In Gertrude’s chambers, Polonius lays out his plan for the queen, and she agrees to it. As Hamlet approaches, Polonius hides himself behind a tapestry. Hamlet enters and asks his mother what the matter is. Gertrude replies that Hamlet has greatly offended his father; Hamlet retorts that it is Gertrude who has offended his father. Gertrude asks why Hamlet would speak to her so cruelly, wondering aloud if he’s forgotten who she is. Hamlet says he knows exactly who she is: her husband’s brother’s wife, and, unfortunately, his own mother.
Gertrude tries to reason with Hamlet, but cannot get through to him past the resentment he feels towards her for marrying her brother-in-law so quickly after her husband’s death. Hamlet holds that because his mother has committed such an egregious offense against his father, he himself cannot be held accountable for any of his own “offenses.”
Gertrude tries to leave, but Hamlet begs her to stay. Gertrude asks Hamlet if he plans to murder her, and calls for help. Polonius, hearing Gertrude’s cries, also calls out. Hamlet, angered at being spied upon, draws his sword, sticks it through the tapestry, and kills Polonius, who slinks to the ground and calls out that he has been slain. Gertrude curses Hamlet for his “bloody deed,” but Hamlet insists his deed is “almost as bad” as her having killed the king and married his brother.
Hamlet doesn’t even react to murdering someone—showing that he has no qualms with killing, but that there is something about revenge that makes him hesitate. He has successfully killed someone odious and unlikable—but when it comes to the complex code of revenge, honor, and religion required to take out Claudius, Hamlet cannot bring himself to act decisively.
Gertrude asks what she has done to Hamlet to make him talk to her so rudely. Hamlet retorts that she has “pluck[ed] the very soul” out of marriage and rendered covenants and vows meaningless.” Gertrude insists she doesn’t know what she’s done. Hamlet points to the tapestry: it depicts two brothers, side by side. Hamlet accuses Gertrude of forsaking the strong, good, kind king for his “mildewed” brother. Hamlet asks what could possibly have inspired Gertrude to make such a terrible choice, and wonders aloud whether she went mad or was tricked by the devil. Gertrude begs Hamlet to stop forcing her to look into her “black […] soul.” Hamlet continues berating his mother for “liv[ing] in the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed” with “a murderer and a villain,” even as Gertrude begs him to stop.
This passage makes it clear that Gertrude knows, on some level, that she is married to a murderer—but Hamlet refuses to consider that perhaps she had no other option but to marry her brother-in-law in order to retain her precarious social position. Gertrude clearly feels guilt and shame over her choices—but cannot do anything to change them, and wants Hamlet to stop berating her for them.
The ghost appears, and Hamlet asks the “heavenly guard” what he should do. Gertrude, who apparently cannot see the ghost, shouts that Hamlet has truly gone mad. Hamlet asks the ghost if he has come to “chide” Hamlet for his inaction—the ghost answers that he has indeed come to remind Hamlet to seek vengeance, but urges Hamlet not to let Gertrude suffer. Hamlet asks Gertrude if she’s all right—she says she’s fine, but can see that Hamlet himself is clearly unwell as he “hold[s] discourse” with the air. Hamlet tries to point out the ghost to her, but Gertrude is unable to see or hear its presence. The ghost slinks out the door, even as Hamlet calls for his father to stay.
Whether or not Gertrude can see the ghost in this passage is up to audience interpretation. If she truly can’t see it, she must really believe Hamlet has gone mad—however, if she can and is simply pretending not to, she’s perhaps trying to tamp down her own guilt, stop herself from appearing mad, and keep from confronting her own guilt over her marriage to the murderous Claudius.
Gertrude tells Hamlet he’s suffering hallucinations, but Hamlet insists he’s perfectly sane and accuses Gertrude of trying to call Hamlet mad as a way of distracting from her own sins. He orders her to repent. Gertrude tells Hamlet he’s cleaved her heart in two. Hamlet urges her to “throw away the worser part of it,” repent, stay away from Claudius, and “throw [the devil] out” of her life. He begs her not to let Claudius “tempt [her] again to bed”—or get her to tell him anything about what has transpired between Hamlet and Gertrude tonight. Gertrude swears she will try.
Even though Gertrude didn’t kill her husband, this passage shows that she knows her marriage to Claudius is wrong. Still, like Hamlet, she is paralyzed by inaction—unable to leave her new husband due to the pain of losing her social position and making herself vulnerable, she can do nothing with the information that she is married to a murderer.
Hamlet tells Gertrude that he is bound for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—but predicts that the message he is carrying with him is not one of diplomacy, but rather an edict signed by Claudius which orders Hamlet’s death. Hamlet says he has a plan to “hoist [Claudius] with his own petard”—in other words, Hamlet plans to outsmart the king. The death of Polonius, Hamlet says, means he will have to leave even sooner. He bids Gertrude goodnight, assuring her he’ll deal with Polonius’s body, then slowly drags the body from his mother’s chambers.
Hamlet tells mother his plans for getting out of the bind Claudius is placing him in—bragging about his ability to outwit the king, even if, deep down, Hamlet is ashamed by his inability to actually kill the man and avenge his father.