Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Acts 3 and 4

If you missed the discussion of Acts 1 and 2 you can catch up here.

In Acts 3 and 4 we see Hamlet express his grief as a rational genius when he sets up the play to catch the King and confirm his suspicions about the circumstances of his father’s demise. We also see Hamlet senselessly kill Polonius. Who is Hamlet? Is he a rational man capable of  being judge, jury, and executioner on behalf of his father? Or is Hamlet instead a vulnerable man driven by his emotions to ignore reason? Can Hamlet be both? Are we, like Hamlet, able to exhibit flashes of rational brilliance in one moment only to be swept up and carried by our emotions and forced to ignore good reason in the next?

1. “To be or not to be….”

Is Hamlet’s consideration of suicide evidence of madness? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 64-98.

2. Hamlet blames Opehlia for his madness.

What is it that makes Hamlet say, “It hath made me mad,” to Ophelia. What of her actions have made Hamlet mad? Is it a fair statement from Hamlet? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 154-162.

3. Is melancholy the same as madness?

Claudius uses the word melancholy when talking about Hamlet in Act 3. Sc. 1 line 179. Do you think Cladius is using the word as a symptom of madness, a cause of madness, or something else?

4. Is Hamlet “not guilty by reason of insanity” under our modern use of the defense when he kills Polonius? Act. 3 Sc.4 lines 25-35.

Imagine yourself on the jury in Hamlet’s murder trial. Would you send Hamlet to a mental institute or to prison for killing Polonius? Can Hamlet be rehabilitated? Is Hamlet a murderer? Is Hamlet a danger to himself and others? If he is a danger to others, is he a danger to everyone?

5. The Queen can not see her dead husband’s ghost.

The Queen tells Hamlet that the ghost is “the very coinage of [his] brain.” She thinks he’s made it up, but this is after he’s already killed Polonius. Does Hamlet’s mother think he’s mad before this point? Act 3. Sc. 4 line 157.

6. Would an English audience want Hamlet dead?

Shakespeare brilliantly includes the audience and draws them into the play to judge Hamlet when Claudius announces he’s sending Hamlet to England to be killed. Act 4. Sc. 4 lines 70-77. How would the English audience feel about doing Claudius’ dirty work? Would the English audience want to be responsible for Hamlet’s death?

7. Compare Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death to Hamlet’s.

Do Hamlet and Ophelia handle their fathers’ deaths in similar ways? Do they handle their fathers’ deaths differently? Act 4. Sc. 5. What does Shakespeare accomplish by this juxtaposition?

We’re one act away from an epic finish. We’ll discuss Act Five next Sunday.

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for more on Hamlet, here’s a good starting point. There are several free pieces of literary criticism linked there.


  1. amariefox

    I think one of the most interesting thing about Hamlet, as a whole, is that love is displayed as a disruptive emotion. This is something that goes all the way back to most Classical Literature. So, it has always been interesting to me how Shakespeare seems to be borrowing from older conventions.

    In this case, as in Classical Literature, it is linked with madness. The two are inseparable, they blend into each other. Love causes madness, so to speak. So, in the case of melancholy, relating to question three, it does not mean the same as madness. Madness is worse, madness is love.

    I am glad you’re discussing Hamlet, though. Although it isn’t my favorite play of Shakespeare’s, Ophelia is probably my favorite character of all the time. How she handles her love, her madness, is obviously highly destructive, but I think that is what makes her so great. As grim as it may seem, it is my favorite death scene ever.

    Great thought provoking questions, as always, Brandon.

    1. Brandon Monk

      I’m interested in this idea of love as a disruptive emotion, Amarie. I’ve been meaning to read D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” for a while now and haven’t managed to get around to it. Madness and love appear together quite a bit, but I’ve never studied it in depth. How do you think it plays out in Hamlet? Did Hamlet love Ophelia? I think the upcoming graveyard scene proves he did. If so, do you think Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is disruptive? Do you think Hamlet’s love for his mother is ever disruptive? The thing that love and madness seem to have in common is that they often both defy reason and logic. A mind consumed by love or madness does not play by the same set of rules a mind might play by in their absence.

      I agree that melancholy and madness are intended to be two different ideas in the play. Melancholy seems to be a much more manageable emotion in Hamlet, but I’m not sure that’s a fair representation of melancholy if it’s meant to be the same as what we now call depression. Madness is something that can not be controlled, it seems to be all-consuming, but if Hamlet is mad, then are we to believe that madness can come and go? Because at times Hamlet seems very much in control.

      Part of the reason I love Hamlet so much is the way Shakespeare explores internal states, including love and madness. Hamlet doesn’t always manifest signs of being mad and when he does he gives very few clues as to what has made him mad. Just about the time Polonius thinks he has Hamlet figured out he’s proven wrong.

      I tend to conclude that Hamlet wouldn’t have gone mad had his father simply died. I can’t know that for sure, but Hamlet does give us certain clues that’s not what’s really bothering him. It’s the totality of the circumstances that cause Hamlet to be unable to cope with his father’s death. Same with Ophelia, I think. Their fathers’ most unnatural deaths cause each serious internal distress that they just can’t deal with.

      Hamlet’s madness makes him forget his love for Ophelia. He becomes obsessed with the revenge he must exact against Claudius. In that case we actually see madness overpower love, at least temporarily. Hamlet debates suicide, internally, and decides “to be.” Unfortunately, we don’t see Ophelia’s internal struggle at the moment of her decision, but we do see the result of her decision which is a poetic suicide. I was wondering if anyone had ever written an alternate version of Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective, and instead of asking the question here I just googled it and found several results. So, apparently, I’m not alone in feeling like we missed out on some of Ophelia’s inner struggle in Hamlet’s play.

      Hamlet seems to take out his frustration with his mother against Ophelia. He is particularly rude to her at times, like during the play within the play, and I assume he’s projecting his anger with his mother against Ophelia. What other reason would he have to treat Ophelia so poorly? He realizes this in the graveyard scene coming up.

      Interesting, too, is the background story that brought about Hamlet’s father’s death. Should we assume that Cladius killed his brother because he loved Gertrude? If we’re to assume that then that would be another example that proves your point about love being a disruptive emotion. In fact, it would be the disruptive emotion that set in motion each and every horrible death in the play.

      The one thing we can’t say is that Ophelia handled her madness better than Hamlet. Nor can we say Hamlet handled his madness better than Ophelia. Madness, in Hamlet, is an equal opportunity obliterator.

      I think a couple of good questions, along these lines, as you read Act V might be: Does madness or love have a greater effect on Hamlet’s ending? Can you separate the effects of madness and love as the play concludes?

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Amarie. You raise a whole new way to read Hamlet and there are many others.

  2. Andrew Blackman

    Hi Brandon
    Sorry I haven’t been taking part in your Slow Reads, but I have been enjoying your posts on first the Dostoevsky and now Hamlet. My life feels so rushed at the moment that probably some slow reading is exactly what I need!

    1. Brandon Monk

      Thanks Andrew. I very much appreciate the feedback. I’ve kind of enjoyed doing more structured readings of those books and plan on taking some others on in the future. Maybe life will slow down for you after “A Virtual Love” has launched. I got word my copy was shipping so I should get my hands on it soon. I’m already hearing good things about it, though.

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