act 3 scene 4
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Hamlet’s conduct with his mother is probably repulsive to most readers. Their encounter in scene four is full of even more ripe and fetid language of corrupt sexuality. Can you imagine saying to your parent, to your mother, “Nay, but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty.” This is ridiculously hurtful language, and seems motivated by something very deep and dark in our protagonist. Sigmund Freud claimed to have discovered the buried, primeval cause of Hamlet’s flare-up in his Oedipal theory, his assertion that all little boys go through an original sexual drama in their childhood, in which they want to murder their fathers and possess their mothers. Ensuing scholars have questioned this theory, but this scene provides continuing fuel for speculation as to the exact nature of Hamlet’s feelings toward his mother. Again, at the very least we can agree that he is here uselessly, excessively cruel. His cruelty toward both Ophelia and Gertrude seems at least as motivated by a deep-seated and virulent hatred of women as by the logic of the revenge plot. Act Three, then, gives us Hamlet as his most sublime, in his meditations on death, and his most inexcusably depraved, in his cruelty toward the women.