What does this quote from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2,mean?
The king, sir, hath laid that, in a dozen passes between
your and him, he shall not exceed you three hits: he hath
laid on twelve for nine; and it would come to immediate trial if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer.
This quote is from Osric, the young messenger for King Claudius. He is telling Hamlet that the King has bet Laertes that in a dozen passes (sword fights) that Laertes will not hit Hamlet three more times than Hamlet hits him. The King is waiting to hear if Hamlet will participate in the duel, which is ostensibly to be a mock battle with blunted blades. This is important to the plot because Claudius and Laertes have schemed to use this battle to bring about Hamlet's death. The blade Laertes uses is to be coated with deadly poison. So this invitation to a duel with Laertes sets up the play's dramatic conclusion, in which Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes all perish.
It is a little hard to understand this bet. The wager itself is clear enough, in spite of Osric's fancy language.
The King, sir, hath wager'd with him six Barbary horses;
against the which he has impawned, as I take it, six French
rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle,
hanger, and so. Three of the carriages, in faith, are very
dear to fancy, very responsive to the hilts, most delicate
carriages, and of very liberal conceit.
The King has bet six horses against six French rapiers and poniards. That is clear enough. But the odds involved in the match are hard to understand.
The King, sir, hath laid, sir, that, in a dozen passes
between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you three hits;
he hath laid on twelve for nine, and it would come to imme-
diate trial, if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer.
In order to exceed Hamlet by three hits in a dozen passes, Laertes would have to get at least nine hits out of twelve passes, meaning, in other words, that Hamlet could only make three hits in the limited number of passes. Those seem like very high odds in Hamlet's favor, but apparently that is what Osric means by "twelve for nine." Laertes has twelve chances to get nine hits. Hamlet himself tells Claudius:
Your Grace has laid the odds o' the weaker side.
Claudius has apparently given Hamlet such advantageous odds because he wants to be sure to tempt him into engaging in this proposed match. Hamlet only has to score four hits out of the twelve passes in order to win for the King. If Hamlet scored four hits early on, the match would presumably end immediately.
Hamlet scores two hits in the first two passes. It looks as though he will win with ease. He only needs two more hits out of the remaining ten passes, and it seems possible that Laertes may be embarrassed by not being able to get any hits at all. Hamlet says:
Come for the third, Laertes! You but dally.
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
The audience knows that Laertes' blade is bare and coated with poison. He really only needs one hit to win this deadly match. But they exchange foils in a scuffle and both are mortally wounded.
Osric has just informed Hamlet that he has important information from king Claudius to divulge. Both Hamlet and Horatio treat Osric with utter disrespect and mock him. Osric's message relays the following:
King Claudius has wagered Laertes that he (Laertes) would not be able to score three more hits than Hamlet in a duel against him (with Laertes' favourite weapon, the rapier). The king had laid odds of 12 to 9 and the bout would commence as soon as Hamlet agrees to participate in the challenge.
Before this exchange between Osric and Hamlet, Claudius had met with Laertes' who had returned post-haste on hearing about his father's death. Laertes seeks revenge and had confronted Claudius who informed him that he was innocent and then implicated Hamlet. Claudius then informed Laertes that Hamlet was also seeking to kill him (Claudius). Claudius slyly charms Laertes and speaks about the golden reports he had received regarding Laertes' skill with the rapier from a Frenchman named Lamond.
The two then plot to draw Hamlet into a duel against Laertes, to provide him with an opportunity to avenge his father, Polonius' death. To ensure that Hamlet is killed during the duel, Laertes mentions a potent ointment which he will smear onto his rapier's point and the slightest scratch from his blade coated in this poison, would kill Hamlet. To further guarantee Hamlet's demise, Claudius mentions that he will prepare a chalice containing poison, so that if Hamlet should ask for a drink during the bout, he would offer it to him and thus kill him, this of course, if Laertes does not succeed in rendering a cut or scratch on Hamlet.
This plot sets the scene for the dastardly, deadly and utterly dramatic denouement to the play.