Discussion Topic

The significance and implications of Claudius's statement "And where the offence is let the great axe fall" within the context of Hamlet

Summary:

Claudius's statement, "And where the offence is let the great axe fall," signifies his attempt to appear just and authoritative. Within the context of Hamlet, it reveals his duplicity, as he seeks to punish others for crimes while concealing his own guilt in the murder of King Hamlet. This line underscores the themes of deceit and retribution in the play.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Hamlet, how does the quote "And where the offence is let the great axe fall" in Act 4, Scene 5 develop theme, plot, and conflict?

Claudius utters these lines in response to Laertes' absolutely justified anger at both his father's death as well as the way it seems to have been hushed up by the Danish court, implying that something about the death is suspect.  In addition to wanting to know who is responsible for the death, his father, Polonius, Laertes believes, was not afforded the respect, in terms of his funeral service, that he deserves.  Thus, the line helps to develop plot because it foreshadows the events to come: Claudius will seem to help Laertes avenge his father's death out of his own sense of justice (which we know is not why he will help -- he will do so because he wants to get rid of Hamlet, and, in this way, the line helps to develop the conflict between the two of them as well). 

Further, the line helps to develop the themes of revenge and justice, too.  Both Hamlet and Claudius are guilty of grave offenses now, and this line speaks to the need for justice for them both if the court of Denmark is to be restored to a time before "something rotten" began to eat away at its heart.  It cannot be healthy unless and until justice is brought to bear on them both, as well as everyone else who has contributed to the rot (i.e. Gertrude and Laertes, eventually). 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Hamlet, how does the quote "And where the offence is let the great axe fall" in Act 4, Scene 5 develop theme, plot, and conflict?

Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father, ascended the throne and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Hamlet suspects Claudius and is urged by his dead father’s ghost to avenge him. The ghost singles out Claudius as the murderer. Hamlet feigns madness as part of his scheme to avenge his father but instead kills Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia’s father. The death of Polonius was an accident since Hamlet meant to kill Claudius. The phrase “And where the offence is let the great axe fall” develops the plot and shows conflict between the characters, because Claudius knows Hamlet wants to kill him, but he also knows that Hamlet killed Polonius and to save his own life he would rather allow Laertes to avenge his father by killing Hamlet. This does not happen and instead Hamlet kills Claudius and takes revenge for both his father and mother. In the end the “Great axe falls” on both Claudius and Hamlet (who in essence is killed by Claudius through Laertes) and the phrase supports the theme of revenge that is dominant throughout the play.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Hamlet, how does the quote "And where the offence is let the great axe fall" in Act 4, Scene 5 develop theme, plot, and conflict?

In this scene (Act IV, Scene v), Laertes demands to know who is responsible for his father's, Polonius', death. By this time, Ophelia is completely mad as a result of her despair from her father's death and Hamlet's mistreatment of her. Unlike Hamlet who delays, Laertes rushes in ready to take revenge on Claudius. But, ever the manipulator, Claudius convinces Laertes that he is not responsible for Polonius' death. Laertes agrees to be patient and see how things play out, but he plans to at least find out why Polonius was buried so quickly and without proper ritual. Claudius acknowledges what Laertes plans to do and notes that "the great axe" will fall on the one who is responsible for the death of Polonius. 

This foreshadows the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. It is also ironic that Claudius speaks these lines because the axe or sword will eventually fall on himself for his own offence of killing the king. In a larger perspective, Hamletis about the state of Denmark, which is initially "rotten," in the political and spiritual sense. If those who've committed offences are met with justice, perhaps Denmark will return to a peaceful, ordered state. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does Claudius mean by “And where the offence is let the great axe fall” in Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5?

In act 4, scene 5 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes has returned from France after the death of his father, Polonius. Laertes forces his way into a room in Elsinore Castle where he angrily confronts King Claudius and demands to know how Polonius died.

LAERTES. How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with:
To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds, I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most throughly for my father. (4.5.140–146)

Although Claudius knows quite well that Hamlet killed Polonius while Polonius was eavesdropping on Hamlet's conversation with his mother, Gertrude, Claudius doesn't immediately respond to Laertes's question.

Instead, Claudius sees an opportunity to ingratiate himself to Laertes, and perhaps to persuade Laertes to join him in a plot to kill Hamlet which would satisfy Laertes's need to avenge his father's death and at the same time rid Claudius of Hamlet's potential threat against Claudius's throne and his life.

However, before Claudius can discuss his plan with Laertes, Ophelia interrupts their conversation. Rather than interfering with Claudius's plan, however, the sight of Ophelia's madness serves to strengthen Laertes's resolve to avenge his father's death.

LAERTES. Let this be so.
His [Polonius's] means of death, his obscure burial—
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones,
No noble rite nor formal ostentation,
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call't in question. (4.5.224–229)

"So you shall," says Claudius, and then he utters this fateful, ironic, and prophetic line:

CLAUDIUS. And where the offence is let the great axe fall. (4.5.231)

By that line Claudius means to say that the offender is Hamlet, that the "great axe" will fall on Hamlet, and Laertes's desire to avenge his father's death will be fulfilled.

The irony of Claudius's line is that, as Laertes says as he lies dying near the end of the play, "The King, the King's to blame" (5.2.328).

Claudius isn't to blame for Polonius's death or Ophelia's madness and death, which prompted Laertes to take revenge against Hamlet, but Claudius is at least partially to blame for every other death in the play: Hamlet, who is killed through Claudius's plot with Laertes; Gertrude, who is poisoned with wine intended for Hamlet; Laertes, who is a victim of the same plot that kills Hamlet; and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are killed as a result Claudius's plot to have the King of England execute Hamlet.

Above all, Claudius is responsible for the death of Hamlet's father, whose murder sets in motion the events that lead to the deaths of all of these characters in the play, and which leads to the death of Claudius himself.

HAMLET. Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.

[King dies.]

LAERTES. He is justly served. (5.2.332–335)

Indeed, he is.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on