Now he might do it. Now he might do it! After three and a half acts of Hamlet not doing it, (it being avenging the murder of his Father and generally being the revenge hero the audience is begging him to be) here he is, standing above Claudius, his adversary, ready to finally end this great saga. The moment is perfect; Claudius is kneeling down and praying, unaware of Hamlet creeping up behind him, knife in hand. Now he might do it… Now he might do it – wait, why is he still talking? No, don’t start talking again, just ACT, Hamlet, ACT!!
Ok, sorry. There’s a small glimpse of the internal monologue I go through whilst watching Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 3. Today we’re discussing that text, and figuring out some of the key performative elements of it to have as much of an impact on the audience as possible.
As I mentioned in the introduction, this moment in the play has come after three and a half acts of delay. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s twist on the classic revenge tragedy hero: he has placed a deep thinking man in the shoes of an action hero.
Having spoken with the ghost of his Father and learned that his Father was in fact murdered by his uncle Claudius, Hamlet has been searching tirelessly for the right way to take revenge. First, he must ensure that Claudius is in fact guilty, just in case the ghost was a demon who has come to trick Hamlet. As well, Hamlet needs to get Claudius off the scent of his vengeance, so he’ll adopt an ‘antic disposition’ – feigning madness to distract the people around him of his true intentions. Ah! And finally – what better way to get someone to reveal their guilt than by depicting their actions in front of them in the form of a play? Hamlet has just staged ‘The Mousetrap’ – an adaptation of a classic play with an extra sequence added into it depicting a murder very similar to that of his Fathers. At this depiction Claudius stood up suddenly, called for light and stormed away. Bingo. “Gotcha”, Hamlet thought.
This soliloquy, in Act 3, Scene 3, comes in the wake of The Mousetrap. Hamlet has the confirmation he needs to enact his revenge, now all that is needed is the perfect time. Hamlet has been called to visit his Mother Gertrude, but on the way he sees something very convenient: Claudius, kneeling along in a room, praying, unaware that Hamlet is behind him. Now is the perfect time for Hamlet to strike… or is it?
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
Pat: at exactly the right moment or in the right way; very conveniently or opportunely.
Scann’d: Checked, assessed.
Hire and Salary: Commission and payment. to kill Claudius now and send him to Heaven would be to thank him for killing his Father, not punishing him.
‘Full of bread’: Full of sin, having not had a chance to repent before his death.
‘Fit and season’d’: Ready to travel to heaven, having purged his soul by confessing his sins.
Hent: to seize, to grasp. ‘Find a more horrible opportunity’.
Whereto: Where to. ‘Where it is’ going.
Physic: Physical position, physicality. Claudius is kneeling on the ground praying.
Now I could do it: He’s praying!
I’m going to do it! Now I’ll send him to heaven and I’ll finally be a revenger.
Wait let me think about that for a second –
A villain kills my Father, and for that act I send the villain to heaven?
Oh no, this is payment to the villain – not revenge!
He killed my Father horribly – when he had just eaten,
without having had the chance to confess his sins,
And how his judgement in purgatory stands who knows except heaven?
But if I were to bet on it, I’d say he is suffering greatly.
So am I really revenged if I kill Claudius while he is confessing his sins
and cleansed and ready to travel to heaven? No!
Stay, dagger, and find a better opportunity:
when he is drunk asleep, or angry,
or sleeping with my Mother,
gambling, swearing, or doing something that doesn’t have an inch of holiness about it,
then I’ll trip him and send him to hell with a black and damned soul.
My Mother is waiting for me.
Claudius, this prayer is only going to keep you alive in misery a little while longer.