Last Updated on January 11, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1560
The scene opens with Hamlet telling Horatio how he returned to Denmark. Feeling uneasy on the ship to England, Hamlet stole the sealed documents that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were delivering. Upon reading them, he discovered that Claudius had ordered his immediate execution. Hamlet replaced this document with a forged letter that called instead for the immediate execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Shortly after, Hamlet escaped with the pirates who attacked the ship, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unknowingly continued on to their deaths. He does not regret what will happen to them, he says, because they chose to take Claudius’s side. Hamlet does, however, express regret over his earlier treatment of Laertes, explaining that he actually greatly sympathizes with Laertes’s grief and desire for revenge.
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Just then, Osric, a member of the court, enters. Osric comes across as a bumbling fool in his obvious attempts at flattery, saying one moment that it is very hot outside before immediately agreeing with Hamlet that it is actually cold. Osric tells Hamlet that the king has made a bet that Hamlet can beat Laertes in a fencing duel and wishes to know if Hamlet will agree to fight. Osric heaps extravagant praise upon Laertes’s skill, and Hamlet and Horatio are somewhat confused as to Osric's motives in doing so. Hamlet agrees to duel Laertes, and Osric leaves. A lord enters and tells Hamlet that if he is willing, everyone will come to the hall, and they will hold the duel immediately. Hamlet agrees.
As everyone assembles to watch the fencing match, Horatio warns Hamlet that he will probably lose. Though Hamlet is more optimistic about his chances, he admits that something feels amiss. Horatio urges him not to fight if he feels that something is wrong, but Hamlet says that they must leave it in the hands of fate. Hamlet shakes hands with Laertes and asks for his forgiveness, claiming that it was his madness, not him, that wronged Laertes. Laertes stiffly replies that he will accept Hamlet’s offer of love, though he will not grant him forgiveness until he has taken expert advice on the matter.
Laertes and Hamlet choose their foils (swords that have dull edges and are meant to be used for sparring), and Laertes deliberately chooses the blade that has been secretly sharpened and poisoned. Claudius announces to the crowd that if Hamlet gets the first or second hit, he will drink to Hamlet and throw a valuable “union” (a large pearl) into the cup, which he will then offer to Hamlet. Claudius intends to use this poisoned cup to kill Hamlet should Laertes fail to scratch him; however, there is some debate as to whether the pearl itself is poisoned or whether Claudius has already poisoned the cup and intends to merely pretend to drink from it before offering it to Hamlet.
The duel starts, and Hamlet gets the first hit. True to his word, the king drinks and offers the cup to Hamlet. Hamlet, however, says he will drink after another round. He hits Laertes a second time. Gertrude then takes the cup and, ignoring Claudius's protest, drinks to Hamlet’s good fortune. In an aside, Claudius remarks that she has drunk from the poisoned cup but says it is too late to do anything about it now. Gertrude offers the cup to Hamlet, but he once more refuses to drink.
The duel resumes, and Laertes mutters in an aside that it almost goes against his conscience to kill Hamlet in such an underhanded way. Laertes finally scratches Hamlet with his poisoned foil, and the two men begin to scuffle, accidentally swapping swords in the process. The king orders them to be separated as Hamlet strikes out, wounding Laertes with the poisoned sword. Suddenly, Queen Gertrude falls to the floor. Horatio notices that both Hamlet and Laertes are bleeding, and Laertes announces to all that he is “justly kill’d with my own treachery.” Hamlet looks to his mother, and though Claudius tries to pretend that she has merely fainted from the sight of blood, Gertrude warns Hamlet that her drink was poisoned just before she dies. Laertes admits that his sword was also poisoned and says that both he and Hamlet are now doomed to die, revealing Claudius as the mastermind behind everything. Enraged, Hamlet picks up the poisoned sword and stabs Claudius before forcing him to drink from the cup of poisoned wine. Claudius dies, and Laertes forgives Hamlet, asking for Hamlet’s forgiveness in return before dying as well. Knowing he only has a few moments left to live, Hamlet begs Horatio not to commit suicide, urging him to live and tell the truth about what has happened.
The sound of cannons and an approaching army can be heard, and Osric enters to report that young Fortinbras has returned successful from his battle in Poland and is firing a volley to greet the ambassadors from England. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wishes Fortinbras to be the new king of Denmark before succumbing to the poison and dying. Fortinbras enters the room with the English ambassadors. Shocked by the gruesome scene before them, the ambassadors lament that their news—that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have, per the king’s orders, been killed—arrives too late for Claudius to hear. Horatio promises to explain the events that have led to this bloody scene, and Fortinbras indicates his willingness to take the throne. Fortinbras orders Hamlet’s body to be carried off like a soldier’s, saying that he is certain Hamlet would have proved to be a “most royal” king.
In this final scene, the tension and secrecy that has long simmered underneath the surface breaks out into open violence. The scene opens with Hamlet revealing the grim fate that awaits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Though Horatio wonders whether Hamlet was overly harsh to condemn them to death, Hamlet shows no remorse, suggesting that he may finally be done showing mercy to those who have wronged him. While he does not regret the deaths of his former friends, Hamlet does express regret over his treatment of Laertes. Hamlet’s clear desire for Laertes’s forgiveness marks a significant shift from his confrontational behavior at Ophelia’s funeral.
It is notable, however, that Hamlet later blames the murder of Polonius on his madness: “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.” If Hamlet was—as he has often said—merely faking his madness, then his claim that he is not responsible rings false and suggests that Hamlet is merely trying to absolve himself of (deserved) blame. If, however, Hamlet is not or has not always been in his right mind, his apology invites several important questions: How have Hamlet’s actions been affected by his mental state throughout the play, and what, if any, amount of responsibility should he bear for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia? Shakespeare offers no easy answers to these questions, leaving room for the audience to form their own opinion. What is clear, however, is that while Hamlet’s actions have undoubtedly been a source of much grief, the blame for the spate of deaths in this final scene is shared among many characters.
In the latter half of the scene, the duel between Hamlet and Laertes quickly devolves into a bloodbath. Hamlet’s mother, the mistaken recipient of Claudius’s poison, drops dead, prompting Laertes to tell Hamlet that their own deaths are imminent as well. With Claudius’s treachery exposed for all to see, Hamlet finally takes his revenge, killing Claudius with both the poisoned sword and the poisoned wine. That Hamlet kills Claudius with these objects is in itself significant, showing that Claudius was, both literally and figuratively, killed by his own scheming and manipulation.
Though Hamlet has spent the entire play waiting to kill Claudius, the actual murder is somewhat anticlimactic. It is quick and feels more like a response to the immediate chaos than the culmination of a long-sought revenge. Indeed, it is only after Claudius’s treachery is publicly revealed and Gertrude is killed right before his eyes that Hamlet, who realizes that he, too, is about to die, finally takes action. It is difficult to say whether or not Hamlet would have killed Claudius under less extreme circumstances, and ultimately that question is left unanswered.
The audience’s sympathy for Hamlet is restored in his final moments. Having both been destroyed by their quests for revenge, Laertes and Hamlet forgive one another, achieving a sense of closure and lightening the weight of their sins by exchanging Christian forgiveness. As he waits for death, Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story and preserve his reputation, reminding the audience of the complex chain of events that have led Hamlet to where he is now. When he hears Fortinbras approaching, Hamlet welcomes rather than resents his rule, freely giving him his support. Fortinbras’s ascendancy to power marks a shift from the chaos and dysfunction of Hamlet’s family, signaling the restoration of Denmark’s honor and the end of the toxic corruption of the court. With Hamlet and Laertes having avenged their respective fathers and Fortinbras having reclaimed the lands his father once lost, there is hope that these three sons have finally brought an end to the cycle of revenge that began with their fathers.