Hamlet: Act III

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13353

With the most famous of Hamlet's soliloquies and the play's first murder, the third act is where the plot of "Hamlet" really takes off! Become a theatre critic as you review this famous soliloquy!


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Before you read Act 3, make a guess about the murder that will occur at the end of the act:

__________ kills __________.

Write your prediction down, and let's get reading to see if you guessed correctly!

You should have already completed the first Related Lessons in this series on Hamlet, found in the right-hand sidebar.

You should also still have your copy of the play, or continue using William Shakespeare's Hamlet courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library.

Act 3 of Hamlet ramps up the intensity of the play and contains the famous "To be, or not to be" speech.

  • Most people know that "To be, or not to be" is from Hamlet, but do you know what that speech is actually about?

Read the third act to find out, and see if Hamlet's scheme to make Claudius betray his guilt works!

Act 3, Scene 1

At the top of the act, Claudius questions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to see what they found out from their conversation with Hamlet. While they haven't discovered much about why he's acting so strangely, Claudius is pleased that Hamlet is showing so much interest in the troupe of players.

Claudius dismisses Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Gertrude. Then, he and Polonius place Ophelia where Hamlet will see her reading a prayer, and they hide to watch.

  • What is the significance of Claudius's aside to the audience that begins with "O, 'tis too true!" (3.1.56)?

Hamlet enters the scene and delivers his most famous soliloquy, the "To be, or not to be" speech (3.1.64-98).

  • What is the central question Hamlet is asking when he says "To be, or not to be"?

At the end of the speech, Hamlet notices Ophelia's presence. The scene that passes between them next is upsetting to Ophelia because Hamlet denies writing her the letters and commands her to go to a nunnery rather than marry anyone.

In this scene, Hamlet berates women, calling them false and saying that beauty breeds dishonesty.

  • Do you think Hamlet's anger is really caused by Ophelia? What else could prompt these feelings about the deceitfulness of women?

Having heard the entire scene, Claudius and Polonius emerge from hiding. Claudius is now sure that Hamlet's madness is not caused by love, but Polonius maintains that is the reason for his behavior.

  • What does Claudius decide to do to cure Hamlet of his madness?
  • Who does Polonius advise that Hamlet talk to before Claudius carries out his plan?

Act 3, Scene 2

Hamlet instructs the troupe of actors to perform the play honestly and with feeling, emphasizing the importance of a natural style.

When the actors exit and Horatio enters, he and Hamlet have a short interaction where Hamlet asks Horatio to help him watch Claudius during the play for signs of guilt.

  • What do we learn about Horatio and Hamlet's relationship in this scene?

The rest of the major characters enter to watch the play, and Hamlet elects to sit by Ophelia rather than his mother.

  • How is Hamlet's behavior toward Ophelia different in this scene from when he saw her last?

A pantomimed prologue to the play is performed where the actors reenact Claudius pouring poison in King Hamlet's ear and Gertrude forgiving him. Previewing the plot of a play with a pantomime first was a common format in this time period.

Claudius betrays his nervousness, asking if Hamlet knows the play and if there's anything offensive in it.

  • What does Claudius do when the villain in the play poisons the king?

When everyone has scattered, Horatio and Hamlet discuss how sure they are now that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approach Hamlet and ask him to go visit his mother, who is very distressed by his behavior.

  • What is the purpose of Hamlet's speech about playing on a pipe? What is he accusing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of?

Act 3, Scene 3

Claudius meets with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to discuss what to do with Hamlet and tells them to accompany Hamlet to England. He tells them:

"The terms of our estate may not endure
Hazard so near's as doth hourly grow
Out of his brows." (3.3.5-7)

In their response, Rosencrantz says:

"The cess of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it;" (3.3.16-18)

In this exchange, something is being communicated that neither party is stating outright.

  • What is Claudius asking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do on their journey with Hamlet?

When the two young men exit, Polonius enters to tell Claudius that he is going to listen in on Hamlet's conversation with Gertrude. When he exits, Claudius delivers a soliloquy confessing his guilt in King Hamlet's murder.

  • What can Claudius not do in this speech?

When Claudius kneels, Hamlet enters unseen by him and delivers a speech where he remarks that he could kill Claudius now. He chooses not to, delaying his revenge.

  • Why doesn't Hamlet kill Claudius?
  • Given Claudius' next line, why is it ironic that Hamlet didn't kill Claudius?

Act 3, Scene 4

Polonius hides as Hamlet comes in to talk with Gertrude. Gertrude chastises him for distressing the king, but he comes back at her aggressively for her unfaithfulness to his father and her willingness to jump into what he considers an incestuous marriage.

When Polonius calls out for help from behind a tapestry, Hamlet stabs him.

  • Who did Hamlet think Polonius was? What is his reaction when he finds out he killed the wrong man?
  • Was your original guess about this murder correct? If so, how did you suspect?

Hamlet goes back to berating his mother. In the midst of this, he sees his father's ghost again, who calls Hamlet out for not getting his revenge yet and abusing his mother instead.

  • What is Gertrude's reaction to the ghost?

When the ghost leaves, Hamlet changes his tactic and asks his mother to repent and to stay away from Claudius' bed. Then, he tells her that he will leave for England soon and reveals that he is only pretending to be mad but asks her not to share that information with Claudius.

  • How much do you think Hamlet knows about Claudius' plan with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

Continue on to the Got It? section to explore Hamlet's most famous soliloquy and to test your knowledge of the third act!

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