Summary and Analysis
Claudius confirms that Hamlet killed Polonius, though seeking to take Claudius' life. Laertes can't understand why Claudius didn't punish Hamlet for such capitol crimes. Claudius explains that he has restrained himself, even though he has no intention of letting Hamlet get away with his crimes.
At this point, a messenger arrives with the letters Hamlet has sent in Horatio's care. Now knowing that Hamlet is still alive, Claudius offers Laertes an opportunity to show his love for Polonius by joining him in a plot to kill Hamlet by engaging in swordplay with him. Claudius promises to arrange a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet. Hamlet will use a fencing foil, but Laertes' foil will have an unblunted point. Thus, Laertes can kill Hamlet in front of an audience, and it will appear to be an accident; no one will know it is murder. Laertes shares his own plan to dip his sword in a poison so lethal that a minor scratch will cause instant death. Claudius adds yet another safeguard: He will poison a goblet of wine for Hamlet to drink, so that even if Laertes fails to draw blood, Hamlet will die.
Gertrude interrupts their plotting with her report of Ophelia's drowning. She describes the young woman's death graphically, explaining how she had fallen in the brook while weaving flower garlands; the willow tree branch on which she was sitting broke so that she tumbled into the water. Ophelia's clothing carried her afloat for a time, but eventually she sank to her death. Laertes finds his grief uncontrollable, and he runs out in a rage. Claudius and Gertrude follow him, ostensibly to quell his anger.
Claudius struts for Laertes in this scene, but, if we believe what he says, he also demonstrates his ability to care. Caring would mitigate his evil and add to the paradox inherent in his character. As shown in his prayer scene in Act III, Claudius has a Christian conscience even if he is incapable of satisfying it. In this scene he demonstrates that he may also be a devoted husband who prizes the emotional well being of his beloved wife. Despite his knowledge that Hamlet is a great danger to him, he tells Laertes that he has chosen not to hurt his "son" because the Queen "lives almost by his looks," and Claudius lives almost for the Queen.
However, Claudius' entirely self-serving evil becomes immediately apparent when he explains to Laertes his second reason for not punishing Hamlet for Polonius' murder: the great love the country has for Hamlet, which would not look kindly on the King who threatened him. Scholars contend that succession to the throne of Denmark was determined by a vote. Knights of the realm chose from candidates who petitioned for the throne. According to the Scandinavian legend, Gertrude's father was the king before King Hamlet. King Hamlet was selected by his predecessor to marry the princess, and the marriage clinched his election to the monarchy. If these conditions exist, Claudius clearly cannot afford to lose face before his knights, and he cannot afford to lose Gertrude; nor can he jeopardize his tenuous popularity by risking a backlash against the throne.
By exercising his skill with posturing emotions, Claudius convinces Laertes that he has restrained his actions toward Hamlet for reasons that make him look like a kind man and a responsible monarch. The speech wins Laertes over, and Claudius gains a powerful ally. Now that his plan to have Hamlet executed by the English king has failed, Claudius needs Laertes' assistance in eliminating Hamlet.
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