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In this scene (Act IV, Scene v), Laertes demands to know who is responsible for his father's, Polonius', death. By this time, Ophelia is completely mad as a result of her despair from her father's death and Hamlet's mistreatment of her. Unlike Hamlet who delays, Laertes rushes in ready to take revenge on Claudius. But, ever the manipulator, Claudius convinces Laertes that he is not responsible for Polonius' death. Laertes agrees to be patient and see how things play out, but he plans to at least find out why Polonius was buried so quickly and without proper ritual. Claudius acknowledges what Laertes plans to do and notes that "the great axe" will fall on the one who is responsible for the death of Polonius.
This foreshadows the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. It is also ironic that Claudius speaks these lines because the axe or sword will eventually fall on himself for his own offence of killing the king. In a larger perspective, Hamletis about the state of Denmark, which is initially "rotten," in the political and spiritual sense. If those who've committed offences are met with justice, perhaps Denmark will return to a peaceful, ordered state.
Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father, ascended the throne and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Hamlet suspects Claudius and is urged by his dead father’s ghost to avenge him. The ghost singles out Claudius as the murderer. Hamlet feigns madness as part of his scheme to avenge his father but instead kills Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia’s father. The death of Polonius was an accident since Hamlet meant to kill Claudius. The phrase “And where the offence is let the great axe fall” develops the plot and shows conflict between the characters, because Claudius knows Hamlet wants to kill him, but he also knows that Hamlet killed Polonius and to save his own life he would rather allow Laertes to avenge his father by killing Hamlet. This does not happen and instead Hamlet kills Claudius and takes revenge for both his father and mother. In the end the “Great axe falls” on both Claudius and Hamlet (who in essence is killed by Claudius through Laertes) and the phrase supports the theme of revenge that is dominant throughout the play.
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