Act IV, Scene vii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act IV scene vii

Claudius has been explaining to Laertes how Hamlet alone is responsible for Polonius' death and Ophelia's consequent madness. Claudius says that he could not take action against Hamlet because the populace love him; however, he assures Laertes that he will have his revenge.

At this point Claudius receives the news that Hamlet has returned. He plots with Laertes to kill Hamlet:

  • the king will arrange a fencing match, in which Hamlet will have the usual blunt fencing foil
  • however Laertes will have one with a lethal point.

Ophelia drownedLaertes improves upon the plan:

  • he will put poison on the blade to ensure Hamlet's death.

Gertrude enters with the terrible news that Ophelia has drowned.

Commentary on Hamlet Act IV scene vii

This report of his / Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy — Hamlet was jealous, says Claudius.

More on image of venom: Might his image of envy as a poison in the blood give Laertes the idea of using poison on his sword? ‘Venom' is the word specifically used for snake poison (see Imagery and symbolism: The Garden of Eden).

That we would do, / We should do when we would; for this ‘would' changes — ironically, Claudius' remark is a reflection of what has happened to Hamlet.

Laertes has now taken over the role of a son who will ‘sweep to my revenge' (c.f. Act I scene v).

To cut his throat in the church ... No place indeed should murder sanctuarize; / Revenge should have no bounds — Laertes sees his individual desire for vengeance as more important than the law of God and God's holy places.

More on sanctuary: In medieval and Elizabethan times, criminals who could reach the altar in the part of a Christian church called the sanctuary might be safe from prosecution.

It is particularly hypocritical of Claudius, a murderer, to encourage Laertes' sacrilegious views on revenge, but of course Claudius wishes to use Laertes to dispose of Hamlet and the danger he poses.

I'll anoint my sword … an unction — the term anointing usually refers a priest touching the head (often of a king) with holy oil (unction) or anointing a sick person in the sacrament of extreme unction as preparation for death.

The fact that Laertes uses these words, associated with holy rites, to describe putting poison on his sword to commit murder, is an indication of how far his blood-lust is dominating and corrupting him.

I'll have prepared him / A chalice … if he escape your venomed stuck — a chalice is a cup, but the term is usually reserved for the special cup in which wine is served at holy communion. Claudius will use it for poisoned wine to give Hamlet if he escapes Laertes' poisoned sword.

More on subverting Christian language: Claudius, like Laertes, subverts the words associated with the Church, and both men are associated, through images of venom, with snakes.

An envious sliver broke — the implication seems to be that the branch gave way, so that Ophelia fell into the stream. This would make her death accidental. Later, we learn that the priest views it as suicide.

More on similarity to Hamlet: The question is never resolved, but the idea of a possibly contemplated suicide gives Ophelia another similarity with Hamlet.

How much ado I had to calm his rage! — as with the death of Polonius, Claudius seems to be more concerned about possible danger to himself than moved by Ophelia's death and Laertes' grief.

Investigating Hamlet Act IV scene vii

  • What is the audience likely to feel about this plot to kill Hamlet?
    • Do we approve of Laertes as fulfilling his debt of honour as a son and brother?
    • Or does his desire for vengeance lead him into dishonour and corruption?
  • Read through, preferably out loud, Gertrude's speech describing Ophelia's drowning.
    • Look at the poetry of the language.
  • Why do you think Shakespeare elevates the event into something beautiful and full of pathos, so that Ophelia's death does not seem at this moment to be part of the general corruption?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.