Act V, Scene ii

Synopsis of Hamlet Act V scene ii

Hamlet explains to Horatio how he escaped from the ship taking him to England. He discovered that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying a letter asking the King of England to execute him. Hamlet has replaced it with one asking for the execution of the bearers — that is, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet now feels that he should kill Claudius, not simply for revenge, but to rid the country of corruption.The courtier Osric arrives to invite Hamlet to take part in a (supposedly friendly) duel with Laertes. Hamlet mimics and mocks Osric's pretentious style of speech, but agrees to take part in the fencing-match.

Hamlet has a premonition of danger, and Horatio begs him not to fight, but Hamlet feels that he is in God's hands.

Before the fight begins, Hamlet asks for forgiveness from Laertes, who makes an ambiguous reply.

A duel with swordsThe fencing-match starts, and in the course of it:

  • Gertrude inadvertently drinks from the poisoned chalice which Claudius has prepared for Hamlet
  • Laertes stabs Hamlet will the poisoned foil
  • In a scuffle the swords change hands and Hamlet wounds Laertes
  • The queen dies from the poisoned drink
  • Laertes, realising that he has been caught by his own treachery, reveals that Claudius is to blame for the poisoning of Gertrude. He tells Hamlet that they are both on the point of death
  • Hamlet uses the poisoned sword to stab Claudius, who dies
  • As Hamlet dies, he asks Horatio to tell his story truthfully to the world
  • Hamlet gives his support to the idea that Fortinbras will be chosen as the next king of Denmark.

Fortinbras, who has been marching across Denmark with his army, arrives at the court, together with ambassadors from the King of England. They report that the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has been carried out. Fortinbras praises the nobility of Hamlet and his body is carried out.

Commentary on Hamlet Act V scene ii

There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will — Hamlet is now certain that he is in the hand of God, whose providence guides his life.

Not shriving time allowed — Hamlet has asked for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be executed before they have time for ‘shriving' — the confession of sins which would put them in a state of grace and allow their souls to go to heaven. Without confession of sins, they would go to purgatory or hell, as had happened to Old Hamlet.

Even in that was heaven ordinant — the fact that Hamlet happened to have his father's signet ring with him is seen by Hamlet as further proof that his life is being directed by God.

Their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow — another image of someone caught in a trap which they have laid for others.

Is't not perfect conscience /to quit him … Is't not to be damned / To let this canker of our nature come/ In further evil? — Hamlet seems to have resolved his former scruples. It is right, he says, to kill Claudius because of:

  • his murder of the rightful King (Old Hamlet)
  • his usurpation of the throne from Hamlet himself
  • his corruption of Gertrude
  • because the country must be purged of such a ‘canker' (a corrupting ulcer)
  • not to kill Claudius would be immoral.

Sir, his definement suffers no perdition — Hamlet mocks Osric by mimicking his affected style of speech.

More on corrupt speech: Osric's pretentiousness is another example of the ‘false appearances' which indicate the corruption of the court under Claudius' rule.

There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come ...' — placing himself in the hands of God, Hamlet accepts that his death will come when God wills it. He must inevitably die at some point, whether it is today or in the future.

More on a biblical echo: The Shakespearean audience would recognise in his words an echo of Jesus' assurance, recorded in Matthew 10:29-31 that not even a sparrow dies without God caring, and that humans are more precious still.

Give me your pardon — Hamlet asks for forgiveness from Laertes, which is not immediately forthcoming. However, later in the scene when he realises he is dying, Laertes sees that forgiveness and mercy are more important than revenge, and in his dying words he asks to ‘exchange forgiveness'.

More on the significance of forgiveness: This might well remind the Shakespearean audience of one of the most important Christian prayers, given by Jesus, the Lord's Prayer in which Christians ask that their sins are forgiven ‘as we forgive those that sin against us'.

Shakespeare explicitly quotes from this prayer in both The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure.

As a woodcock to mine own springe — Laertes uses precisely the same image of entrapment that Polonius had used when warning Ophelia against Hamlet.

Here thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane … Is thy union here? — a ‘union' could mean a pearl, or a marriage. Claudius had said that there was a priceless pearl in the cup, but by choosing this word, as well as by beginning his description with the word ‘incestuous', Hamlet seems to be focusing on Claudius' marriage to his mother rather than the death of his father.

  • Is this what has pre-occupied Hamlet all the time?

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest — Horatio is clearly convinced that Hamlet is a virtuous man who will go straight to heaven; not all critics agree.

The rest is silence — the power of words to deceive and corrupt has been stressed throughout the play. This is therefore a most fitting last line for Hamlet.

Investigating Hamlet Act V scene ii

  • Critics and commentators have differing views about Hamlet's request that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should not have time to confess.
    • Is it justice, in return for their betrayal of him?
    • Do we have any evidence that they knew what was in the letter they were carrying (i.e., a request for Hamlet's execution?)
    • Even if they did, is he right to pursue vengeance beyond the grave?
  • Look back to Hamlet's first soliloquy in Act I scene ii. Is Hamlet more grieved by the re-marriage of his mother than by the death of his father? (See also Characterisation: Hamlet).
  • At the end of the play, Fortinbras is to rule in Denmark. Of the three young men seeking revenge, only he gave it up.
    • Is this significant, or is he only successful because he is a man of action (‘strong in arm')?
    • What are your views about the morality of revenge by the end of the play?
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