ACT IV, SCENE VII
Meanwhile the king has told Laertes his version of the murder of Polonius. Why then didn't the king
take action against Hamlet? Claudius gives two reasons: First, because the queen dotes on him, and she is
"conjunctive to my life and soul" (he describes this condition, evasively, as "my virtue or
my plague"); second, because the general public dotes on Hamlet so that attacks on him are turned
against the attacker. The persistent Laertes vows revenge. The king is about to reveal his own plot against
Hamlet when a messenger arrives with Hamlet's letters. Claudius reads aloud Hamlet's terse note, which
says simply that he is back in Denmark "naked," and that he will explain everything when he
sees Claudius tomorrow. The king is utterly puzzled by this, but Laertes is delighted, because he sees his
revenge taking shape. The king proposes a scheme by which Laertes can kill Hamlet and have it look like
an accident: A French gentleman who recently visited the Danish court has praised Laertes' skill at
swordsmanship, which made Hamlet envious. The king will arrange a challenge match between the two,
with buttoned foils (that is, fencing weapons with their points covered), and will arrange for Laertes to
choose one with an exposed point, with which he will stab Hamlet. Laertes goes further: he will dip the
point in a poison so deadly that Hamlet will die from the slightest scratch. For safety's sake the king has
an alternate plan- if Laertes does not wound Hamlet, he will prepare a poisoned cup for the prince and
propose a toast.
Their plotting is interrupted by a commotion outside. The queen comes in with terrible news: Ophelia
has drowned while hanging garlands of wildflowers on the branches of a willow tree overlooking a nearby
brook. A branch broke, and the mad girl allowed herself to be carried away by the current, floating and
singing snatches of old songs till the weight of her wet clothing finally dragged her down "To
muddy death." Laertes cannot control himself and staggers out, overcome with weeping. The king
hurries after him, afraid that this unexpected turn of events will start Laertes raging again.
This scene lets you look at the character of Laertes close up in a
variety of situations. First he is calm, listening objectively to the
king's explanation; then, with the arrival of Hamlet's letter, he becomes
angry again; next he allows himself to be cowed and flattered by the king;
and finally, when the queen arrives with the news of Ophelia's drowning,
he reveals a real tenderness beneath all his cruelty and bravado. Like
Hamlet, he is tender and loving but driven to rage by forces beyond his
control. Seeing all these aspects of him helps you think of him as a worthy
opponent for Hamlet, whom you now know he will be fighting in the play's
fifth and final act.
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