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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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Hamlet tells Horatio about his experiences on the ship when he was being sent to England. During his first night at sea, Hamlet discovered the King's secret orders for him in the pockets of the sleeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He drafted a new letter, a fake one, directing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed instead of Hamlet; he puts the new letter in the place of the old one.

The next day pirates attacked their ship, and only Hamlet was taken captive. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continued their journey toward England, oblivious to the certain death awaiting them as a result of the switched letter. As with Polonius' death, Hamlet feels the two men deserve their fate since they meddled in affairs that did not concern them. Horatio is horrified by the magnitude of Claudius' villainy and the suffering Hamlet has undergone; he is especially amazed at the King's letter, which Hamlet produces for Horatio to read. After reading the letter, Horatio says that the Prince has been wronged and should have the right to kill Claudius for murdering Hamlet's father, debauching his mother, depriving Hamlet of his rightful throne, and plotting to kill him.

At this point Osric, a foppish courtier, enters with a message from the King that Laertes has returned to court and has become very popular. Osric seeks to arouse Hamlet's jealousy by praising Laertes; however, Hamlet turns the table on him and instead admits that Laertes does indeed possess many fine traits. Osric is confounded but finally manages to convey his message. He tells Hamlet that the King has laid a wager that in a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, the latter cannot win. Hamlet accepts this challenge, indifferent whether he wins or loses. On hearing the news, Horatio expresses his concern for Hamlet's safety. Hamlet assures him that he has been practicing fencing since Laertes left for France. Although Hamlet concedes an uneasy feeling, he dismisses it as trivial. Horatio urges his friend to follow his instincts and postpone the match; in the end, however, Hamlet is determined to participate.

The King, Queen, Laertes, Osric, and other lords and attendants enter the hall with foils. Before the match, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for his gross behavior at Ophelia's funeral. He admits that he has wronged Laertes and states that he has been extremely distracted. Laertes replies with reservation; while he does not hold any personal grudges against Hamlet, they cannot be completely reconciled until he consults some elders who are more knowledgeable and experienced in the rules of honor. Hamlet is quite eager to proceed with the duel and asks for the foils.

Hamlet scores the first hit, and Claudius orders the firing of cannon and the sounding of trumpets. He urges Hamlet to drink his wine and claim the pearl (poison) the King has dropped in his glass. Hamlet refuses, eager to win the match. He scores again, and his mother offers him her napkin to wipe his forehead. Entirely by accident, she drinks from her son's poisoned cup of wine. She then offers the wine to Hamlet, who again refuses.

In the meantime, Laertes assures the King that he will strike Hamlet. The King, however, expresses his doubts, and in an aside, Laertes reveals his guilty conscience. The match resumes and Laertes wounds Hamlet. Shocked to find the sword uncovered, Hamlet is enraged and lunges for Laertes. In a fierce scuffle, Hamlet wounds Laertes. Both the contestants bleed, and the King orders them separated. The poison the Queen has drunk takes effect, and she swoons. Laertes cries out that he has been justly served and has been killed by his own treachery. The wounded Hamlet cries out in concern for his mother, but Claudius continues to lie, saying she has only fainted at the sight of the blood. The dying Queen cries out that the drink has poisoned her. Hamlet is incensed and orders the doors to be locked so that the villainous traitor can be caught. At this point, Laertes confesses; he tells Hamlet that he has stabbed him with a poisoned foil, and his death is imminent. Laertes claims, "The King, the King's to blame." Hamlet turns on the King and stabs him with the poisoned foil, exclaiming, "Then, venom, to thy work." Hamlet also forces Claudius to drink from the poisoned cup of wine and denounces him as the "incestuous, murderous, damn'd Dane." Claudius falls and dies.

Before dying, Laertes expresses his satisfaction at Claudius' death and says that the King has died as a result of his own treachery. He also asks Hamlet's forgiveness and tells him that the deaths of Polonius, of Hamlet, and of himself, are all to be blamed on Claudius. Hamlet hopes that divine mercy will pardon Laertes and says that he himself will shortly follow Laertes in death. Hamlet then turns with pity to look upon the dead body of the "wretched queen," his mother. He entrusts Horatio to "report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied." Distraught by all that has happened, Horatio wishes to die and insists on drinking the poisoned wine. Hamlet stops him and tells him it is his responsibility to tell his story to the Danish citizens. In the distance, the sound of marching soldiers is heard; Osric announces that Fortinbras, who has returned from his Polish conquest, has fired a cannon in honor of the ambassadors returning from England. Before dying, Hamlet pronounces Fortinbras the successor to the Danish throne. Hamlet dies in the arms of his loyal friend Horatio, who tearfully bids him farewell with the immortal lines, "Good-night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

Fortinbras enters this tragic scene along with the English ambassadors and his soldiers. He is shocked by the bloody spectacle that greets him. The English ambassadors, who have come for their reward for killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, realize that they have come too late. Horatio wryly explains the sequence of events that have led to this tragedy. He further says it is his duty to narrate the miserable deeds including adultery, murder, treacheries, and plotting, that have brought them all here. Fortinbras agrees that the violence and disharmony needs to end. His first order is to have his four captains carry Hamlet's body to a full military funeral.


This climactic scene of tragedy ends with the deaths of all the major characters, leaving Horatio as a stunned and horrified witness. The scene begins with transitional exposition: Hamlet explains for the benefit of the audience how he escaped Claudius' first devious trap. The explanation is necessary for Horatio's benefit; the horrible revelations Hamlet makes give Horatio the insight and compassion for the Prince necessary to tell his story fairly and without judgement. Were it not for this explanation, Horatio himself might wrongly sit in judgement of Hamlet and believe the Prince had truly gone mad. As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet accepts the necessity of sending them to their death simply because they have betrayed him and have come "between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites." The calculated destruction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is inevitable and essential to the dramatic balance of the play.

The moment toward which the entire plot has headed is the death of Claudius, but Hamlet has repeatedly procrastinated about killing him. In this scene, it is obvious that the Prince is in full possession of the ability and the justification to kill the King. . In fact, he lists his reasons like elements of a scientific formula: Claudius' murder, Gertrude's lost virtue, Hamlet's loss of the throne, and his own attempted murder at the hands of his old friends. After his return from England, Hamlet has become more determined, resigning himself to fate. There is no longer a way of escaping the revenge he has dreaded and longed for all along. He is ready to act when an opportune moment presents itself to him. Soon Osric arrives with Claudius' message about the duel, throwing the plot into full gear. The fencing match gives Hamlet the opportunity to finally succeed in his mission, even though he dies in the process.

When Claudius enters with the Queen, Laertes, and his retinue of courtiers, Hamlet takes Laertes' hand in an effort to make peace with him. He blames his "antic disposition" for his strange behavior at the graveyard and admits that he has wronged Laertes. He extends a gentleman's apology in saying, "Free me so far in your most generous thoughts / That I have shot my arrow o'er the house / And hurt my brother." This apology to Laertes reveals Hamlet's generous and noble nature; it also reveals him to be "free from all contriving." With formalities out of the way, the duel begins, and Hamlet scores the first two hits. When Claudius offers Hamlet the poisoned drink, he refuses it and expresses his eagerness to finish the duel, returning to the match with an intense flurry of action; it seems Hamlet has begun to understand that he is caught in a treacherous plot. Laertes soon strikes his opponent with his open sword. Hamlet, horrified to learn he has been tricked, stabs Laertes with the open foil, and both men bleed.

Gertrude's accidental drinking of the poison compounds the plot. When she swoons from its effects, Claudius, in typical fashion, lies in an effort to protect himself; he claims that his wife has simply fainted at the sight of blood. Hamlet, however, now fully comprehends what has transpired and calls out for the door to be locked so that the villain can be caught. Determined to establish Claudius' involvement in all of the corruption,

Hamlet pursues a swift, rational approach; he has come a long way from the blindly impulsive stabbing of Polonius. Laertes, who is suffering from the pangs of conscience, tells everyone about Claudius' plot. He also tells Hamlet that the tip of his foil has been poisoned so that both he and the Prince will soon die. Knowing that his end is near, Hamlet works rapidly to gain his revenge and make things right for Denmark.

Hamlet finally understands the enormity of Claudius' treachery when he sees his mother dead on the floor. Seized with his desire for revenge, he stabs Claudius with the poisoned foil and forces him to drink from the poisoned cup. Before dying, Laertes declares that Claudius "is justly serv'd" in being stabbed by Hamlet. Laertes, like Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, is "justly killed by his own treachery," mortally wounded by the same foil he prepared for Hamlet.

Laertes' confession has totally absolved Hamlet from any blame; all of his actions are the natural responses of a son to a father's murder. The dying prince stops Horatio from committing suicide and begs his friend to report his "cause aright" to the people. Hamlet wants the Danes to know that his killing of Claudius was not an act of personal vengeance, but one of noble justice. He entrusts Horatio, an eyewitness to the whole tragedy, with the responsibility of repeating the tragic tale to the people.

Before he dies, Hamlet passes the throne of Denmark on to young Fortinbras. The first official act of the new King is to accord Hamlet an appropriate funeral. Fortinbras' eulogy of Hamlet is an honest evaluation of the young Prince, and the military funeral is a dramatic way in which to close the tragedy. The note ends on a positive note, for it seems King Fortinbras will again bring order to the state of Denmark.

Structurally, Act V, Scene 2 is the counterpart of Act I, Scene 2. In both, the entire court is assembled, and the same main characters are present. In the Act I scene, Claudius is concerned about Fortinbras and Hamlet, both threats to his power.

In Act V, Claudius is still worried about his power and manipulates Laertes against Hamlet; at last, however, he is destroyed by his own duplicity. Appropriately, Fortinbras, who has been feared for potentially creating havoc in Denmark, arrives at the end of the play to save Denmark by imposing some kind of order out of the chaos.

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