Explanatory Notes for Act 3, Scene 4
From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.
1. straight, straightway, immediately; Look ... him, be sure
you drive your blows home, i.e. press him with your questions so
that he cannot escape answering definitely.
2. pranks, freaks of madness; have been ... with, have gone to
too great a length to be endured any longer.
3. 4. hath screen'd ... him, have interposed to shield him from
much wrath which would otherwise have fallen upon him.
4. sconce me, hide myself; from O. F. enconser, to hide, cover;
cp. M. W. iii. 3. 96, "I will ensconce me behind the arras."
5. be round with him, use the plainest language possible to
him; for round, see note on ii. 2. 139.
6. I'll warrant you, I promise you that I will.
7. Fear me not, do not doubt my pressing him hard.
11. you answer ... tongue, your answer is mere frivolity.
14. rood, cross, i.e. of Christ; "it would appear that, at least
in earlier times, the rood signified not merely the cross, but the
image of Christ upon the cross" (Dyce).
16. would ... so! alas!
17. Nay, then, ... speak, if you are going to answer me in such
a strain as this, I will set those to talk to you who will force you
to use very different language.
18. budge, stir, move a step.
19, 20. You go not ... you, you will not be allowed to move
from this spot till, as in a minor, I have shown you your real
23. a rat, Collier points out that in Shirley's Traitor, 1635,
Depazzi says of a secreted listener, "I smell a rat behind the
hangings": Dead, for a ducat, I'll wager a ducat I have killed
Stage Direction. A pass, a thrust with his rapier.
32. thy better, i.e. in rank, sc. the king; take thy fortune, take
the fate which has befallen you owing to your thrusting yourself
in where you were not wanted.
33. is some danger, is a dangerous kind of business.
34. Leave ... hands, it is no good your making all this outward
show of grief.
35. 6 And let me ... stuff, it is your heart that should be
wrung, and that I mean to do, if it is not impenetrably callous.
37, 8. If damned ... sense, if accursed familiarity with crime
has not so brazened it as to be proof against all feeling.
39. wag thy tongue, use your tongue so freely; cp. the literal
use of the word in M. V. iv. 1. 76, "You may as well forbid the
mountain pines To wag their high tops and to make no noise," i.e.
without making any noise.
40, 1. Such an act ... modesty, you have committed a deed of
a nature that dims the grace of all modest blushes; the modesty
of all your sex is robbed of much of its grace by the fact of a
woman having done such a deed.
42. calls virtue hypocrite, makes all real virtue seem mere
hypocrisy; cp. Cymb. iii. 4. 63-6, H. V. ii. 2, 138-40.
42-4. takes off ... there, and in place of the tenderness that
graces an innocent love, sets upon its brow a shameless flush.
46, 7. As from the body ... soul, as robs the outward form of
the marriage tie of that which is its essential grace; contraction,
for marriage contract, is not found elsewhere.
48. A rhapsody of words, a mere extravagant utterance of
words without meaning; rhapsody, Greek...the reciting of
epic poetry, from...one who strings odes or songs together.
49-51. Yea, ... act, yea, even this solid earth, with gloom-struck
face, its though expectant of the day of judgement, is sick at
heart in beholding such a deed. Wordsworth refers, among
other passages in the New Testament, to ii. Peter, iii. 7-11,
Revelations, xx. 11. For doom, cp. Macb. ii. 3. 83, "up, up, and
see The great dooms image!"
51, 2. what act, ... index? what act of mine is it that has so
stormy a prelude? Dyce gives "Index, a prelude, anything preparatory to another, — the index (i.e. table of contents) being
generally in Shakespeare's day prefixed to the book."
53. this picture ... this, there is much discussion here as to
whether any pictures are really shown, if so, whether they are
pictures hanging on the wall, or miniatures produced for the
occasion - one, of his father, possibly hanging round Hamlet's
neck, the other, of the king, round that of the queen.
54. counterfeit presentment, exact resemblance; counterfeit,
here an adjective, is frequently used by Shakespeare, as a substantive, for a portrait, e.g. M. V. iii. 2. 115, "Fair Portia's counterfeit!"
56. Hyperion's curls, see note on i. 2. 140; on some ancient
coins the sun-god is represented with an abundance of curls in
imitation of the lambent rays on the circumference of the sun's
disc: front, brow.
57. to threaten, expressive of threatening; awe-striking.
58. station, posture; herald, Mercury being the messenger of
59. heaven-kissing, reaching almost to heaven.
60. combination, sc. of excellences.
61. 2. Where every ... seal, which bore the impression of the
hand of all the gods, set there in attestation of his nobility.
64, 5. like ... brother, infecting and so destroying his brother
as a mildewed ear of corn by its neighbourhood to a healthy ear
infects and blights it; "mildew, from A.S. meledeaw, honey-dew
... The sense is probably 'honey-dew,' from the sticky, honey-like appearance of some kinds of bight, as, e.g. on lime-trees" (Skeat, Ety. Dict.).
66. leave to feed, cease to draw your nourishment from; desert his support.
67. batten, grow fat; properly intransitive, as here, but used
transitively by Milton, Lycidas, 29, "battening our flocks."
68. You ... love, you cannot say that you were led astray by
69. The hey-day ... humble, passion no longer overleaps its
bounds, but has become dulled and well under control
properly an interjection of surprise or exultation.
70. waits upon, waits for the direction of.
71. step, transfer itself, pass; with the idea of passing from
what is good to what is bad; sure, certainly.
72. motion, "impulse of desire" (Staunton), who compares
M. M. i. 4. 59, "The wanton stings and motions of the sense"; Oth. i. 3. 95. "Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion Blush'd at herself;" i. 3. 334, "our raging motions, our carnal
73. apoplex'd, suddenly deprived of its functions; as the body
is by a stroke of apoplexy...
73-6. for madness ... difference, for even madness would never
make such a mistake, nor sense ever allow itself to become so
entirely the slave of passionate feeling as to leave itself no power
of choice by which to help itself in deciding between two objects
so different from each other (and one so inferior to the other).
77. cozen'd, cheated; from "F. cousiner, 'to claime kindred
for advantage, or particular ends; as he, who to save charges in
travelling, goes from house to house, as cosin to the honour of
every one'; Cotgrave. So in modern F. cousiner is 'to call
cousin, to sponge, to live upon other people'; Hamilton and
Legros. The change of meaning from 'sponge' to 'beguile' or
'cheat' was easy" (Skeat, Ety. Dict.): hoodman blind, what
we now call 'blind-man's-buff', a game among children in which
one of them has his eyes 'hooded' or blinded, with a handkerchief, and is set to catch and name one of his companions, a forfeit being paid if he names the wrong one.
78-81. Eyes ... mope, eyes without the help of touch to guide
them, touch without the help of sight, etc., or even a small
portion, and that a diseased portion, of a single healthy sense,
would not show itself so dull and stupid; mope, "the same word
as mop, to grimace ... — Du. moppen, to pout; whence to grimace,
or to sulk" ... (Skeat, Ety. Dict.).
82-5. Rebellious ... fire, if hellish passion can burst out into
such uncontrolled mutiny in a woman of her age, virtue in the
case of ardent youth may well show itself as soft as wax and melt
in the fire which she (in flaming youth) feels; mutine, the older
form of 'mutiny,' as the substantive in v. 2. 6, and K. J. ii. i.
378. Hanmer plausibly conjectures heat for hell.
85-8. proclaim ... will, virtue (in the case of young men) need
not protest any indignation when the strength of passion gives
the signal for action, since here we have proof that aged blood,
which should be cold as ice, burns as fiercely as that which runs
in the veins of youth, and that reason which should restrain impulse only acts as a go-between to it and its object; for gives the charge, cp. Lucr. 434, "Anon his beating heart, alarum striking,
Gives the hot charge and bids them do their liking."
89. Into ... soul, so that I am forced to look into the very
depths of my soul.
90. grained, dyed so deeply and permanently; "granum, in
Latin, signifies a seed or kernel, and it was early applied to all
small objects resembling seeds, and finally to all minute particles.
Hence it was applied to the round, seed-like form of the dried
body, or rather ovarium, of an insect of the genus coccus, which
furnished a variety of red dyes ... The colour obtained from
kermes or grain was peculiarly durable ... See C. E. iii. 2. 108,
'Ant. S. That's a fault that water will mend. Dro. S. No,
sir, 'tis in grain; Noah's flood could not do it'; T. N. i. 5. 256,
''Tis in grain, sir; 'twill endure wind and weather.'" ... (Marsh,
Lectures on the Eng. Lang.).
91. As will ... tinct, that nothing can wash them out; leave,
"part with, give up, resign. Cp. T. G. iv. 4. 79, 'It seems you
loved not her to leave her token'" (Steevens).
94. that is ... tithe, literally who is not the twentieth part of
the tenth part, i.e. who weighs nothing as against, etc.
95. a vice of kings, who is to a real king nothing more than
the buffoon in the old Moralities was to the serious characters.
Douce shows that the 'Vice' in those old plays was so named
from the vicious qualities attributed to him, and from the mischievous nature of his general conduct.
96. A cutpurse ... rule, one who has filched the empire and its
sway as a common pick-pocket filches his stolen goods. Purses
were in Shakespeare's day worn hanging at the girdle, and so
were easily cut off by thieves.
99. A king ... patches, a king with nothing kingly about him,
made up of nothing but the cast-off remnants of kingly dignity.
Cp. Antony's contemptuous description of Lepidus, J. C. iv. 2.
101. What would ... figure? what would you desire appearing
103. Do you ... chide, you surely must have come to chide, etc.
104,5. That, lapsed ... command? who, having allowed the
time to pass in inactivity and passionate regrets, has failed to
carry out your dread command, a matter of such pressing importance; for important, cp. C. E. v. 1. 138, "At your important letters."
109. amazement ... sits, utter bewilderment has settled down
upon your mother; has taken entire possession of her.
110. step ... soul, interpose to save her from being overpowered
by the emotions now struggling in her heart.
111. Conceit ... works, imagination works most powerfully in
those who, like women, are physically weakest.
113, 4. Alas ... vacancy, alas, it is not you who should ask how
I am, but I who should ask how you are, what has come over
you, that you look so fixedly upon mere empty space.
115. incorporal, incorporeal, immaterial.
116. Forth ... peep, from your eyes your soul looks out in wild
117-9. And ... end, and, like soldiers awakened by the signal
of the enemy being at hand, your hair, a moment ago lying still
upon your head, starts up and stands erect, like inanimate
matter suddenly endowed with life; the ... soldiers, here the
defines the situation of soldiers in particular circumstances;
alarm, a cry to arms, from Ital. all 'arme, to arms! excrements,
anything that grows out from the body, such as hair, nails; from
Lat. excrescere, to grow out.
122. how pale he glares, how pale he looks as he glares upon
123, 4. His form ... capable, his appearance, coupled with the
reason of that appearance, if appealing to the very stones, would
stir them to feeling. For capable, = susceptible, receptive, cp.
A. Y. L. iii. 5. 23, "The cicatrice and capable impressure."
125, 6. convert ... effects, turn my action from its proper
sternness to pity. Singer would read affects, i.e. dispositions,
affection of the mind, as in Oth. i. 3. 264, "Not to comply with
heat — the young affect, In me defunct."
126, 7. then what ... colour, then the vengeance which I have
to take will lack that justification which it would otherwise
have, cp. J. C. ii. 1. 29, "And, since the quarrel Will bear no
colour for the thing he is, Fashion it thus."
127. tears ... blood, and instead of shedding the blood of the
murderer, I shall perhaps only shed tears of pity from my own
129. is, exists, is not "a false creation Proceeding from the
heat-oppressed brain," Macb. ii. 1. 38, 9.
131. steals away, gradually vanishes.
132. in his ... lived, in the very dress he wore when alive.
135, 6. This bodiless ... in, madness is very skilful in giving
birth to such illusions of the sight.
137, 8. doth ... music, beats with as regular and healthy a
rhythm as yours; its pulsations are as indicative of a sound
frame of mind as yours.
140. re-word, repeat word for word.
140, 1. which madness ... from, whereas a madman would
wander in fantastic fashion from the subject.
141. for love of grace, as you hope for pardon; grace, the
grace of God; for the omission of the definite article before love,
see Abb. § 89.
142, 3. Lay not ... speaks, do not try to soothe your soul by
imagining to yourself that it is not your sin but my madness
which calls aloud in this way.
144-6. It will ... unseen, to do so will, instead of healing the
sore, only cover it as with a film while rank corruption, eating
into the core of your soul, poisons it unnoticed; the open sore
may be treated, the sore skinned over will prevent the progress
of the disease from being seen, though it is going on all the time
and can only end in death.
147. avoid ... come, avoid sin in the future.
148, 9. And do not ... ranker, and do not make what is already
so foul still fouler by self-deception and hypocrisy; compost,
mixture, composition, manure; cp. composture, Tim. iv. 3. 444,
"The earth's a thief, That feeds and breeds by a composture
stolen From general excrement."
149. Forgive ... virtue, forgive me for this virtuous indignation.
Staunton puts a comma after this, and marks the passage down
to 1. 152 as an Aside.
150. For in ... times, for in these times of gross and pampered
indulgence; pursy, literally short-winded, here short-winded
from over-indulgence. Cp. Tim. v. 4. 12, "pursy insolence shall
break his wind With fear and horrid flight."
152. curb, "'bend and truckle,' From F. courber. So in the
Vision of Piers Ploughman, "Thanne I courbed on my knees,
And cried hire of grace" (Steevens).
154. worser, for the double comparative, see Abb. § 11.
155. the purer, all the purer; by so much the purer; the,
ablative case of the demonstrative.
157. Assume ... not, act as though you were virtuous, even if
you have not the feeling.
158, 9. That monster ... this, "that monster, Custom, who
destroys all natural feeling and prevents it from being exerted,
and is the malignant attendant on habits, is yet angel in this
respect, etc. The double meaning of the word 'habits' suggested
the 'frock or livery' in 1. 164 " (Cl. Pr. Edd.). I believe
we should read 'out' for 'eat,' and 'devilish' for 'devil.'
160-2. That ... put on, that, to accustom us to the practice of
good actions, he, besides what else he does, furnishes us with the
garb of virtue which we can easily put on, if we so desire.
164, 5. And either ... potency, and either completely overcome
the devil, or at least expel him from our nature with irresistible
force. The reading in the text is a conjecture of Jennings;
various other conjectures have been made, e.g. curb, lay, lodge,
quell, shame, overcome, the earlier quartos giving "And either
the devil," the later, "And master the devil."
166, 7. And when ... you, and when you crave for a blessing
from heaven, thus showing your contrition, I will ask of you a
mother's blessing; For, as regards.
168-70. but heaven ... minister, but heaven has pleased that it
should be so, viz., that I should be its instrument of vengeance
in order that I might be punished by being guilty of this man's
death, and this man be punished by my act; heaven as a plural
occurs frequently in Shakespeare, e.g. R. II. i. 2. 6, Oth. iv. 2.
47, Per. i. 4. 16.'
171. bestow him, get rid of his dead body; answer well, justify
myself; render a good account of my act in killing him; cp. Lear. i. 3. 10, "the fault of it I'll answer"; Cymb. i. 4. 170, "Only thus far you shall answer."
173. I must ... kind, I must be cruel in words only to be kind
in reality, i.e. my reproaches are necessary to make you see your
conflict in its right light, and so bring you to a better manner of
174. Thus bad ... behind, thus my harsh words must be
followed by even harsher measures, sc. the punishment of the
176. Not this, ... do, do anything in the world except this that
I bid you do.
177. bloat, bloated by excess, especially in drinking.
178. Pinch ... check, make you wanton with his caresses:
mouse, a term of endearment common in Shakespeare's day; cp.
T. N. i. 5. 69, "good my mouse of virtue."
179-81. Make you ... craft, make you confess that I am not
mad in reality, but only pretend to be so in order to effect my
objects; ravel ... out, unravel; used of the gradual process of
extracting Hamlet's secret, disentangling, as it were, the knotted
182-4. For who ... hide? for who but one that has everything
that can ennoble a woman — rank, beauty, virtue, wisdom — would
think of hiding a secret of such vital importance from a filthy
creature like your husband; concernings, cp. M. M. i. i. 57,
"As time and our concernings shall importune"; paddock, toad;
cp. Macb. i. 1. 9; gib, more commonly gib-cat, a male cat.
185. No, in despite ... secrecy, no, in spite of the secrecy
which common sense would bid you maintain.
188. To try conclusions, to make experiment.
189. break ... down, break your neck by falling headlong in
your effort to fly like a bird. The anecdote in question has
never been discovered, but "the reference," as the Cl. Pr. Edd.
point out, "must be to some fable in which an ape opened a
basket containing live birds, then crept into it himself, and 'to try conclusions,' whether he could fly like them, jumped out and broke his neck."
190-2. Be thou ... me, rest assured that, if words are made of
breath, and breath is made of life, it is not in me to breathe your
secret to any one; for a similar play upon life in two different
senses, cp. H. V. iv. 2. 53-5, "Description cannot suit itself
in words To demonstrate the life of such a battle In life so lifeless as it shows itself."
193. I must to England, we are not informed how Hamlet
became aware of this, unless he overheard the king's conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
194. concluded, determined.
195. There's letters, for the singular verb preceding a plural
subject, see Abb. § 335.
196. as, just as much, i.e. no more; fang'd, with their fangs
still in them; of course the poison is not in the fang itself, but
in the poison-bag at the back of it.
197. 8. They must ... knavery, it is for them to make the
path smooth for me, and to lead me where the villanous scheme
of the king may be put into execution; the original sense of the
substantive marshall is 'horse-servant,' thence an attendant
generally, and later on a title of honour: Let it work, let the
scheme go on.
199, 200. For 'tis ... petar, for it is the finest sport in the world
to see the engineer blown into the air by his own engine of
destruction; the sport, for the emphatic definite article, see Abb.
§ 92, and for the form enginer, § 443; Hoist, probably the past
participle of the old verb to hoise, or perhaps an instance of the
omission of the participial termination; petar, a war engine filled
with explosive materials.
200-2. and 't shall ... moon, and it will be strange if I do not
manage to drive my mine beneath theirs and blow them high into
the air; 't shall go hard, i.e. the difficulty must be a great one if
I do not manage to overcome it; for at, = up to, see Abb. § 143.
Mines in besieging a fortress, etc., are made useless by running a
counter mine at a short depth below or directly opposite them,
and breaking down the intervening space by the explosion of
gunpowder, when those working in them will be blown into the
203. when ... meet, when two skilful designs come into direct
opposition; the figure of the counter mine is still kept up.
204. set me packing, hurry me off about my business; in packing there is perhaps the idea of contriving which is often
found in Shakespeare, though here it does not seem to be the
205. lug ... guts, both words used in a contemptuous way,
though guts had not the vulgar sense which it has since acquired; neighbour, used as an adjective.
208. prating, chattering, fond of idle talk.
209. to draw ... you, that I may have done with you; that I
may put the finishing touch to this business.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_3_4.html >.
How to cite the scene review questions:
Mabillard, Amanda. Hamlet: Scene Questions for Review. Shakespeare Online. 27 Dec. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_3_4.html >.
Scene Questions for Review
1. Hamlet believed Claudius was behind the arras (see line 32). Why do you think in this pivotal moment he acts quickly, without the hesitation that has otherwise plagued him? It is because the thought of Claudius in Gertrude's chamber -- the same chamber which was the scene of "incest" in the King's "celestial bed" (1.5) -- drives Hamlet to blind rage? Does Hamlet confirm this in his admission to Laertes? (See 5.2.215-224.)
2. What do you make of Hamlet's reaction to killing Polonius by mistake? How remorseful does Hamlet appear? For more on this topic please see A Note on Killing Polonius.
3. F. J. Furnivall argues that "before any revelation of his father's murder is made to Hamlet, before any burden of revenging that murder is laid upon him, he thinks of suicide as a welcome means of escape from the fair world of God's, made abominable to his diseased and weak imagination by his mother's lust and the dishonor done by her to his father's memory" (Leopold Shakespeare, p. 72). Is there textual evidence to support the theory that Queen Gertrude desired Claudius while she was still married to Hamlet's father? (See 1.5)
4. Representing the pictures in line 53 is left up to our imaginations. In some productions of the play the pictures are full portraits of the two brothers hanging in Gertrude's closet. In others they are miniature portraits in lockets around the necks of Hamlet and Gertrude. Sometimes the actor playing Hamlet merely draws silhouettes in the air. How would you stage line 53?
5. Do your feelings toward Gertrude change after the Ghost has to intervene on her behalf?
6. The Ghost has appeared to others in the play. Why do you think Queen Gertrude cannot see the Ghost?
7. Which lines reveal that Gertrude will keep Hamlet's secret?
8. What advantage, if any, is there now that Gertrude understands Hamlet?
9. Both Gertrude and Hamlet know he is to be sent to England, yet Shakespeare never reveals how they came to know. What are some possible ways in which they found out?
10. Do you agree that Polonius' murder is the turning-point of the drama? Or do you agree with A. C. Bradley that the true turning-point is Hamlet's refusal to kill Claudius while he is praying (3.3)? Bradley argues Hamlet's failure there "is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, and the Queen and himself" (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 108).
Did You Know? ... An English translation of Belleforest's mid sixteenth-century Histories Tragiques appeared in quarto form in 1608. It is The Hystorie of Hamblet. The translation was possibly in circulation before this, but whether it or Shakespeare's work came first in unknown. The focus of Chapter Three of the The Hystorie of Hamblet is the closet scene and it is fascinating to compare it to Shakespeare's version. To say that Hamblet is more vengeful than our hero is an understatement:
"drawing his sworde thrust it into the hangings, which done, pulled the counsellor (half dead) out by the heeles, made an end of killing him, and beeing slaine, cut his bodie in pieces, which he caused to be boyled, and then cast it into a vaulte or privie, that so it mighte serve for foode to the hogges."
Thoughts on Polonius ... "Old servants, like Polonius, are always in possession of the secrets
of the family. Even though they are not the most intimate friends of the prince
and his household, it is nevertheless impossible that things, which do not reach the ear of the world, should be concealed from them. Claudius and the Queen, as the
Ghost intimates, have long lived in criminal intercourse. This could have been no impenetrable secret to Polonius, and Claudius was unquestionably too cunning to
flatter himself that it was unknown to Polonius. Has Polonius, perhaps, at earlier periods, in order to find out some secret, made use of the very means which he
recommends to the King, or has he before now crept behind the very tapestry where he finally meets his death? (Hermann Von Friesen, Briefe Über Shakespeare's Hamlet, 1864)
Essential Resources ... Explore our Shakespeare Glossary and find the meanings of old and unusual words used in Elizabethan England and, of course, in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Just what is a rabbit-sucker anyway? The Shakespeare Glossary.