Act V, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Horatio and Hamlet enter as Hamlet explains 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 calling instead for the immediate execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Shortly after, Hamlet escaped with the pirates while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unknowingly continued on to their deaths. He explains that he does not regret what will happen to them, 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. 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 why Osric is going so far to praise Laertes. 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 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 scholarly debate as to whether the pearl itself is poisoned or whether Claudius has already poisoned the cup, intending 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, and Gertrude takes the cup to drink to Hamlet’s good fortune. Claudius orders her not to drink, but Gertrude drinks the wine anyway. In an aside, Claudius declares 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 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 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...
(The entire section is 1,587 words.)