Act IV, Scene v

Synopsis of Hamlet Act IV scene v

Ophelia giving flowers to Claudius and GertrudeOphelia has gone mad after her father's death at the hands of the man she had loved. She comes in singing songs which, though they may seem mad, reflect her sorrows, just as do the flowers she gives out to Gertrude and Claudius.

When she leaves, Claudius tells Gertrude that he is anxious about the reaction of Laertes, Ophelia's brother, who has returned from France and is supported by the people.

Laertes then bursts in, demanding vengeance for the murder of his father. Claudius insists that he is not responsible. Ophelia comes in, and Laertes finds her madness heartbreaking. He is still suspicious — why was his father given a secretive funeral?

Claudius promises to help Laertes to avenge his father and sister.

Commentary on Hamlet Act IV scene v

Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark? — Ophelia's line is intriguingly ambiguous. She could be asking:
•    where Gertrude is
•    or Claudius
•    or Old Hamlet
•    or the purity of the state as a whole before Old Hamlet's murder.
Many of her lines have this ‘sense in madness' which Polonius noted in Hamlet in Act II scene ii: ‘How pregnant sometimes his replies are!'

More on Ophelia's madness: The parallel between Ophelia's madness and Hamlet's (whether real or feigned) is an interesting part of the structure of the play (see Structure).

Her fair judgement, / Without the which we are … mere beasts — another reference to the special place of reasoning humans on the chain of being, between animals and angels.

Buzzers to infect his ear — rumour is seen as a poison poured in the ear.

How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with. To hell, allegiance, vows to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! — Laertes is a parallel to Hamlet in that he vows revenge for the death of his father, but, unlike Hamlet, he will let nothing stand in his way.

More on the desire for revenge: Hamlet has become more and more aware of the paradox of seeking revenge in a universe governed by a judging and forgiving God. Laertes dismisses conscience and the grace of God if they stand in his way.

By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight, /Till our scale turn the beam — Laertes wants proportionate vengeance — the Old Testament view of ‘an eye for an eye' (Exodus 21:23-27).

More on other attitudes to vengeance: In several of his plays, especially The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare reminds us of the New Testament gospel view of Christ — ‘Judge not that ye be not judged' (Matthew 7:1).

Investigating Hamlet Act IV scene v

  • Look at the language of Laertes' speeches throughout this scene:
    • how does Shakespeare suggest his passionate violence?
  • Consider the various ways in which, through Laertes and Ophelia, Shakespeare has introduced parallels to Hamlet's situation.

How do these parallels add to and enrich the play? (See also Structure).

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