Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385
Act IV Scene 5:
Queen Gertrude, Horatio, and a Gentleman enter. On Horatio’s advice, Gertrude reluctantly agrees to speak with Ophelia, who has been requesting an audience. The Gentleman informs the queen that Ophelia’s condition is pitiful; she frequently mentions her father, but her words are jumbled and nonsensical. Ophelia walks in singing a song, oblivious to the queen’s attempts to speak with her. When Claudius sees Ophelia’s deteriorated state, he orders that she be watched closely.
Alone with Gertrude, Claudius laments all the unfortunate things that have recently happened: Polonius has been killed, Hamlet has been sent away, the people are suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Polonius’s death, Ophelia has lost her mind, and Laertes has secretly returned from France—undoubtedly convinced that Claudius is to blame for his father’s death. A messenger then enters and informs the king and queen that an enraged Laertes has overcome Claudius’s soldiers and now approaches with a mob of rebels who call for Laertes to be king. Laertes bursts into the room and demands to know where his father is. Though Gertrude tries to restrain Laertes, Claudius tells her to let him go, claiming that a king is always protected by his divine right to rule.
Claudius informs Laertes that Polonius is dead but insists that he had nothing to do with his death. Ophelia wanders into the room singing, and Laertes, incensed by the sight of his sister's obvious insanity, vows revenge. Attempting to calm him down, Claudius tells Laertes to select the wisest of his friends to sit in judgment over the matter. He assures Laertes that if this friend judges him to be in any way guilty of Polonius’s murder, he will surrender both his life and his throne to Laertes. Somewhat mollified, Laertes brings up the hurried and undignified nature of Polonius’s burial, and the two men exit the stage discussing it.
Act IV, Scene 6:
Some sailors approach Horatio, claiming to have a letter for him. Horatio is surprised to see that the letter is from Hamlet. Hamlet explains that his ship to England was attacked by pirates, who have now returned him to Denmark. In his letter, Hamlet tells Horatio that the sailors also have letters for the king. He instructs Horatio to oversee the delivery of the letters and then come meet him as soon as possible afterward. Hamlet mentions that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still headed for England and says that he has much to reveal about them.
Act IV, Scene 7:
Claudius and Laertes enter, discussing Polonius’s death. Laertes now agrees that Claudius is not at fault but wonders why he did not openly punish Hamlet. Claudius explains that he loves Gertrude and cannot bear to upset her by punishing her only son. He also says that it would be risky to publicly accuse Hamlet, since he is so well-loved by the people. Reflecting on all that he has lost as a result of Hamlet’s behavior, Laertes vows revenge.
A messenger arrives, bringing Hamlet’s letters. Claudius is shocked to learn that Hamlet will be returning to court the next day, but Laertes is pleased to have the chance to kill his enemy so soon. Claudius admits to Laertes that he has been trying to come up with a way to dispose of Hamlet and make it look like an accident. Recalling that Hamlet is quite envious of Laertes’s skill at swordsmanship, Claudius suggests arranging a duel between the two men. He proposes that Laertes secretly use a sharpened fencing foil so that he may actually injure Hamlet. Laertes agrees and takes the plan even further, suggesting that he poison the blade of his sword so that even the tiniest nick will kill Hamlet. As a backup plan, Claudius decides that he will have a cup of poisoned wine on hand to offer to Hamlet should Laertes fail to wound him during the duel.
Gertrude then enters to tell Laertes of yet another tragedy: his sister, Ophelia, has drowned. Gertrude explains that Ophelia was leaning on the branches of a willow tree that stretched over the brook. As she tried to hang flower garlands from the tree, the branch snapped, and she tumbled into the water. Distraught with grief, Laertes quickly leaves the room. Fearing that this tragedy might reawaken Laertes’s newly calmed rage, Claudius tells Gertrude that they should follow him.
These scenes reveal Ophelia’s tragic fate: she has been driven mad by the loss of her father and eventually dies as a result of her madness. Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia’s mental breakdown is neither pretense nor ambiguous. Throughout the play, Ophelia is dominated by the male figures in her life: Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes. Raised to be passive and obedient to men, Ophelia is seemingly unable to cope with the loss of both her father and Hamlet's affection. Even Ophelia’s manner of death is passive. Rather than choosing to actively commit suicide, Ophelia simply allows the water pull her down: “Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay.”
Ophelia's tragic end points to the impossibility of her social position: as an Elizabethan noblewoman, Ophelia must navigate the contradictory expectations and assumptions of men. While her father believes that she must be innocent, naive, and pure, Hamlet sees Ophelia as an object of beauty, lust, and sexual desire. In their earlier confrontations, Hamlet accuses her of being corrupted in sexual terms, likening her to a prostitute. Ophelia is thus caught between the irreconcilably different ways in which she is viewed by the men around her, required to be both an object of sensuality and an object of purity.
The impossibility of Ophelia's position is perhaps best captured through her brother’s advice in act I. Laertes tells his sister that she must remain chaste and innocent, even as he sexualizes her with his suggestive language: “your chaste treasure open / To his unmastered importunity.” Ophelia's mad speeches in scene 5 suggest that she internalized these contradictory expectations in a harmful way. She alludes to an old folktale about a baker’s daughter who criticized her father for giving out a free loaf of bread and was turned into an owl as a punishment for her unkindness. This particular allusion is reminiscent of both Ophelia’s reluctance to defy her father and her sadness in being forced to be unkind to Hamlet, suggesting that these events affected her very deeply. Ophelia goes on to sing a song about a girl who was tricked into giving up her virginity to a young man who then refused to marry her. Just like the girl in the song, Ophelia has been let down and betrayed by the men around her.
With Ophelia’s death and Hamlet’s departure, Claudius can no longer pretend that life at Elsinore Castle is orderly and calm. The theme of appearance versus reality reemerges as the currents of chaos and treachery that have long hidden underneath the surface begin to emerge. We see the first open challenge to Claudius’s authority in the form of Laertes, who seeks revenge for his father’s death and his sister’s insanity. Like Fortinbras, Laertes is a foil for Hamlet. Though both of them have lost a beloved father, Laertes literally charges the castle in his quest for vengeance—unlike Hamlet, whose meandering revenge quest is the very thing that has caused Laertes so much grief. Indeed, the contrast between Laertes and Hamlet is made directly when Laertes tells Claudius that he would cut Hamlet’s throat in church to get revenge for Polonius’s death, recalling the moment in act III when Hamlet decides not to attack Claudius while he is at prayer. In these scenes, Claudius yet again proves himself to be a smooth politician, managing to redirect Laertes's anger in a way that suits his own needs. With Hamlet on his way back to Elsinore, Claudius knows that he needs to dispatch him quickly and, true to form, comes up with an underhanded plot to bring about Hamlet’s death. By deciding to involve Laertes in the plot to kill Hamlet, Claudius has raised the stakes, ensuring that a confrontation between himself and Hamlet will be inevitable.
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