpool engulfs everything that comes within its area.

18. highest mount, i.e. from which the fall will be most headlong.

20. mortised, firmly fixed; a mortise is the groove made in timber into which the tenon of another piece of timber is fixed; for the substantive, cp. Oth. ii. 1. 9, “What ribs of oak … Can hold the mortise?”

20-2. which, … ruin, and when this massive wheel is precipitated down, everything however small, that is an adjunct of it, everything however trifling that accompanies it, is swept away in its violent overthrow.

23. but with … groan, without that sigh being echoed by the groan of the whole kingdom; alone, 1. 22, is somewhat redundant.

24. Arm you, prepare yourselves.

25, 6. For we … free-footed, for I will put restraint upon this danger which now ranges abroad too freely; for fear, = object of fear, ii. H. IV. iv. 5. 196, “all these hold fears Thou see’st with peril I have answered.”

28. Behind … myself, I will betake myself to a place behind the tapestry; that space between it and the wall being sometimes very considerable; for arras, see note on ii. 2. 163.

29. To hear the process, to hear how the interview proceeds; tax, a doublet of taskhome, used adverbially.

30. as you said, “this was Polonius’s own suggestion, which, courtier-like, he ascribes to the king” (Moberly).

32. of vantage, “from the vantage-ground of concealment” (Abb. § 165)

36-8. 0, my offence … murder, 0, my crime, the murder of a brother, is so foul that the taint of it has reached the very heavens, and on it rests the curse pronounced upon Cain.

39. Though … will, though my inclination and my will to do so equally spur me on; inclination, the natural disposition to do a thing; will, the determination prompted by the understanding.

40. My stronger … intent, strong as my purpose is, my guilt is stronger still, and overcomes it.

41. to double … bound, whose attention is engaged upon two matters of business which have nothing in common with each other.

42. in pause, hesitating.

43. What if, even supposing that.

45. sweet, used here in the twofold sense of kind, gracious, and of purifying by means of rain; for the former sense, cp. Lear, i. 5. 50, “sweet heaven”; iii. 4. 91, “in the sweet face of heaven”; Oth. ii. 1. 197.

46, 7. Whereto … offence, of what avail is mercy except to overawe the face of crime so that it shrinks abashed out of sight?

48-50. And what’s … down? and what efficacy has prayer except the twofold one of arresting our fall, or of procuring pardon when we have fallen? The original sense of forestall is, says Skeat, “to buy up goods before they had been displayed at a stall in the market”; so to anticipate, and then to prevent; cp. V. 2. 203.

50. Then I’ll lookup, i.e. with hopeful eyes; take courage; cp. ii. H. IV. iv. 4. 113, “My soveieign lord, cheer up yourself, look up.”

52. serve my turn? be of service in my case? a phrase very frequent in Shakespeare, turn being equivalent to occasion, exigence.

54. effects, the advantages which he specifies in the next line.

55. ambition. Delius explains this as the realization of ambition. It does not seem certain to me that the word, instead of being one of three “effects,” is not in apposition with My crown, i.e. my crown which was the very object of my ambition.

56. May one … offence, is it possible for one to be pardoned while still retaining that for which he sinned? offence, abstract for concrete.

57. In the … world, in the tainted streams of this world, i.e. in the corrupted ways in which this world goes. Dyce and Furness adopt Walker’s conjecture ‘currents, i.e. occurrents; but it seems that there is a reference to a polluted stream, and the confusion of metaphors is not greater than others we have had.

58. offence’s … justice, the wealthy offender is able to thrust justice aside.

59. 60. the wicked …. law, a favourable verdict is secured by the very wealth which has been wrongfully acquired.

61, 2. There … nature, before God’s tribunal there is no evading justice, there the deed is seen in its real enormity. The Cl. Pr. Edd. say that Shakespeare here uses lies in its legal sense; but though there is probably a play upon the word in that sense, it can scarcely be the only or even primary one.

62-4. and we … evidence, and we cannot escape being brought face to face with our own sins to give evidence against them; for to the teeth, cp. below, iv. 7. 57, and H. VIII. i. 2. 36, “Daring the event to the teeth“; the auxiliary verb ‘are’ before compelled is to be supplied from lies in 1. 61.

65. Try, let me try.

66. Yet what … repent? yet of what avail is repentance when it consists in sorrow only without amendment of life?

68, 9. O limed soul … engaged! O soul entangled in difficulties, and only more thoroughly entangled by your efforts to free yourself. The metaphor is from snaring a bird by means of bird-lime, a glutinous substance which boys smear over a stick placed across the nest, and by which the bird when alighting is held fast, its struggles to get free only causing it to smear itself with more of the bird-lime.

69. Make assay! make vigorous effort to rescue me!

70. heart … steel, naturally so unyielding.

73. Now … pat, I could not find a time more fit for my purpose; cp. H. VIII. ii. 3. 84, “Come pat betwixt too early and too late”; “this can hardly be other than the same word as pat, a tap … But the sense is clearly due to an extraordinary confusion with Du. pas, pat, convenient, in time, which is used in exactly the same way as E. pat” … (Skeat, Ety. Dict.).

74. And so, and the consequence will be that, etc.

75. That would be scann’d, that point requires careful scrutinizing.

76. for that, in return for that.

79. O, this … salary, such a deed as that would be something for which I might well ask payment, i.e.. I should be doing him the greatest possible kindness, not punishing him, as I ought.

80. He took … bread, he took my father by surprise when in a state of gross and luxurious living. Malone points out that full of bread is borrowed from Ezekiel, vi. 49, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness.”

81. With all … May, with all his sins in full blossom, and with his blood flowing in his veins with the lusty vigour of the sap of trees in mid-spring; cp. below, iii. 4. 69.

82. And how … heaven, and how his account in the next world stands none knows but God.

83. 4. But in our … him, but so far as we can judge by looking at the matter from all points of view, things are in an evil plight with him; our circumstance and course of thought, is equivalent to the circumstantial course of our thought, the course of our thought which goes round and round the subject and views it in all its particulars.

85. To take … soul, in seizing the opportunity of killing him when he is purging his soul of guilt.

86. passage, sc. from this world to the next.

88. Up, sword, return to your sheath; suiting the action to the word: and know … hent, and wait to seize a more terrible opportunity; hent, is variously explained as grasp, opportunity, grip; it is the participle of O. E.henten, A. S. hentan, to snatch, seize.

89. drunk asleep, in a drunken sleep.

91. At gaming, engaged in gaming; about, occupied with.

92. That has … in ‘t, that, unlike his present occupation, has nothing in it that savours of the salvation of his soul.

93. Then trip … heaven, then give him such a fall that he will go headlong to hell.

95. stays, is waiting for me.

96. This physic … days, “Hamlet calls his temporary forbearance a physic which does not impart life to his foe, but prolongs his illness” (Delius).

98. Words … go, mere words of prayer, into which heartfelt penitence does not enter, never reach the throne of God.

How to cite the explanatory notes:Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1919.