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William Shakespeare



The king orders Osric to bring the foils, and the two men test and choose them. Hamlet warns the king that he is betting on the wrong man, but the king denies it. Claudius orders cups of wine to be set out, promising that if Hamlet scores the first or second hit, the cannon will fire a salute and a toast will be drunk. The king offers to toss in Hamlet's cup a jewel richer than any in the Danish crown. Toasting to Hamlet's health, he orders the match to begin.

Hamlet scores the first hit. Laertes wants to resume immediately but the king insists on having the promised drink. The cannon sounds (we now see the custom Hamlet spoke of with distaste in the first act), and the king drops the jewel (a "pearl" containing poison) in the cup, and offers it to Hamlet. "I'll play this bout first," says Hamlet, and they fight again. Hamlet scores another hit, which Laertes concedes. "Our son shall win," the king remarks jovially, as if that was what he wanted, and the queen, noticing that Hamlet is sweating and out of breath, gives him her handkerchief to wipe his forehead. Picking up the poisoned cup, she announces, "The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet." "Gertrude, do not drink," the king exclaims, but she insists, ambiguously, "I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me." (Is God or Fate punishing her for her incestuous marriage? Does she take the drink, knowing it to be poisoned, to atone for her sin?) Laertes whispers to the distraught king that he will hit Hamlet this time, and the king curtly replies, "I do not think't."

In an aside Laertes confides to the audience that wounding Hamlet "is almost against my conscience"; he is beginning to feel remorse for joining the king's plot. Hamlet challenges him to fight again, accusing Laertes of holding back. They fight to a standstill, with neither scoring; then suddenly, breaking the rules, Laertes rushes at Hamlet and stabs him with the poisoned sword. Hamlet fights back, and in the scuffle the swords get switched. The king calls for someone to stop them, but it is too late, and Hamlet wounds Laertes.


It is unclear from the stage directions exactly how this is supposed to happen, but a double disarming with an exchange of weapons was a standard maneuver in fencing at that time.

The moment the king has dreaded has arrived. The queen, on whom the poisoned wine has finally taken effect, swoons. Laertes says that, like a game bird in its own trap, "I am justly killed with mine own treachery." Hamlet, ignoring his own wound, asks about the queen, and the king, still hoping to lie his way out of the tangle, says, "She swoons to see them bleed." But the queen, at last realizing her husband's villainy, shrieks out with her dying breath that the drink has poisoned her.

"O villainy! Ho! Let the door be locked. Treachery!" shouts Hamlet, giving orders as if at last he is king. His cry stimulates the dying Laertes to a full confession. He tells Hamlet that he has only half an hour to live, that the poisoned weapon is in his own hand, and that "the King's to blame." "Then, venom, to thy work," exclaims Hamlet, wounding the hated Claudius and at last accomplishing his appointed task.

The king, conniving to the end, calls his courtiers to his defense, saying, "I am but hurt," but Hamlet, accusing him of his crimes to his face ("incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane"), forces him to drink the rest of the wine. The king dies, and Laertes, begging Hamlet's forgiveness, points out the justice of it, since Claudius himself made the poison. Forgiving Hamlet for his own and Polonius' death, Laertes dies.

As Hamlet himself dies, he tries to explain what has happened to the assembled court; but he gives up under the effect of the poison, and pleads instead with Horatio to "report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied." Horatio, declaring himself "more an antique Roman than a Dane," tries to drain the dregs from the poisoned cup, but Hamlet wrenches it out of his hands and begs his friend to restore the "wounded name" he would leave behind if there were no one alive to tell his story. "Absent thee from felicity awhile," Hamlet pleads, showing that he now equates death with happiness.

Suddenly shots and the noise of an army are heard outside. Osric explains that it is Fortinbras' troops returning triumphantly from Poland, saluting the newly arrived ambassadors from England. The poison has now nearly overcome Hamlet; he has only enough strength left to propose Fortinbras as the next king of Denmark. He begins asking Horatio to explain to Fortinbras what has happened, but breaks off a sentence he will not live to complete. He exclaims, "The rest is silence," and dies. "Now cracks a noble heart," Horatio declares (recalling Ophelia's "what a noble mind is here o'erthrown"), and speaks a gentle epitaph for Hamlet:

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to they rest!

(lines 385-86)

A drum announces the simultaneous entrance of Fortinbras and the ambassadors from England, all horrified at the sight of the carnage. Death, says Fortinbras, must be having a banquet to take so many princes at one time. An ambassador, announcing with naive pride that the king's orders have been carried out and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead," wonders who will thank him for the news. Horatio remarks that Claudius, who never ordered their death, would have been the last to thank him. Asking the others to put the bodies on ceremonial display, Horatio promises to explain the whole story truthfully,

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts;
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause.

(lines 411-13)

Despite his sorrow and his eagerness to hear the story, Fortinbras loses no time in pointing out his "rights of memory" to this kingdom. Horatio wants to speak of that too, but later- for now, they must make a public proclamation before rumors run wild and there are more upheavals. Fortinbras orders his men to bear Hamlet "like a soldier" and to have the cannon fire in honor of his memory. If Hamlet had been crowned king, says Fortinbras, he was likely "to have proved most royally." As the men bear the dead bodies away, Fortinbras describes the sight as more suited to a battlefield than a court. The play ends with a funeral march and cannon shots in the distance.



[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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