Hamlet by William Shakespeare
A Shakespearean scene, with all of its intricacies and details, has the capacity to uncover the fundamental aspects of characters while acting as a space for precise language to lead the reader through multilayered themes, tensions, and ideas. Particularly in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, the dense, rippling text packs provocative and meaningful language within nearly every line to compose an intricate, seamless tragic play. Specifically in the first scene of Act 3, the actions, dialogue, and movements of each character involved creates a momentum of revelation for the reader regarding central character, Hamlet, and the breadth of his character. Every major, influential character of the play—King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and, of course, Hamlet—appears in 3.1 and every line of dialogue directly concerns Hamlet in one way or another. The scene exhibits the prince alone on stage in a soliloquy to illustrate his innermost thoughts, as well as in the presence of others; thus, the reader learns of Hamlet’s propensity to feel, think, or say one thing, while his actions do not always cohere with his thoughts or speech. In this way, one of Hamlet’s tragic character flaws lends itself to the aforementioned discord between thinking and acting, and the scene chronicles the ways in which his dissonance profoundly affects the major themes and characters of the play.
Scene 3.1 first unfolds with King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Polonius and Hamlet’s cronies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in anxious dialogue concerning Hamlet’s recent shift in disposition. Claudius refers to Hamlet’s recent state as a put-on of “confusion” (3.1.2) and a “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (3.1.4) while Guildenstern refers to it as a “crafty madness” (3.1.7) and Gertrude later describes his “wildness” (3.1.42). Rosencrantz describes Hamlet’s resistance to questioning but also the way in which he received his friends, which was “most like a gentleman” (3.1.12). Interestingly, Claudius’s angst over Hamlet’s strangeness in mood peeks through as he nervously asks Rosencrantz if “no drift of circumstance” can uncover the reason for Hamlet’s bitterness (3.1.1); (the footnote paraphrases the line as ‘no carefully directed conversation’). Claudius, apprehensive about Hamlet’s cunning, wants to know of all of Hamlet’s intentions and mood shifts so as to keep a few paces ahead of him, and reacts enthusiastically, “with all [his] heart” (3.1.25), upon hearing of his nephew’s desire to “hear and see” the play in the court.
Several references to “hearing” emerge within the first thirty lines of the scene, perhaps alluding to the play-within-the-play’s portrayal of the king murderously pouring poison in his brother’s ear. Claudius then describes his sneaky plan to hide with Polonius to observe Hamlet and, “seeing unseen” (3.1.35), pinpoint the cause of the prince’s sufferings. Thus, the...