Summary and Analysis
Staging Ophelia's flower distribution with imaginary flowers has become traditional in the modern theater, which generally interpret the flowers as symbolic rather than real. Ophelia gives fennel, symbol of flattery, to King Claudius. She also gives him columbine for ingratitude and infidelity. Rue, for sorrow, she gives to Gertrude; she also offers Gertrude daisy, for springtime and love, and says she lost her own violets, which represent sweetness, when her father died. To Laertes, she gives rosemary, for remembrance, and pansies, for thought, suggesting both their shared history and her lost faculties.
In this scene, Laertes emerges as another foil (opposite) for Hamlet. He, too, has a father to avenge and a woman to protect, but this son wastes no time in thought or word. He threatens the King, only restraining himself when the King promises to assist the younger man in his quest for vengeance. Moral ambivalence does not restrict Laertes, and he willingly risks eternal damnation by acting without hesitation. Laertes, unencumbered by words, ideas, or beliefs, has raised an army against the King to avenge Polonius' death. The King recognizes that Laertes poses a danger to him potentially as great as that posed by Hamlet. He promises Laertes that Hamlet will be eliminated. "Let the great one fall."
Claudius has consistently orchestrated emotions, and has convincingly played the role of concerned King, friend of Polonius, kindly father figure for Ophelia, and dutiful husband to Gertrude. He is lavish with words in this scene, making a great show of his deep empathy for Gertrude, for Laertes, for Ophelia, even for Hamlet. "O Gertrude, Gertrude/When sorrows come, they come not in single spies/But in battalions." Hyperdramatically, he concludes his litany of sufferings they have all had to bear by saying, "O my dear Gertrude, this,/Like to a murdering-piece, in many places/Gives me superfluous death." No one suffers more than Claudius. Contrasted with his soliloquy of Scene 3, where he vows to have Hamlet executed, the speech proves his insincerity to the audience. Now, in blatant dramatic irony, Shakespeare makes the audience privy to the truth before the characters can discover that truth for themselves.
Still, in the political coup of this scene, he wins Laertes' loyalty by urging Gertrude to "let him go" so that he may speak freely. He then gives Laertes free reign, placing himself in apparent jeopardy:
Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will,
And they shall hear and judge 'twixt you and me:
If by direct or by collateral hand
The find us touch'd, we will our kingdom give,
Our crown, our life, and all that we call ours
To you in satisfaction
In his very public show, he manages to manipulate the trust of everyone present.
aim to guess or conjecture.
botch a badly patched place or part
cockle hat a hat adorned with cockle shells and worn by pilgrims.
Saint Valentine's Day February 14. The old belief was that the first man seen by a maid on that day was destined to be her husband, and vice versa.
Gis corruption for Jesus.
Cock corruption for God
Hugger-mugger secret haste.
Murdering-piece cannon loaded with grapeshot.
Switzers Swiss mercenary soldiers; in this case, acting as the royal bodyguard.
counter on the false trail (a hunting term); treason.
swoopstake in a clean sweep.
life-rendering pelican The pelican was supposed to feed its young with its own blood.
turn the beam overbalance the scale.
hatchment a diamond-shaped panel bearing the coat of arms of a person who has died.
formal ostentation public ceremony.