A Study Guide for William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' Act 3

Review this crucial act of Shakespeare's famous tragedy

The dress rehearsal of William Shakespea
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If you've never read Shakespeare, reading "Hamlet," the bard's longest play, may be a daunting task, but this breakdown of the scenes in Act 3 can help. Use this study guide to familiarize yourself with the major themes and plot points of this pivotal part of the tragedy. It will help you know what to look for as you read "Hamlet" in class or on your own. If you've already read the drama, use this to review any information you need to better understand or may have overlooked the first time around.

Of course, if you're preparing to take a test or write a paper about "Hamlet," be mindful of what your teacher has said about the play in class.

Act 3, Scene 1

Polonius and Claudius arrange to secretly watch a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. When the two meet, Hamlet denies any affection for her, which further confuses Polonius and Claudius. They decide that Hamlet will be sent to England to get over his troubles, but they suggest that perhaps Gertrude can get to the root of his “madness.”

Act 3, Scene 2

Hamlet directs the actors in a play to depict his father’s murder, as he hopes to study Claudius’ reaction to the idea. Claudius and Gertrude leave during the performance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform Hamlet that Gertrude wants to speak to him.

Act 3, Scene 3

Polonius arranges to secretly listen to the conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude. When alone, Claudius speaks of his conscience and guilt. Hamlet enters from behind and draws his sword to kill Claudius but decides that it would be wrong to kill a man while praying.

Act 3, Scene 4

While meeting with Gertrude, Hamlet is about to reveal Claudius’ villainy when he hears someone behind the curtain. Hamlet thinks it is Claudius and thrusts his sword through the arras, actually killing Polonius. The ghost reappears and Hamlet speaks to it. Gertrude, who cannot see the apparition, is now convinced of Hamlet’s madness.

Further Understanding

Now that you've read the guide, review the plot points and ask questions to help you understand what has happened. What did you learn about the characters? What are Hamlet's intentions? Did his plan for Claudius work? What does Gertrude now think of Hamlet? Is she right or wrong to have these views? Why does Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia appear to be so complicated?

As you answer these questions (and perhaps think up a few of your own), jot them down. This will help you remember how the scenes of Act 3 unfolded and help you categorize the information in a way that will make it easier for you to speak on the topic when the time comes. Take the same approach with the other acts in the play and you will have organized the plot developments into a very handy study guide.