Claudius talks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells them that he is so disturbed by Hamlet’s madness that he is sending him—along with the two of them—on a mission to England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both state, in obsequious and florid terms, that they will do anything their king asks of them—they want to protect him above everyone else. Claudius thanks the men for their loyalty and urges them to hurry off and read for the journey.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern claim to be Hamlet’s friends—but like Polonius, all they want is the favor and approval of the crown. They do not know loyalty, though they affect it.
After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, Polonius enters and tells Claudius that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude’s room. Polonius plans to hide himself behind a tapestry—again—and listen in on their conversation so that he can report what transpires to Claudius. Polonius hurries off to put his plan into action.
Polonius, again, devises a scheme that preys upon Hamlet in an attempt to stay in Claudius’s good graces—but Polonius doesn’t know that his luck is running out.
Alone, Claudius at last admits to having murdered King Hamlet in a lengthy monologue. He describes his “rank” offense, which “smells to heaven”—a brother’s murder, he knows, is a “primal […] curse.” Claudius wants God to forgive him and have mercy on him for his past sins, but he fears that if he doesn’t renounce the throne and his new queen, he’ll never be absolved. Claudius wishes he could make his sins go away without really atoning for them. Overwhelmed and burdened by a “bosom black as death,” he kneels to pray.
Claudius speaks of his own dastardly deeds in terms which invoke the stinking, putrefying rot of death. His murder of his brother, he knows, is like a corpse rotting in the ground—soon it will stink and become unbearable and impossible to ignore. Still, even though Claudius worries about being found out, he isn’t actually sorry for what he’s done—and isn’t going to do anything to really repent.
Hamlet enters and sees Claudius praying. He is grateful to at last be alone with the man, believing now is the chance to kill him and take his revenge. Hamlet, however, finds himself in a conundrum—if he kills Claudius while the king is praying, Claudius’s soul will go to heaven. To send Claudius to heaven would be the opposite of the revenge Hamlet—and his father’s spirit—so desperately crave. Hamlet resolves to wait to kill his uncle until a riper moment, when the man is in the midst of a guilty act—revelry, perhaps, or asleep in his “incestuous” bed. Hamlet hurries off to meet his mother. Claudius laments that his prayers are ineffectual—he worries he will never get to heaven.
Here, Hamlet’s one opportunity to kill Claudius, take the throne, and put an end to the corruption at the heart of Denmark makes itself clear—but Hamlet squanders the chance to secure vengeance, paralyzed by the complex social, moral, and religious codes that define his society.