Claudius' Confession

Act 3 Scene 3 – Key Scene

Claudius kneels before his private alter and confesses to God that he murdered his brother. He admits that this act is unforgivable but he is unwilling to relinquish his new found power and position. Instead he asks for some divine intervention to soften him so that he can seek forgiveness.

You can take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using these steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Is Claudius using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    What if this cursed hand
    Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?
    Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
    To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
    But to confront the visage of offence?
    And what's in prayer but this twofold force -
    To be forestalled ere we come to fall
    Or pardoned, being down? Then I'll look up:
    My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer
    Can serve my turn: ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?

    That cannot be, since I am still possessed
    Of those effects for which I did the murder,
    My crown, mine own ambition and my Queen.
    May one be pardoned and retain th'offence?

    In the corrupted currents of this world
    Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,

    And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
    Buys out the law; but ’tis not so above:
    There is no shuffling, there the action lies
    In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled
    Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
    To give in evidence. What then? What rests?

    So what if my cursed hand is covered with my brother’s blood? Isn’t there enough rain in heaven to clean it as pure as snow? Isn’t God’s purpose to be merciful? Surely praying provides two things - to stop us from sinning and to bring us forgiveness when we have sinned. I’ll pray then because I’ve already committed my sin. But what kind of prayer can help me? 'Forgive me for murdering my brother?'

    I won’t receive forgiveness for that. Besides, I still have all the rewards for committing this act. I’m now the king and I’ve married Gertrude. Can someone be pardoned and still keep the rewards they got for committing the crime?

    Claudius talks about what happens among corrupt people and how they by-pass justice. Do you think Claudius feels this is right or wrong? Does he really want to be forgiven?

    Claudius asks what else he can do and what there is left to do. He doesn’t seem to think there is anything else he can do to atone for his sins. Hamlet and Ophelia are often talked about as being ‘mad’ but are there any signs Claudius might be mad?

    (Text edited for rehearsals by Simon Godwin)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud, then watch the actor trying it in different ways. Which way feels right? What in the language makes you think that? Are there any words or lines that really stand out? After this, there is a clip of the actor performing this scene in the 2016 production. How does Claudius come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of Hamlet at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for this scene feel right to you?