Scene 3.3 - Within the Castle
Having fled the play in dramatic fashion, Claudius fears he will soon be discovered. He knows Hamlet knows he has murdered the former King, and he further knows that Hamlet does not plan on letting the matter rest. Hence Claudius must ship Hamlet off to England as quickly as possible. Hamlet's madness will provide the ideal cover, for Claudius can rationalize that the mad Hamlet presently poses a threat to Danish national security. It is simply intolerable, the argument runs, to have a madman hanging around the royal court. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wholeheartedly agreeing with Claudius' scheme, prepare to make the voyage with Hamlet.
Polonius then makes a brief appearance to inform the King that he will be hiding behind the arias (curtain) in Gertrude's room when she meets with Hamlet. Neither Claudius nor Polonius trusts Gertrude to report honestly or accurately on her chat with Hamlet - he is, after all, her one and only son - so Polonius will play spy like he and Claudius did earlier with Hamlet and Ophelia. Polonius exits, leaving the King alone on stage.
Instantly collapsing under the burden of his guilt, Claudius cries out: "Oh my offense 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." That is, Claudius has committed the oldest crime known to humankind: fratricide, the killing of one's brother, which dates back to Adam and Eve's offspring when Cain murdered Abel. Claudius desperately wants to repent, but he no less desperately wants to keep the spoils of his crime: the crown and the Queen. Commanding his stubborn knees and heart of steel to soften, he takes a crack at praying.
Just as Claudius bows his head in prayer, Hamlet enters by chance. A most perfect opportunity presents itself for Hamlet to take revenge - Claudius doesn't see him at all - but Hamlet pauses to weigh the situation first. He is not one to make rash decisions, especially when eternity is at stake. If Hamlet were to kill Claudius now while the latter is (presumably) at prayer, Claudius would be "fit and seasoned for his passage" to heaven, having made a finally reckoning before death. To murder Claudius here and now, Hamlet thus realizes, would not be vengeance at all because Claudius wouldn't be sent to hell. Therefore, Hamlet chooses to pass up this occasion to kill the King, hoping instead to catch the King in the middle of sin, thereby leaving no time for repentance. This is Hamlet at his darkest moment, as he willfully and methodically seeks the eternal damnation of Claudius. Moving on, he proceeds to his mother's chamber. The scene ends with Claudius acknowledging the futility of his attempt at prayer.
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Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7