Shakespeare’s Hamlet for years has been the classic example of a man turned to madness because of his foul deeds and tortured soul, and yet despite this characterization he has also proven to be a character that the audience could relate to. He wasn’t loud or brash; indeed Hamlet was an educated man, a university scholar. As the play progresses the audience learns that he can and does love another person despite his quiet and reserved nature and when he does finally die in the closing sequences of the play, he does so in honor after killing the man who killed his father and who plotted to kill him.
In Act III, Scene i of the play we meet Hamlet uttering those famous words “To be or not to be: that is the question” (III. i. 58). He is thinking about committing suicide because he is unable to deal with his own painful memories, especially those surrounding the death of his father. Later in this scene he rebukes Ophelia when she tries to return his gifts, categorically stating that he did not give her anything in love at all. He becomes angry with her and even demands that she move to a nunnery, as he was so upset at the concept of marriage.
In this part of the play we see a man who is actually acting in kindness. He did not feel worthy of Ophelia’s love or affection and given that he was contemplating his own death he would be aware that Ophelia would be safe in a nunnery even if she wasn’t that happy. There is a suggestion from Shakespeare that Ophelia is aware of Hamlet’s motive behind his anger when she is described as mourning Hamlet’s mind, believing he had actually succumbed to insanity.
In the second scene of Act III the audience is shown the plans Hamlet has for exposing the King through the enactment of a play that was meant to strongly resemble the actions that Hamlet presumed led to his father’s death. When the King does leave the room during the play Hamlet seeks assurances from his friends that the King’s behavior was suspect and therefore the King must be guilty. Hamlet decides to have a frank talk to his mother about the King before any action is taken.
He is quoted as saying, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none” (III. ii. 366). This scene shows the paradox of Hamlet’s anguish over this father’s death. Although he believes the King his uncle is guilty, he also has the horrible duty of telling his mother about his suspicions and although he does exhibit signs of some mad behavior, he is still in control enough to understand the hurt his mother will go through after his revelation. This is evident in his further angry comments with Ophelia before he goes to speak to his mother.
By the third scene Hamlet has worked himself up to a state where he could kill Claudius and avenge his father’s death, but when he goes to confront the man he sees that Claudius is on his knees praying. Now this scene is important because although Hamlet was angry enough to kill the King he wants to wait until the man has finished praying. A person that was totally out of control would not be considerate enough to wait until the victim had finished his prayers, but Hamlet did although his dialogue at the time suggests that Hamlet waited only because he did not want Claudius’s soul to go directly to heaven.
The last scene of Act III is where Hamlet does confront his mother with his own suspicions and by accident kills Polonius. The scene contains graphic dialogue from Hamlet to his mother especially regarding her sexual relationship with his uncle, with his statements seemingly proving his lapse into insanity. The random killing of Polonius showed that even in anger Hamlet was not prepared to kill Claudius (the intended victim) face-to-face, which is why he did not pull back the curtain to ascertain the identity of the hidden man.
Act III does contain some of the more graphic examples of Hamlet’s madness but on analysis it would seem his behavior could not be considered negative when taken in context. Hamlet was justifiably upset when he finds out Claudius has killed his father, and then married his mother straight afterwards. He wants what many young men of that era wanted, and that was to avenge his father’s death with honor, but it would seem that he just didn’t have the killer instinct in his behavior to actually carry out the act.
Hamlet also shows foresight in arguing with Ophelia and in the way he verbally attacked his mother concentrating more on the sexual aspects of her life with Claudius rather than his personality. On analysis it would seem that Hamlet’s behavior in the third act would be as positive as it could be given the circumstances, and on reflection it is his lack of killing ability and his consideration for this mother and Ophelia that shows Hamlet’s behavior in a more positive light than can be assumed from a surface reading of the dialogue alone.