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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT V, SCENE II

Hamlet tells Horatio the story of his brief voyage with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For some reason he could not sleep on the ship and impulsively broke into their cabin and stole the papers the king had given them. What he found was a command to the English to cut his head off without delay. Painstakingly, Hamlet wrote out a new royal commission, urging the English to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without even allowing them time to confess and be absolved. He replaced Claudius' order with the false one, and put it in their luggage. The next day came the fight with the pirate ship, and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were sent to their death. Hamlet points out, perhaps a bit defensively, that they "did make love to this employment," and that it is their own fault for being small men meddling in affairs above their rank.

NOTE:

Hamlet's cruelty toward his two former friends has shocked many people, but would not have surprised an Elizabethan audience. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern allied themselves with the king when common sense and loyalty to a friend might (or perhaps should) have brought them to Hamlet's side. Hamlet may very well regret his action- he swears in the Recorder Scene that he still loves them- but there is no question that he, and his audience, saw his action as necessary, if painful.

Horatio is shocked by Claudius' deviousness. Hamlet recites a list of Claudius' crimes and asks Horatio if he does not agree that Hamlet is justified in avenging himself. Horatio warns that there will soon be a report from England on the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "The interim is mine," replies Hamlet, adding that in any case life is brief at best, lasting no longer than it takes to count "one." Changing the subject, he regrets having lost his temper with Laertes, and agrees to apologize to him.

A courtier named Osric now enters with a message from the king. Hamlet delays his delivering it by teasing him, as once he teased Polonius, making him agree first that it is cold, then that it is hot. Osric finally manages to convey that the king has six valuable horses, which he has wagered against six weapons imported from France that Hamlet can beat Laertes in a fencing match. Is Hamlet willing? Hamlet dryly responds that he will be walking in the hall; that if the king and Laertes choose to stop by, and the weapons are brought, he will do his best. Osric leaves, and Hamlet sardonically comments to Horatio that there are many like Osric about the court, who use elaborate stock phrases of which they hardly know the meaning, because they have "got the tune of the time" and the age dotes on them.


As if to point up the absurdity of Osric's speech, a well-spoken "Lord" arrives with two further messages for Hamlet: The king wants to know if he is ready immediately or needs more time; and the queen wants to make sure he apologizes to Laertes before the dueling starts. Hamlet is straightforward and dignified, answering that he is indeed ready, and that the queen is quite right.

NOTE:

The presence of this second lord demonstrates that Osric's appearance is not, as some have theorized, a sign that Claudius' court is "decadent" and overindulgent. More likely, Osric is an extreme example of the type of person Hamlet hates most- one who is false in speech and action. As Hamlet approaches his ultimate test, Fate has put in his path a cartoon figure who represents everything he despises. How out of place Hamlet seems in a court filled with such trivial and shallow people.

Horatio tells Hamlet that he will lose the match, but Hamlet doesn't think so- he has been practicing since Laertes went to France. Hamlet admits deep misgivings but passes them off as worries that "would perhaps trouble a woman." Horatio offers to delay the match by telling the king Hamlet is not ready, but Hamlet refuses. Everything, he says in one of the plays most beautiful and most often quoted speeches, is in the hands of providence, even (citing the Gospel of Matthew) the fall of a sparrow. In a thought that reminds us of his "To be, or not to be" speech, Hamlet adds that no man can know what he leaves behind on earth, so the leaving itself, in a sense, cannot matter.

NOTE:

Here at last you see Hamlet in a state of peace and readiness, accepting his fate. His own philosophy has merged with the gravedigger's, and he can now accept the world on its own terms, whatever it offers him. It is in this scene, when he accepts his destiny, that Hamlet actually becomes what is called a tragic hero, confronting openly and in full readiness both the evil in the world and the flaws in himself that make him mortal.

Trumpets and drums announce the arrival of the entire court, with attendants bringing a table on which the weapons for the match- daggers and the long, narrow fencing swords called foils- are laid out. The king ceremoniously makes Hamlet and Laertes shake hands, and Hamlet makes a public, gentlemanly, and sincere apology to Laertes. He calls his madness his enemy, and explains that if he has injured Laertes while mad, he himself is on the injured party's side. Laertes replies evasively that he is "satisfied in nature," but that his honor demands he follow precedent by fighting the duel. He promises, hypocritically, not to wrong Hamlet's offered love. "Give us the foils," calls Hamlet, and cheerfully starts making witticisms about how he will be Laertes' foil, since the other man's skill is greater than his own. "You mock me, sir," says the suspicious Laertes, but Hamlet swears his sincerity.

 

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