Scene 5.2 - Within the Castle
Hamlet and Horatio converse. Hamlet is growing ever more philosophical with his friend, remarking here that "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will." That is, he believes there is a higher power in control of his situation, despite the many blunders he has made. Hamlet then recounts to Horatio the story of his escape from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and how he discovered Claudius' letter calling for his own instant execution. Never short on brilliant ideas, Hamlet rewrites the letter - just happening to have the royal seal along for the journey! - and substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's names for his own. Hamlet doesn't yet know their fate, of course, because he managed to flee before their ship reached England, but he trusts they will soon be executed - and he feels no remorse whatsoever.
Next summarizing the crimes committed against him by Claudius, Hamlet famously declares: "He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother, / Popped in between th' election and my hopes, / Thrown out his angle for my proper life, / And with such cozenage - is't not perfect conscience / To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?" Claudius has killed Hamlet's father and "whored" his mother because, given that Claudius was formerly Gertrude's brother-in-law, their marriage was viewed as incestuous in Elizabethan times. But that is only the beginning of his evil: Claudius has also come between Hamlet and the throne, for the Danish monarchy was not hereditary but by popular election, and Hamlet would most likely have won. Finally, Claudius has sought to rid himself of Hamlet by arranging for a discrete execution in England. Not to do something drastic now, Hamlet reasons - not to rescue himself and his country from this ruthless tyrant - would be cause for damnation. His thoughts have come full-circle: Hamlet no longer fears damnation for obeying a counterfeit ghost or for committing suicide, but rather for not ridding Denmark of Claudius. Horatio reminds Hamlet that he must act swiftly lest news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's execution reach Claudius' ears first.
A messenger named Osric enters, interrupting the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio. Hamlet plays with the sycophantic servant as he did on occasion with Polonius, getting him to agree, for instance, that it is incredibly cold and - moments later - burning hot. Osric has come to announce a wager between the King and Laertes that involves a friendly fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, with the odds slightly in Hamlet's favor (Laertes is reputedly the better fencer). Hamlet agrees to the match, but only after toying at great length with Osric's mind. Horatio, once he is alone with Hamlet, declares pointblank that Hamlet will lose. Hamlet disagrees, but says that even if he loses it is only for fun and doesn't matter. Disregarding Horatio's caution, Hamlet embraces the quasi-duel because he does not fear his fate; he knows it is inescapable and he trusts that his life is ultimately in higher hands: "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (quoting the Gospel of Matthew).
The King and Queen, accompanied by Laertes and various attendants, enter amidst the sound of trumpets and drums. Hamlet, at Claudius' prompting, takes Laertes' hand and proceeds to apologize for the wrong (i.e. killing Polonius, rebuking Ophelia) he has done to Laertes. Hamlet, however, claims that it was not he who did these things but rather his madness; he is merely maintaining his "antic disposition" here, writing off his unacceptable behavior as insanity. Laertes pretends to accept Hamlet's apology, though we know he is just biding his time until he can kill Hamlet. The fencing begins.
Though the underdog, Hamlet manages to land the first two hits. Claudius urges him to pause for a drink - one laced with poison, of course - but Hamlet declines, saying he is not yet tired or thirsty. Gertrude instead lifts the goblet and drinks to Hamlet's health and good fortune; Claudius attempts to stop her, but without success. During the third pass Laertes strikes Hamlet, wounding him with the lethal tip. They scuffle - Hamlet immediately senses something is seriously wrong - and they emerge from the melee with each other's weapon. Losing no time, Hamlet stabs Laertes, though he as yet doesn't know the tip is poisonous. Gertrude collapses. Claudius tries to explain that she has fainted on account of the bloodshed, but the dying Gertrude manages to blame the drink (and thus Claudius) moments before her end. Laertes is the next to collapse. Before Laertes' life is extinguished, he explains to Hamlet the treachery he and Claudius have plotted. He justly accuses Claudius of Gertrude's death, instantly prompting Hamlet to stab the King with the venomous point. The many bystanders shout "Treason, treason!" but nobody dares come to Claudius' defense. Hamlet forces the King to drink off the poisonous potion with which his mother was murdered. Claudius is the next to die. Laertes, on the brink of death, exchanges forgiveness with Hamlet; Laertes dies.
Aware his time is running out, Hamlet requests that Horatio be the one to tell Hamlet's story, since the world doesn't yet know of the rottenness which had been plaguing Denmark. Horatio - saying he is more "antique Roman than a Dane" - wants desperately to commit suicide, for in Roman times suicide was considered honorable rather than damnable in such situations. Hamlet, however, convinces Horatio that his duty is to live and save Hamlet's (and his family's) name from disrepute. Hamlet breathes his last, but not before giving his support to Fortinbras as next king of Denmark. Meanwhile the ambassadors from England and Fortinbras, back from the Polish campaign, enter simultaneously. The ambassadors announce that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" - incidentally a famous line which British playwright Tom Stoppard borrowed, creating a brilliant drama by that name. Seeing that the King is dead, the ambassadors bemoan the lack of thanks and reward for successfully completing their mission. Horatio informs them that the King, in fact, never ordered their death, though he doesn't disclose Hamlet as author of it. Then Horatio promises to speak "Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / And in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fallen on th' inventors' heads." Fortinbras is the last to speak, putting in a claim to the throne (which Horatio supports) and then directing the noble Hamlet's display and burial. The curtain falls.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7