Summary and Analysis
Shakespeare juxtaposes Osric's entrance against Hamlet's resolve to act. As the representative of Claudius' court, Osric embodies all that is rotten in the state of Denmark. According to Hamlet, Osric is one of the many superficial fashionable people overrunning Denmark in these frivolous times. This ostentation is the canker of Denmark's nature, and Hamlet is sure that he is ready to obliterate it. Osric, about whom Hamlet says, " 'tis a vice to know him," represents the evil Hamlet spoke of in Act II when he observed the court in drunken revel. Speaking about the party going on is the kind that causes the rest of the world to see Denmark as a country of drunken louts. Hamlet presumes it his duty to obliterate the King's evil, and that includes Osric.
After Osric and the lord have both been assured that Hamlet will participate in the duel at the King's pleasure, Horatio urges caution. Nevertheless, Hamlet — in a speech that resonates with the resolve he found in Act IV Scene 4 when he watched the Norwegians head toward Poland — states unequivocally how prepared he is to take on all his responsibilities.
His words paraphrase the Biblical passage that no sparrow falls without God's knowledge: "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes? Let it be." Here, Hamlet portrays the consummate existentialist, facing his struggle to play out with dignity and honor the part that has been written for him on the stars. He truly exists in the moment, and will seize it.
Having declared his intentions, Hamlet enters the ring amid great fanfare, and begins his journey by making the first move toward reconciliation with Laertes. He realizes that he must do so at this juncture. Hamlet recognizes himself in Laertes, and needs to release himself from the burden of self-loathing by forgiving and being forgiven by Laertes. He said earlier of Laertes
But I am sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his. I'll court his favours.
But sure the bravery of his grief did put me
Into towering passion.
By reaching out to Laertes, Hamlet reconciles the conflicting aspects of his own nature, freeing himself for what he must do. Some other hurtles still lie ahead of him, but he believes he is ready, which is half the battle for him — if not quite the entire battle.
Laertes' resolve to kill Hamlet as punishment for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia mirrors Hamlet's perceived newfound freedom from words.
I am satisfied in nature
Whose motive in this case should stir me most
To my revenge; but in my terms of honour
I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement
Till by some elder masters of known honour
I have a voice and precedent of peace
To keep my name ungored.
In the end, the readiness is indeed what matters most. And so, the fight begins.
From the start of the fight, Hamlet is clearly aware that the duel is to the death and not just "play." He recognizes the direness of the situation, and understands that Laertes presents his final challenge. What remains unclear is whether Hamlet knows about Claudius' and Laertes' plot. Does he, for example, refuse the wine that Claudius offers him because he suspects danger? All he says is "I'll play this bout first, set it by awhile." After Gertrude takes her fatal sip, he says, "I dare not drink yet, Madam, by and by." Is Hamlet afraid that the wine will dull his fencing skill? Or does he guess that the wine poses a danger? He does not remark at all when the King says, "Gertrude, do not drink!" Does he not hear the King, or does he choose to ignore the warning? Laertes presents a sympathetic and formidable adversary for the sympathetic and formidable prince. Laertes will garner as much support from the audience as Hamlet will, and the confrontation will be doubly moving as the audience will be torn in its allegiance.
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