Preface to the Critical Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

Preface to the Critical Commentary:

Illustration of PDF document

Download Hamlet Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The text of Hamlet exists in three versions: the First Quarto (1603 and hereafter called Q1), the Second Quarto (1604 - Q2), and the text included in the First Folio (1623 - F1). [FN1] To get a 'quarto', the printer took a sheet of paper and folded it in half twice to create four separate sections and then printed the text in these sections. A Folio is printed on a large, complete sheet of paper. Our modern paperbacks and 'coffee table' books are almost equivalent to a quarto and a folio. This means that there are two versions of Hamlet, printed at different times, in the small version, and one large 'official' version printed by Shakespeare's friends. If all these texts had the same words, the same punctuation, the same spelling, the same number of lines, and the same character names, then there would be no problem. However, that is not the case with Hamlet, and editors feel that in order to make a text that everyone can read with ease, adjustments have to be made.

In order to arrive at a 'complete' version of the Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote, editors take all three texts and compare them. According to many editors of Shakespeare texts, the text of Q1 is so different from the other two that it is labelled corrupt or 'bad'. The latest critical thinking, however, is that this text is not 'bad', but simply a different version of the play. The F1 text omits more then 200 lines found in Q2. When F1 and Q2 could be wrong, Q1 might be right. For example, in Act 1, scene 2, Hamlet has a soliloquy that begins, 'Oh that this too, too ----- flesh would melt'. The word that goes in that space is 'sallied' in Q1 and Q2, and 'solid' in F1. 'Sallied' meaning 'gone' does not make sense. 'Sullied' would mean that Hamlet is feeling so down, he feels dirty, which could be a possible meaning. The word 'solid', however, seems to make the most sense when put against the following line which is 'Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!' One editor may choose 'sullied', another 'solid'. But the confusion does not end there. Because there are a different number of lines in Q1, Q2, and F1, it is difficult to number the lines so that they can be referenced easily. With a long and popular play like Hamlet, therefore, most editors will choose the best meaning of a word from all three versions, insert lines into one that are missing from another, and then number the lines of the copy that they end up with. They will also make the characters' names the same throughout so that a reader or performer knows who is speaking a line. This text is known as a conflated text. Most schools and most people involved with a production of the play use a conflated text because they feel they are getting what Shakespeare originally set down.

A conflated text is 3,760 lines long, and because Hamlet is probably the most complex of all Shakespeare's plays, this analysis will use a conflated text: William Shakespeare. Hamlet. David Bevington, ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. All act, scene, and line numbers refer to this edition.

Footnotes
1. Though three additional Folios were printed after the First, these were more or less based on the First and not considered in this discussion.

Act I Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3971

Scene i: Hamlet opens with two guards on watch. Strangely, the opening line is 'Who's there?' (1.1.1). Of course this is what we all want to know, and by the end of the play we will have multiple answers. The question receives a curious response: 'Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.' (1.1.2). The other voice says 'Long live the King!'(1.1.3). Like many other Shakespeare plays, this opening grabs our attention and pulls us into the world of the play, a world probably very different from the one in which we are a member of an audience. We do not know where we are geographically in the play, or what time it is, or what is going on. To complicate things, the men on the stage do not know all that much either! Shakespeare has very cleverly, although we do not realise it now, put the entire play in these three lines. As we move from this point deeper and deeper into the play, these three statements, 'Who's there?', 'Stay and unfold yourself', and 'Long live the King!' will be asked and answered over and over again, and each time the answers will be different.

Bernardo has come to relieve Francisco from the watch. It is midnight, the beginning of the 'grave-yard shift', and Bernardo waits for Marcellus and Horatio to join him. As their conversation continues, it becomes apparent that Horatio is not a usual member of the watch. Bernardo and Marcellus have seen something as they stood guard for the last two nights, a 'dreaded sight' (1.1.29), an 'apparition' (1.1.32). Horatio thinks the two men are imagining things, but they insist that their vision is real. Bernardo begins to tell Horatio the story of how, over the past two nights, at the stroke of one in the morning — Bernardo is interrupted by the appearance of a Ghost. Bernardo, as if to prove his case, asks Horatio to speak to what seems to be the Ghost of a dead King. Reluctantly, Horatio commands the spirit to speak to him, but the Ghost disappears. Not surprisingly, Horatio believes he has seen the Ghost of the 'dead' (1.1.45), 'buried' (1.1.52), King of Denmark.

Now, the three statements, 'Who's there?', 'stay and unfold yourself', and 'Long live the King' spring up in our minds. Who's there? Bernardo, Marcellus (both sentries); Horatio (whom Marcellus calls a scholar [1.1.46]); and the ghost of a dead King. 'Stay and unfold yourself': The Ghost refuses to speak to Horatio and apparently has not spoken to either of the guards. 'Long live the King!': The Ghost from the afterlife is walking in the middle of the night, but if this King is dead and buried, who is the King now?

Horatio begins to give us much needed answers. This Ghost looks as he did when he fought Norway and Poland 'on the ice' (1.1.67). This Ghost does not appear as we might think a King would, dressed in stately robes and a crown, but in 'armour'. Horatio knows right away that 'This bodes some strange eruption to our state' (1.1.73). Now that Horatio has brought up the subject of the state, Marcellus the soldier who obeys without question, pursues Horatio. He wants to know, as we do, just what is going on. He wants to know why there are twenty-four hour guards, armoury manufacture, and shipbuilding, with not even Sunday as a day of rest.

Horatio goes back to the history of events before the play opened, and brings the guards, and us, up to date. The old King whose Ghost we have just seen, had been drawn into battle with King Fortinbras of Norway. The two men wagered a large amount of land, and when King Hamlet (Horatio names him) killed King Fortinbras, the land went to Denmark. King Fortinbras' son, Fortinbras, to avenge his father's death (even though the wager was drawn up in a legal, binding contract) has raised an illegal army of 'lawless resolutes' (1.1.102) to get the land back. That is why Denmark is preparing for all-out war around the clock. Bernardo agrees with Horatio and the scholar begins a long poem about how natural events often forecast disturbances in politics. Suddenly, the Ghost appears again.

Horatio once again urges the Ghost to speak to him. He offers to help the spirit, asks it to tell him if he has a message about the future, or if it had committed any sins to atone for. Then, a rooster (or 'cock') crows. The Ghost vanishes. The three men decide to break up the watch and relay what they have seen to 'young Hamlet' (1.1.176). Horatio is sure that the Ghost will speak to this young man with the same name. Now we have more answers. Denmark is preparing for a war brought about by the killing of the King of Norway over a wager, and it is being haunted by the King who did the killing. King Fortinbras' son is young as is the young man who is obviously the Ghost's son. Both are named for their fathers, and have, apparently, succeeded their fathers to the throne.

In 181 lines, Shakespeare has constructed one of the most effective of all his opening scenes, probably only comparable to the opening of Macbeth. We may think that we will see a straight-forward story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but from the play's beginning, we quickly become aware that the narrative line in this play is not direct or straight. Shakespeare opens the play in media res (in the middle of things). He then flashes back to fill in a few details, fast forwards to what may happen, and comes back to the present. In so doing, Shakespeare challenges us to stay focused on events, to put clues together, to try to predict where the story is going, before he shifts things around once again. Nonetheless, we think that this play is going to be about how Hamlet and Fortinbras battle it out for disputed lands, and Hamlet is going to win, just like his father. Can it be that simple?

Scene ii: If we thought 'Who's there?' was a strange opening, this one may seem stranger: 'Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death/ The memory be green… (1.2.1-2). We are shocked — this cannot be right. Because this man says 'our dear brother' using what is called 'the royal we', we know he must be the King, but he said 'brother', not 'son'. Again, 'Who's there?' is answered by this man; 'unfold yourself' means that this man is King Hamlet's brother; 'Long live the King!' means that he is the King. As the King continues his speech, we are told that the entire country has been mourning for the King that has died. This King, debating with himself about a proper mourning period and the proper time to resume social activities, and taking advice from his councillors and courtiers, has apparently married his sister. Is this all possible? We do not have long to think about it because the King moves along his agenda swiftly to the issue of war with Fortinbras.

He informs the court that Fortinbras has been pestering him to surrender the land and may think that Denmark may not be ready for war because they have been in mourning or because they are weak. The King sends Cornelius and Voltemand to carry a message about Fortinbras' actions to Old Norway, Fortinbras' uncle, who is ill and bedridden. The King of Norway is in the same position as this King: they are both brothers to the last Kings and have nephews.

The King of Denmark continues dealing with public business and turns his attention to Laertes (Lay-AIR-tees). This young man is the son of Polonius, one of the King's ministers, and seeks the King's approval to go to France. The King asks Polonius if he agrees and he does. This section of the scene is especially important. Here we have one son with a living father. This third son forms a triangle of sons which is reflected in the triangle of fathers. The difference in this father triangle is that Polonius is alive and the others are dead. Furthermore, the number three becomes a repetitive motif of the play.

With these three matters resolved, the King turns to 'my cousin Hamlet and my son' (1.2.64). This line does little to clarify the 'sister' whom the king married, but for the Jacobeans, 'cousin' meant someone who was not immediate family. Shakespeare has chosen this word very carefully. Under canonical law, a brother was precluded from marrying his brother's widow. It was considered incest, the most famous case being Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur's widow. By calling Hamlet 'cousin', he indicates that he is not a close relative, but calling him 'son' indicates he is close. Such confusion would cover any sin that might be inferred. This pattern is immediately picked up in Hamlet's response, his first line in the play, 'A little more than kin and less than kind' (.65). In addition, Hamlet is more than kin to the King: he is a son, a stepson, a nephew, and a rival for the Crown. The King and Queen beg Hamlet to cease mourning for his father and to stay with them in Denmark (Hamlet has been in school in Wittenberg, Germany). He says he will, and is then left alone.

In Shakespeare's plays, asides and soliloquies to the audience are considered to be the truth told by the character. In this, the first of many soliloquies, Hamlet opens a window on the thoughts running through his mind. He wishes he could just 'melt' (1.2.129) and evaporate away, or even commit 'self-slaughter' (1.2.132). He is very depressed and everything seems 'weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable' (1.2.133). Hamlet's feelings are ones we can all relate to, especially after the death of a loved one, but what has caused him to react so strongly? Hamlet says his father the King has been dead for 'two months' (1.2.138), so his depression could stem from that alone. When he recalls, however, how his parents were together, we know the cause is much deeper. Hamlet remembers that when the King died, his mother was grief-stricken, 'all tears' (1.2.149), but after a mere month, she married the King, his uncle. This is what has Hamlet so upset — the speed at which, and the person whom, his mother remarried. Hamlet prophesises; 'It is not, nor it cannot come to good' (1.2.158).

Here we have a reason for Hamlet's anger and depression to parallel Fortinbras' anger. We are also told to expect worse, but can we trust what Hamlet is saying? On the one hand, he may just be venting his anger; however, his comments agree with those of Scene One, that all is not well, and he chooses to make his comments directly to us. This direct address not only gives us information on Hamlet's point of view, but it also implicates us in the events of the play since only we strangers hear his private thoughts.

Having left the place where the Ghost appeared, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo come upon Prince Hamlet deep in thought. At first, Hamlet thinks they are just courtiers, but then realises it is Horatio, his best friend. Hamlet greets him warmly and asks him why he has come to Elsinore. Horatio tells him that he came for King Hamlet's funeral and Hamlet suggests it was for the wedding. Surprisingly, as Hamlet continues his sarcastic remarks about the wedding party, he says 'My father! Methinks I see my father' (1.2.184). Horatio, of course, thinks that the Ghost has appeared to Hamlet, but from Hamlet's comments he soon learns this is not the case. He tells Hamlet the details of the Ghost's apparition. Eerily, Hamlet repeats Horatio's conclusion from Scene One [' 'Tis strange' (1.1.68)]: ' 'Tis very strange' (1.2.221). Hamlet pries details from Horatio, and then tells him he will join the Watch. Hamlet is uncertain, however, if the apparition is indeed his father's spirit. The scene ends with the men arranging to meet on the same platform between 11 p.m. and midnight. Hamlet is determined to question the Ghost.

This scene uses our empathy with a young man coping with the grief of losing a close relative to trap us into the world of Elsinore, and it does so rather cunningly. We understand what the young man must be going through. The thought that his uncle is on the throne instead of him does not at first strike us as strange, and because we have no input from Gertrude, we become biased against her for acting so hastily. However, as we will discover, life is not that simple in Elsinore. Hamlet has no friends within the court — Horatio is an outsider. Hamlet has been away at school, so in a sense, he too is an outsider. We are also outsiders and now paradoxically in league with those who will try to sort out the court's problems.

Scene iii: We have already seen Laertes ask to leave Denmark and go to France, and this scene reveals the family relationships of the Polonius family which will serve as a contrast to the Royal family. We first meet Laertes' sister, Ophelia. As any big brother would, Laertes gives Ophelia advice. He asks her to write to him, and warns her about her boyfriend — Hamlet. From what Laertes says, we can deduce that Ophelia and Hamlet have been spending a lot of time together, and Hamlet has given the impression to the family that he loves Ophelia. Laertes, however, tells Ophelia that even though Hamlet may love her now, any feelings he may have for her cannot possibly be acted on:

His greatness weighed, his will is not his own.
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head (1.3.17-24).

If we look carefully at Laertes' words, we can see that in addition to advising Ophelia, he is also giving us his perception of Hamlet, a perception that differs significantly from what we have seen of him. Laertes speaks of Hamlet's 'greatness' and the restrictions placed on him as 'head' of Denmark. We have just seen that Hamlet is not King of Denmark, nor does it seem that he will be any time soon. Yet Laertes says that his choice of a wife affects 'the safety and health of this whole state', implying that not only is Hamlet choosing a wife, but also a Queen for Denmark and mother of kings when Hamlet does take the throne.
Denmark, however, did not have a system of primogeniture (the succession of son to father), but rather a semi-democratic process. A Council consisting of members of the all-powerful nobility chose a king. This choice had to be approved by representatives of the common people from the provinces throughout Denmark. The real power was the Council and kings were only entrusted with the management of the State and the Royal Household. In fact, the King was actually crowned by the Councillors who all touched the crown as they said, 'Your Majesty, accept from us the Crown of this State...' [FN2] Laertes' comments not only speak of a new political system, but also indicate that Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, [FN3] must have had the qualifications that the Council wanted in order to win an election. Claudius' first action of sending Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway clearly indicates some proficiency at foreign affairs, while his preparations for war show organisational skills and leadership.

Furthermore, Hamlet was in school in Wittenberg and did not come back to Denmark for the election. It would seem then that Laertes places himself outside the political world of Denmark, and thus, with Hamlet and Fortinbras completes one of the triangles of the play. Laertes further reminds us that Ophelia is also not part of that political world.

Ophelia, after her brother's long speech, simply advises him not to give her any advice that he himself will not follow. In doing so, she presents herself as a bright, intelligent girl fully aware of the court's double standard.

Their father, Polonius, enters and we see yet another triangle — the three families of the play. This one consists of two men and a woman like the Royals, but Gertrude is the only mother and Ophelia the only daughter who appear in the play. The other fathers mentioned, Old Hamlet and Old Fortinbras, are dead. Like the Fortinbras family, the Polonius family has no mother figure. The Royal Family, by contrast, consists of an uncle/stepfather, a mother/aunt, a son/stepson/nephew. In this way, Shakespeare questions just what is meant by the term 'family'. Significantly, by the play's end, all these familial units will be obliterated.

Polonius, like Laertes to Ophelia, offers advice to Laertes in a series of platitudes, and Laertes leaves for France. When he is gone, Polonius asks Ophelia what her brother had said to her. When she says 'something touching on the Lord Hamlet' (1.3.90), Polonius seizes upon her vague statement that Hamlet has 'of late made many tenders of his affection' (1.3.100-101). Using the word 'tender' as a noun and a verb, Polonius reiterates Laertes' warning, telling his daughter she must give up Hamlet and refuse to even talk with him. Dutifully and fatefully, Ophelia agrees.

This exchange reinforces the double standard of the court and establishes Ophelia as a pawn in its politics, reducing her value as a person and minimising her as a female. It also sets into motion one of the subplots that contribute to the end of the play — the destruction of Ophelia.

Scene iv: This scene brings us to Hamlet's confrontation with the Ghost whose information will feed Hamlet's thirst for revenge. But before we see the Ghost, we hear about Claudius' drinking habits. It is apparently the custom in Denmark for drums and trumpets to sound when the King downs a draught of wine (1.4.10-11). Hamlet finds the custom distasteful in that it colours international opinion of the Danes. He philosophises that it is human nature to judge the whole person by 'the stamp of one defect' (1.4.31), even unfairly.

Suddenly, the Ghost appears and Hamlet instantly judges the Ghost to be that of his father from its appearance, an example of what he has just said about appearances. He asks it why it appears 'in complete steel' (1.4.520). The Ghost simply motions Hamlet to follow it. Marcellus and Horatio do not think this is a good idea and try to restrain Hamlet physically. Threatening the two men with death, Hamlet follows the Ghost.

Marcellus and Horatio are unsure of what to do or what the apparition means. Marcellus, the practical soldier, makes his feelings clear in one of the most famous lines of the play: 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.4.90). It was believed that spirits walked the earth only when there was upheaval in real life. For Marcellus, the return of the Old King's spirit means that there is a major problem in the Royal House, an opinion that Horatio had voiced in the opening scene (1.1.116-129). In this way, Shakespeare emphasises the effects that personal choices by politicians have on the world at large, an echo of what Laertes had told Ophelia. The playwright continues to give us more details of the history of the play that happened before the play opened.

Scene v: This is the scene we have been waiting for: is it or is it not the Ghost of the Old King? Will it speak at last? What will it say if it does? Initially, like us, Hamlet is unsure of the Ghost, calling it 'poor ghost', not 'father', but the Ghost announces, 'I am thy father's spirit' (1.5.10). He proceeds to tell Hamlet that his afterlife is spent in a purgatory of 'fires' (1.5.12), and reveals why he has appeared:

If thou didst ever thy dear father love —
… Revenge his foul and unnatural murder (1.5.24, 26).

Hamlet is very surprised at this accusation, and urges the Ghost to tell him more so that he

… with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep to my revenge (1.5.30-32).

There is no sign here that Hamlet disbelieves the Ghost or that he will delay in exacting revenge. The Ghost relates that the cover story of his death was that he was bitten by a poisonous snake during a nap in the garden. The Ghost adamantly denies this story and says that the 'snake' is now the King. Hamlet voices his suspicion of Claudius, and the Ghost details how Claudius seduced the Queen, waited for his chance, and poured poison into his ear. The Old King died a horrible death, deprived 'of life, of crown, of queen' (1.5.76) and worst of all, deprived of the chance to repent his sins and receive the Last Sacrament. The Ghost pleads with Hamlet to avenge his death, but not to hurt the Queen. Telling Hamlet 'Remember me' (1.5.92), the Ghost disappears.
The Ghost's description of his death serves as a foil to the callousness of Claudius and to his lack of brotherly love. To Shakespeare and his audience, the damnation of a soul would surely be a horrible crime, but especially for a brother to do to a brother. Although the Ghost incriminates the Queen and castigates her as 'my most seeming-virtuous queen' (1.5.47), there is no evidence of her having an affair with Claudius before the Old King was murdered. In fact, Hamlet comments in 1.2 that his mother seemed totally in love with her husband and grief-stricken at his funeral (1.2.143-149). Now all the pieces seem to have fallen into place.

Hamlet's father has been murdered and he, the dutiful son, will revenge his death:

… thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter (1.5.103-105).

Curiously, when describing Claudius, Hamlet speaks a line that echoes of one spoken by Richard in the opening sequence of Richard III: '… One may smile, and smile, and be a villain' (1.5.109). Hamlet is determined to act without delay, and swears as much to his father. We know, however, that if this is all there is, this is going to be a very short play. Hamlet may be reacting from emotion or from youthful spirit that may soften in retrospect. With the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus, there is a chance that Hamlet may be having second thoughts already. After all, he can hardly walk up to Claudius and say 'You killed my father and now I kill you'.
Hamlet (and the Ghost) swear the two men to secrecy about what they have seen and heard. Horatio comments again that these events are 'wondrous strange' (1.5.173), and Hamlet tells his friend that he has already formed a plan 'to put an antic disposition on' (1.5.181). The three men leave together.

The situation is far from resolved. We do not know what Hamlet means by 'an antic disposition', nor do we know what form his revenge will take. We do, however, believe that the Ghost is indeed Hamlet's father, even though we know intellectually that such an apparition is an unlikely event. This is how Shakespeare draws us further into the world of Denmark where things are not as they seem and corruption is disguised as virtue.

Footnotes
2. See Gunnar Sjøgren. 'Hamlet and the Coronation of Christian IV', Shakespeare Quarterly, 1965, n16, p. 155.

3. Since the name of the King is never mentioned in the text, the King will be called 'Claudius' as it appears in the List of Characters for the remainder of this analysis.

Act II Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1774

Scene i: As Shakespeare ended the last act by challenging what we believe, he begins Act Two by challenging what we have seen. A new character, Reynaldo, is in conversation with Polonius whom we have seen as a careful father. Polonius is sending Reynaldo to spy on Laertes and to intentionally spread lies about him. His reason for this is to find out the truth of Laertes' behaviour. Perhaps we have forgotten that Polonius told Ophelia that her behaviour may 'tender me a fool' (1.3.110). Polonius is thus shown to be a man who worries that the things his children do will reflect on him as a father and as a man, affecting his position at court. This revelation also shows how deep the suspicion in Elsinore goes. No one can be assured of safety, and, by employing Reynaldo, Polonius foreshadows Claudius' using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet.

At this point, Ophelia enters to tell her father that a dishevelled, disturbed Hamlet has just left her, scaring her with his looks and his manner. Is this what he meant by 'antic disposition'? Is this part of his plan for revenge? Polonius decides from her story that Hamlet is suffering from 'the very ecstasy of love' (2.1.104). When Ophelia tells him that instead of encouraging Hamlet she has obeyed her father and 'denied his access' (2.1.111-112), Polonius admits he suspected Hamlet was not serious about her and that he may have acted hastily. He tells her they must go to the King and confess what he has done before Hamlet does something drastic.

From Ophelia's account and Polonius' reaction, we are unsure whether Hamlet is pretending to be mad or is actually mad. The scene also reinforces Ophelia's position as a meaningless object in the politics of the court. We must also question Ophelia's love for Hamlet. She seems to be unwilling to disobey her father, like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or Celia in As You Like It, but seems to have turned her back on Hamlet rather easily. In addition, Polonius is true to form, worrying about his position, more than the effect his dictates are having on his daughter.

Scene ii: In a 'public' scene (in front of others), Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet's school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the court. They have been summoned to spend time with Hamlet and try to figure out what his problem is. Gertrude even promises them a royal reward. Instead of declining what amounts to bribery as true friends would, they accept and tell the King and Queen they will do their best. It seems that the King and Queen are genuinely concerned to find out what troubles the young Prince, and, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, Polonius enters to tell the royal couple that he knows the answer. But first, Claudius must receive the news from Norway from Cornelius and Voltemand.

The two ambassadors inform Claudius that Old Norway thought his nephew, Fortinbras, was raising an army to invade Poland. He investigated further and discovered Fortinbras' plan against Denmark. Found out, the young man apologised and promised 'never more/ To give th'assay of arms' (2.270-71) against the Danes. Old Norway rewarded Fortinbras with 3,000 crowns (money) and permission to raise an army for a Polish campaign. Claudius is pleased with this arrangement, accepting it easily because it relieves some of the pressure on him. Perhaps he accepts it too easily. With Fortinbras now officially funded by his uncle, there is no reason why he should not return to Norway after Poland by way of Denmark. Have the ambassadors, in an effort to please the King, overlooked other possibilities? Claudius says

… at our more considered time we'll read,
Answer, and think upon this business (2.2.81-82)

but his feasting and drinking may distract him. And there is also Hamlet to worry about. Nowhere in the text is there any indication that Claudius does give the Fortinbras problem any further consideration, and it is this failure that will directly create the end of the play.
After the ambassadors leave, Polonius tries to ease the King and Queen into a frame of mind that will allow him to escape unpunished for his meddling in the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship. When Claudius asks him directly, 'But how hath she received his love?' (2.2.128-129), Polonius answers the question with a question: 'What do you think of me?' (2.2.129). His is a rhetorical strategy still used by politicians today. Instead of coming straight out and saying what happened, he adds a lengthy prologue by asking the King what the King would think, knowing Hamlet's importance to Denmark, if Polonius had stood by and let love develop between the two young people. In carefully phrasing his confession, Polonius reiterates to the King that he has no designs on marrying his daughter to a Prince of Denmark, nor any ambitions to be the father of a queen or grandfather of kings. Assuring Claudius that he does not want his place, he then follows his confession by focusing on Hamlet as the victim, yet author, of his own madness, minimising the role of his own interference.

Claudius agrees with Polonius to hide behind an arras (tapestry; curtain) to observe Hamlet and Ophelia, and as Hamlet approaches reading a book, Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude that they must leave so that he can speak to him. Polonius must be sure of his conclusion that Hamlet is lovesick before Claudius sees the couple. If Polonius is wrong, it could be more than embarrassing.

When Polonius accosts Hamlet, Hamlet employs an even more sophisticated rhetorical technique than that Polonius had used on Claudius. Knowing that Polonius thinks he is mad, Hamlet tells Polonius the truth in metaphors that serve two purposes: (1) they sound like the non-sensical gibberish of a madman; (2) they lead Polonius to the false conclusion that Hamlet is love-sick. Hamlet calls Polonius 'a fish-monger' (2.2.174), implying that the old man is common and offends the senses. When Polonius denies he is a fishmonger, Hamlet wishes he 'were so honest a man' (2.2.176), demonstrating that Hamlet is well aware of Polonius' double-dealing politics. Hamlet's statement about the sun, maggots, and rotting flesh describes the splendour of the court that breeds evil and hides corruption. He warns that Ophelia 'may conceive', or understand, this wicked world, and, if Polonius would be a good father, he should 'look to't' (2.2.186), and protect her. Polonius compares what he thinks is Hamlet's state of mind to his own when he was young, and decides to continue to question the Prince. Hamlet tells Polonius that the book he is reading says that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, heir eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of fruit, together with most weak hams. (2.2.198-201)

Hamlet says he believes this is true and we know he is talking about Polonius and Claudius, old gray, bearded, wrinkled men that are probably impotent and may have legs too weak to make love. However, he tells Polonius that it is rude to say these things in print. Polonius has an inkling that Hamlet is too quick-witted to be insane, but cannot let go of his conviction that he is mad. He takes his leave of Hamlet to arrange the meeting with Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. We have seen the scheming and plotting of the old order, and now we are about to witness the deception by the new.

The three young men engage in a pseudo-intellectual conversation about Fortune, Denmark, and why the two friends are at Elsinore. It is vital that Hamlet ascertains whether he can trust them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern evade Hamlet's question by lying, not once, but three times. When Guildenstern confesses finally that they were sent for, Hamlet knows where he stands. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, are unaware they have given away their mission.[FN4] Hamlet tells the two men that man is the noblest of creatures, but not in Elsinore. Trying to do as the King and Queen have asked, 'to draw him on to pleasures' (2.2.15), they announce that a troupe of players have arrived, an event that excites Hamlet. He asks the first Player to recite a speech about Priam and Hecuba, a story from the ancients. Polonius is less than happy with the impromptu performance, but the Player has been moved to tears. Hamlet asks the Player if the company can do a play called The Murder of Gonzago, and if he can give them a speech of 12-16 lines to insert into the play. The First Player agrees, and everyone exits, except Hamlet.

He begins another soliloquy by cursing himself that he has more motivation for tears than the Player:

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her? (2.2.559-560)

Hamlet addresses the question that we may have been asking ourselves. What is he waiting for? He seemed on fire to revenge his father's death when he met the Ghost, but now enough time has passed for Cornelius and Voltemand to go to Norway and back, and for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to travel to the court. He has put the 'antic disposition' on long enough for the court to think he is mad indeed. Hamlet lets us know why he has delayed in this speech. He does not trust his senses. He is self-aware enough to know that the Ghost may have been a projection of his own 'weakness' and 'melancholy' (2.2.602), quite an understanding hundreds of years before Freud and psychoanalysis. Hamlet wants to be certain beyond any doubt that Claudius is guilty and that the Ghost was more than a figment of his imagination. To do this he will observe the King's reaction to the lines he will have inserted into the play since 'the play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King' (2.2.605-606). There is also the implication that Hamlet is not careless, that he has considered his options carefully, that he knows he is outnumbered at court by those who support Claudius. Perhaps too, Hamlet knows that the assassination of a duly elected, anointed king, while it may satisfy his need for revenge and the Ghost's mandate, may have devastating effect on Denmark, his home country which he has been raised to lead one day. This very long scene which began with the King and Queen bribing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet ends with Hamlet's plan to flush out the King. Is there more political intrigue to come?

Footnotes:

4. For as entertaining perspective on these two characters, see Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Act III Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2402

Scene i: As with almost all of Shakespeare's plays, Act Three presents us with the turning point where all the information we have been given in the first two acts leads us to the climax and resolution of the last two acts. We know that Polonius intends that he and Claudius will observe a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia which Polonius has arranged. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius and Gertrude that they have been unsuccessful in getting 'some confession/ Of his true state' (3.1.9-10). They relay Hamlet's invitation to the play and Claudius turns his attention to the Hamlet-Ophelia encounter.

Claudius and Polonius hide, and Hamlet begins the most famous soliloquy in Shakespeare, 'To be or not to be'. Hamlet debates with himself the value of continuing to live when there are such comforts in being dead. But we must all be aware that no one has come back from 'the undiscovered country' (3.1.80) to tell us there are indeed comforts in the next life. It is this uncertainty about the next life, the not knowing, and guilt about our present life that make us 'lose the name of action' (3.1.89). Hamlet knows that what he has planned could result in eternal damnation. It is this fear which compounds all his other fears about killing Claudius which makes him delay.

As planned, Hamlet meets Ophelia. He greets her coolly. When she says she has 'remembrances' (3.1.94) of his that she wants to give back to him, he denies they are his. Curiously, Shakespeare does not tell us what these remembrances are. They could be love letters, trinkets, dried flowers — anything one lover gives another. The point is that it does not matter what they are. Because Ophelia has decided to obey her father rather than be supportive and faithful to Hamlet, they have lost their meaning, and she tells him so. For Ophelia, however, their meaning has been lost because Hamlet has been 'unkind' (3.1.102).

Hamlet turns on her, realising what is really going on. He asks her if she is 'honest' and 'fair' (3.1.104, 106). Like her father, Ophelia fails to grasp his meaning. Hamlet tells her he loved her once, and she replies 'Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so' (3.1.117). Obviously there is a vast distance between them now that cannot be breached. Rather than 'I loved you too', Ophelia says that Hamlet made her believe he loved her which implies two things: (1) she may think he was only using her; (2) she is uncomfortable revealing her true feelings in front of the King and her father. Hamlet tells Ophelia that she should not have believed him because he was just trifling with her and that she should go to a convent and shut herself away from the world. He then asks abruptly, 'Where's your father?' (3.1.131. Ophelia lies, 'At home, my lord' (3.1.132).

Hamlet now knows what he has been dreading is true: the woman he loves is being manipulated by her father and by extension, the King. He also knows that they are being watched as they speak. He tells the watchers that women are two-faced, evil creatures and that all the lies have 'made me mad' (3.1.149). He leaves Ophelia, telling her to get out of Elsinore, to go to 'a nunnery' (3.1.152).

Ophelia is devastated. She lists all of Hamlet's qualities, but they are not those of a man with whom one is in love. They are a list of his qualifications for a future King. There is no mention of his tenderness or care as a lover, simply his princely accomplishments. Just as she cannot see Hamlet in terms of the man not the Prince, she cannot see beyond the façade of madness.

However, Claudius does see, and does not like what he sees. He has heard Hamlet's rage against marriage and senses 'some danger' (3.1.170). He resolves to send Hamlet to England and Polonius agrees with the decision. Polonius, however, subtly reminds the King about Gertrude, suggesting that after the play, she talk to her son while Polonius, once again hidden, eavesdrops.

Almost as an after-thought, Polonius asks Ophelia how she is, and turns back quickly to the King. Unfortunately, in addition to the trauma of being rejected and seeing 'madness' first hand, she has outlived her usefulness to her father. Perhaps most importantly, Claudius has become acutely aware that whether it is real or feigned, Hamlet's madness is a very real threat that must be dealt with.

Scene ii: In this scene, Shakespeare seems to take over Hamlet the character to offer us what may be his philosophy on directing a play, a device he had used earlier in his career in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hamlet carefully instructs the Players in their art, and if we did not realise it before, we know now that Hamlet is well-versed in theatre and theatre craft. This skill has obviously been of benefit to him during his difficult stay at Elsinore, where almost all the members of the court are involved in play-acting in the political arena Horatio, who has been missing from the play, is recruited by Hamlet to observe the King during the performance of the piece written by Hamlet. If Claudius shows no sign of guilt, then Hamlet will know that 'it is a damnèd ghost' (3.2.81), and that it was an illusion produced by his mind. After plying Ophelia with bawdy insults, The Murder of Gonzago begins.

First to be seen is a silent prologue (the 'dumb show') in which the Ghost's story is enacted, followed by two Players as a King and Queen who have been married for thirty years. The Player Queen remarks that her husband is 'sick of late' (3.2.161), and how very much she loves him. The Player King tells her that he will die soon, and, when he does, she will remarry. She swears she will not, that a second marriage is not for love, but for material gain. In addition, a second marriage would be tantamount to killing her first husband a second time. The Player King responds that once he is dead, she will feel differently. The Player Queen once again swears that she will be as good as dead when he is gone, and will never remarry. When Hamlet asks his mother how she likes the play, her reply is very ironic: 'The lady doth protest too much, methinks' (3.2.225). Hamlet assures Claudius that the play is called The Mousetrap, and is pure fiction. As the play proceeds, Claudius suddenly rises when the murderer pours the poison into the Player King's ear. Claudius bolts away. Hamlet's observation of guilt, confirmed by Horatio, is what he needed to believe what the Ghost said was true. In his excitement, he turns on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have been sent to bring him to Gertrude. They try once more to get Hamlet to confide in them, but he rejects their efforts and them. Polonius urges Hamlet to go to his mother, and Hamlet tells us once again that he is resolved to act. He must, however, take care not to vent his anger on his mother in accordance with the Ghost's directions.

Notably, Hamlet's 12-16 lines to be inserted are really 74 lines, thirty-seven rhyming couplets. They have not only served their purpose for Hamlet, but also have a rippling effect. Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia, as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are now convinced of his insanity and engaged with it on a fatal course. Claudius, on the other hand, has had his fears confirmed. Not only does Hamlet know Claudius killed Old King Hamlet, he knows how and why. Hamlet is now a dangerous enemy of the State and cannot be allowed to live if Claudius is to retain his crown. But Claudius cannot kill him outright because of his mother, and because he is a royal prince. Claudius must therefore resort to subterfuge and hope that his international political prowess will again be successful.

Scene iii: Claudius opens the scene with perhaps his only true statement about Hamlet 'I like him not' (3.3.1). He charges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet to England and gives them a 'commission' to take with them. While Guildenstern comments how difficult it is to live safely as the King, Rosencrantz goes further by saying that when a King dies, the death brings the fall of those lives close to the King. that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are worried about their reward is clearly implied by Rosencrantz's phrase, 'Each small annexment, petty consequence/ Attends the boisterous ruin' (3.3.21-22). It is important to note that at this point in the play, Hamlet has committed no act that would necessitate his being sent from court to another country.

As Polonius goes off to spy on Gertrude and Hamlet, Claudius has a moment of reflection. In Shakespeare, a soliloquy is used to give an audience the character's innermost thoughts and their true feelings. This soliloquy reveals Claudius to be indeed his brother's murderer, and looking to gain heavenly forgiveness without losing 'those effects for which I did the murder:/ My crown, my own ambition, and my queen' (3.3.54-55).

Interestingly Claudius aligns his priorities in their order of importance to him, and we notice that Gertrude comes last, not as a woman (wife), but as Queen. Claudius also uses the personal possessive pronoun 'my' instead of 'the', indicating his supreme ego-centricity. This is not a King of the people, but a king of his own wants and needs. Nevertheless, he makes a sincere attempt to assume the posture of a true penitent.

While he is praying, Hamlet comes in and sees the King in prayer. He begins to raise his sword to kill the King, but suddenly stops. Why does Hamlet not just do it and be done with it? Hamlet reasons that if he kills Claudius while he praying, Claudius' soul will go to heaven, remembering that one of the Ghost's chief complaints was that he was

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head (1.5.77-80).

It is here that we can see clearly that one of things that prevents Hamlet from acting is his sharp mind. A product of a royal, university education, he needs to reason out and think about his actions before he does anything. This thinking so carefully is incompatible with his desire for revenge, a desire that he also rationalises.
This is the only instance in Shakespeare where a soliloquy is imbedded in another soliloquy. Structurally, the positioning of Hamlet's speech places him alongside Claudius who is unable to repent his past actions as Hamlet is unable to act on past actions. We know, as Hamlet does not, that Claudius is trying to wheedle his way out of paying for his crimes. In this instance, Hamlet has lost a golden opportunity for revenge. In the next scene, however, Hamlet will act without thinking and the result will be tragic.

Scene iv: Polonius advise Gertrude to use 'tough love' on Hamlet and tell him she has protected him from 'much heat', presumably a reference to Claudius. Polonius then hides behind a tapestry hanging in the room known as an arras in order to hear their conversation.

The exchange between mother and son begins with a caustic tennis match of words. When Gertrude calls for help and Polonius echoes her cries, Hamlet blindly runs his sword through the arras, killing Polonius. Now he thinks that he has done it, but his rash behaviour results in the death of Claudius' Prime Minister not Claudius. What follows is most curious.

For the next 200 lines, Gertrude and Hamlet carry on a conversation they should have had in Act One while Polonius lies dead and bleeding on the floor. Hamlet confronts the Queen with two 'likenesses' of the brother Kings and accuses her openly of incest. She responds that Hamlet is not telling her anything that she does not already know. When Hamlet persists in his verbal attack, she thinks he has really gone mad. At this point, the Ghost appears and intercedes for his widow, telling Hamlet that the Ghost is only there 'to whet thy almost blunted purpose' (3.4.115).

Hamlet then assures his mother that he is not mad, but that the important issue is her sleeping with the King. Gertrude realises that her son is right. Hamlet suggest that practising abstinence one night at a time will eventually make it habit. He tells her that he repents murdering Polonius and warns her not to reveal to Claudius what has just passed between them. He also reminds her that he must go to England and he knows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have orders for him to be killed once they arrive. He assures her that he has the situation in hand and leaves, taking Polonius' body with him.

Unlike the previous scene in which Hamlet had been so carefully rational, in this scene Hamlet is rash and emotional, probably because the one person he trusts, his mother, seems to have become one of the enemy. Gertrude is Hamlet's link to his happy life before his father's murder, the keeper of their shared history and memories. All this came to an abrupt stop when Gertrude married Claudius. Hamlet must get his mother back on his side, since (1) she was a concern of the Ghost, and (2) because Claudius' reaction to the play has confirmed to Hamlet that Gertrude had no part in King Hamlet's death.

The fact that they choose to ignore the dead, bleeding minister for most of the scene reiterates that incest is a worse sin than murder. Furthermore, the murdered King's apparition at the same site as the murdered minister indicates that not only are they both dead, but that there is also a difference in their deaths. As Hamlet was not politically motivated, any alienation or antipathy that the audience would normally feel toward such an act is mitigated because Hamlet gains nothing. The off-handed, almost comical way the murder is handled is not meant to absolve Hamlet or minimise the death. Hamlet realises the impact this act will have: 'This man shall set me packing' (3.4.218). In a dramatic sense, however, Polonius' demise is a non-event when placed in the context of the play's focus on Hamlet's relationship with his father. Nonetheless, Hamlet will have to face and deal with the fallout from this deed.

Act IV Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1594

Scene i: This scene shows us how devious both Claudius and Gertrude can be at playing the political game. While feigning concern for both his wife and her wayward son, we can see that Claudius is really concerned about the 'whisper o'er the world's diameter' (4.1.41). Gertrude, on the other hand, assures the King that Hamlet killed Polonius in pure madness, bending the truth more than a little. Clearly this marriage is now beyond repair. And it may be that Claudius and Gertrude realise this. Claudius must now get his plan for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to get Hamlet to England going as quickly as possible. One of the keys to this small scene is in the language. Claudius begins and ends by addressing the Queen and referring to himself in the 'royal we'. Such language would normally be reserved for a public meeting, such as that in Act One, scene 2. However, there are only four people in this scene, Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And it is the presence of these two outsiders that keeps Claudius aware of public opinion on a royal crisis. Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet's schoolmates, they are also common people who cannot be trusted not to preserve any code of silence regarding what they have witnessed in the private corridors of power. Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, demonstrates that they are little men swept up in great affairs. Claudius is behaving here as the consummate politician who knows it is the little things that topple whole governments.

While Gertrude effects Hamlet's suggestions to her, Claudius falls back on the preservation of the monarchy at any and all costs. He is determined that Hamlet's supposed lack of control is not reflected on him.

Scene ii: In this scene, Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are simply acting on their employment by the King. Of course they do not understand the Prince and Hamlet leads them on a game of hide-and-seek. Only 32 lines, this scene is like a snapshot of the court: no one understanding actions taken, people hiding, bodies in closets (literally and figuratively), and a government trying to maintain control of public opinion. It is from such a world that Hamlet will escape. It is to such a world that he must return.

Scene iii: Claudius opens the scene by uncharacteristically admitting Hamlet's value, even to him: He's loved of the distracted multitude Who like not in their judgement, but their eyes, And where 'tis so, th'offenders scourge is weighed But never the offence (4.3.4-7). Claudius knows that if he is going to ride of Hamlet, then he is going to have to do it through carefully considered means, since Hamlet is the fair-haired darling of the masses, or a 'PR-star'. In their confrontation, Claudius and Hamlet face off as equals, each knowing what the other knows and thinks. Like Macbeth, Claudius is aware that he can only safely be king when Hamlet is out of the way. But he is reluctant to do the deed himself. By drawing on his alliance with England, he reminds us of his skills as an international politician seen in the settlement with Norway. He should be asking himself here if that situation was truly settled. The contrast of this area of power with the domestic crisis of which he has obviously lost control underlines Claudius' capacity for causing more mayhem both internally and externally to Denmark.

Scene iv: Having brought England to our attention, Shakespeare also reminds us that the original threat to Denmark was from Fortinbras of Norway. As Fortinbras asks for permission to pass through Denmark on his way to Poland, an action that should be questioned and could not come at a worse time, Hamlet and his escorts meet Fortinbras' Captain. The Captain explains that the Norwegian army is on its way to Poland 'to gain a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name' (4.4.19-20). This leaves Hamlet in a state of amazement. He wonders how men could be so motivated to fight for a cause with so little gain or value when he has 'a father killed, a mother stained/ Excitements of my reason and my blood' (4.4.58-59). He notes that when he looks around him, everything that he sees seems to make a mockery of his vow of revenge.

Once again, the Prince resolves to follow through on that vow. How he plans to do this is not very clear since he is leaving Denmark. Is he deceiving himself again or does he really mean it this time?(Jump to the text of Act IV, Scene iv)

Scene v: This scene is perhaps only comparable to Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene in its challenges to an actress. The long absent Ophelia has gone truly mad, in comparison to Hamlet's 'antic disposition'. Initially, Gertrude tells Horatio that she will not see the poor girl, perhaps because she realises that bending the truth to Claudius is one thing; Offering an excuse for her son to his grief stricken girlfriend is quite another matter. When Gertrude finally does see Ophelia, it is a heart-breaking sight. The girl is singing obscene songs, laced with what appear to be lucid observations on her murdered father, Hamlet, and the court. Her father's comment on the method to Hamlet's madness echoes throughout her ravings, but clearly an rational thought is purely accidental.

Once again, Claudius manipulates the event for his own purposes, deferring any wrong-doing from himself. He tells Gertrude that Polonius is 'her father' and Hamlet 'your son', 'he most violent author/ Of his own just remove' (4.5.'81-82). But we know why Ophelia was forced to end her relationship with Hamlet, and how devious Polonius almost caused his own death. Yet from Ophelia's point of view, she has lost the two male influences she had on her life, one who raised her and the other who would be her companion to old age. She is no longer a daughter or a candidate for the position of Queen of Denmark. She is unaware that her brother, Laertes, is heading home from France. Claudius, however, is aware, and we have learned from our previous dealings with the King that he has something up his sleeve.

Laertes crashes into Elsinore 'in a riotous head' (4.5.104) and with a mob that wants Laertes to 'be king' (4.5.111). Claudius rises to the threat. When Laertes demands Claudius to give him his father, Claudius asks why the young man brings rebellion into the palace. He also asks 'Tel me, Laertes/ Why thou art thus incensed' (4.5.129-130), stating the obvious and trying to bring Laertes to a better state of mind for talking. Claudius' first and foremost objective is to let Laertes vent some of his rage and then he can approach him.

In this scene, we see Claudius the politician in action. Once Laertes is calmer, Claudius can compliment him as 'a good child and a true gentleman' (4.5.153), for he knows he needs Laertes' co-operation and loyalty if he is to quash a rebellion and defeat Hamlet at the same time. Having admitted that Polonius is dead (another statement of the obvious) and that he was not responsible, Claudius can then ease the young man into the news about his sister.

Ophelia, suppliant as she has been from the beginning, enters and is in a fit of incoherence. Claudius seizes upon the opportunity. He offers Laertes the kingdom, the crown, his life, and all his possessions if Laertes is not satisfied with Claudius' explanation of why Polonius was killed and then not buried with the rituals due a man in his position.

We all know why and if we had not noticed it before, we now see how very careful Hamlet had to be against so adroit and dangerous a man.

Scene vi: With all the action at Elsinore, we would be justified in thinking, 'What's next?' Enter the messengers with letters. Horatio knows they are from Hamlet, but surprisingly, there are also letters from Hamlet to the King.

These letters serve several purposes. They notify Horatio (and us) that Hamlet is back in Denmark. We also learn that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are going on to England, but we have to wait to discover their fate. Hamlet has apparently thought things through (again). More to the point, the letters let Claudius' know that Hamlet is alive, and that the Hamlet problem remains unsolved. This will not be happy news to Claudius on top of Laertes' arrival and Ophelia's madness, not to mention his wife's not sleeping with him.

Scene vii: This scene continues on from 4.5 in which Claudius began his tour-de-force manipulation of Laertes. The King tells Laertes that Hamlet had sought to murder him as well as Polonius, but he took no action because of Gertrude and public opinion. A messenger interrupts to deliver the cryptic letter from Hamlet. As if to seal their new alliance, Claudius asks Laertes' advice (as if he really needs it!), and it is then that Claudius makes his move. He tells Laertes that news of his ability in fencing and arms has reached him, and flattered, Laertes accepts Claudius' suggestion that he duel Hamlet and kill him. A second interruption gives Claudius the final piece to his plan. Gertrude reports Ophelia's death by drowning. Laertes is now steeled in his resolve against Hamlet. Claudius patronisingly tells Gertrude how hard he had worked to calm Laertes down and that this latest blow will probably fire him up again. We almost want to kill Claudius ourselves.

Act V Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

Scene i: To give us a brief respite from a landslide of horrible events, Shakespeare now presents two gravediggers who debate whether or not Ophelia committed suicide. Treating a very serious point in this way allows us to digest the far-reaching effects that the events of all the previous acts of the play have shown us. In all, the scene gives us a summary of events through the eyes of the common person in Denmark, while bringing us up-to-date on Hamlet and Horatio. We are also given a brief window into Hamlet's childhood when the gravedigger shows him the skull of Yorick, the court jester. Through his thoughts, we now see a resolved Hamlet, one who has obviously had time to come to some conclusions about mortality and come to terms with his vow of revenge. However, the present arrives in the form of Ophelia's funeral cortege.

Gertrude has obviously thought better of the poor young woman: 'I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife' (5.1.244). After a fit of emotion which his mother explains as 'mere madness', Hamlet knows he is back in the corrupt world of the court. He asks the mourning Laertes, 'What is the reason you use me thus? (5.1.292). Hamlet will continue the pretence of madness if he means he can get at Claudius. Claudius, aware he is the company of those outside the court, tells Horatio to wait on Hamlet. After Horatio and Hamlet leave, Claudius boldly tells Laertes that they must push their plan and that he must maintain his strength in purpose against Hamlet. Although we know that the graveside of his just buried sister is not an appropriate place for these words, we also know that Claudius is not one to let an opportunity pass him by. But we must wait to see what will happen next.

Scene ii: Hamlet and Horatio are deep in conversation as Hamlet reveals what transpired on the voyage to England. He was very restless and distressed by all the villainy that surrounded him and was unsure how he would proceed. He went into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin, retrieved their commission from the King, and brought it back to his cabin to read. Although he had suspected foul play, he was shocked to learn that when they arrived in England, Claudius intended the English to chop off his head. He felt that since 'they had begun the play', he would finish it. He rewrote the commission so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be executed immediately on their arrival without time to even receive the last rites. Hamlet tells Horatio 'they are not near my conscience' (5.2.58). Calling Claudius 'this canker of our nature', Hamlet informs Horatio that although the English may arrive and inform Claudius of the deception, he still has time to get Claudius. He apologises for the grief he has caused Laertes since he sees that Laertes is trapped the same way he was by the King. The opportunity comes quickly.

A sycophant courtier named Osric delivers a message about the planned duel which Hamlet accepts. Before the duel begins, Hamlet publicly apologises to Laertes, who tells Hamlet that his nature accepts his apology but his honour must be satisfied. The duel begins.

Not only is the tip of Laertes' sword poisoned, but Claudius drops a poisoned pearl into a chalice of wine. Hamlet is the first to score a hit. When Gertrude takes the wine to toast Hamlet, Claudius says only 'Gertrude, do not drink' (5.2.293). He does nothing else to prevent her from drinking her death. As they square off again, :Laertes wounds Hamlet, and Hamlet stabs him fatally. The Queen falls, crying 'The drink, the drink! I am poisoned' (5.2.313). Hamlet, not realising what Claudius has done, demands the doors be locked, only to have the dying Laertes confess the whole plan: 'The King, the King's to blame' (5.2.324). Hamlet seizes the poisoned sword and stabs Claudius. When he says he is only hurt, Hamlet pours the poisoned wine down his throat, cursing him: Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane' (5.2.327). As Hamlet is dying, Horatio wants to die with him, but Hamlet tells him that Horatio must tell his story.

At this point, Fortinbras attacks Elsinore and takes control and the ambassadors arrive from England. Fortinbras accords Hamlet a princely burial and tells Horatio that he will depend on him to tell him what had happened that so many royals are dead at once.

It is a long journey from the royal convocation at the beginning of the play and the death scene at the end of the play. During that time, we have witnessed the growth of a man from an ineffectual royal prince to a dutiful son, loyal to his parents and the royal line. The people of Denmark must deal with a foreign invader on the throne, but this man must surely be better than the King who has just died. Hopefully, the days of the corrupt court are now over. But does history repeat itself? Or is it true as Hamlet says 'Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes?'

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Next

Sample Essay Outlines

Explore Study Guides