Summary and Analysis Act V: Scene 2


In production, Claudius' directive becomes a pivotal moment. How the director and actor interpret the four words determine the tenor of the rest of the play. If Claudius mutters the line under his breath, then he has no thought to protect Gertrude or to warn Hamlet. If he cries it out, the director must find a reasonable way for Hamlet to react, one that reflects a commitment to Hamlet's being aware of the poison — does he want Gertrude to die? — or a commitment to his being tunnel-visioned, intent on his mission to "end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." Is Gertrude's death "a consummation devoutly to be wished," or is it a shocking blow that crushes any will Hamlet may have had left to live?

Still another question that must be asked and answered in production: Is Gertrude's death an accident or suicide? Here the answer to the question about how much Gertrude knows concerning King Hamlet's murder is crucial. Does she know that Claudius has poisoned Hamlet's cup, and does she drink from it to save Hamlet? If she was innocent before Hamlet came to her closet and killed Polonius, did she believe Hamlet's raving, mad indictment of her husband? Either way, she dies, and her death spurs Hamlet into finally doing what he has said he will do since the beginning of the play — kill Claudius

Laertes' death and revelation serve as another catalyst to Hamlet's resolve. When Laertes' is cut by his own sword, again he speaks for Hamlet, "Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric. I am justly killed with mine own treachery." Traps from which they cannot extricate themselves catch both Hamlet and Laertes. They must commit murder in order to uphold the blood feud they have sworn, but they are both Christians and bound by Christian morality to abhor violence. Each must fall due to his own treachery, and each must die and leave the greater good to mitigate any consequences he will face in his afterlife.

For all his great rhetoric, Hamlet has still not taken charge of the deed he must perform: Claudius still lives. Now, wading through the bodies of the people whose deaths he has caused by his hesitancy, Hamlet faces the final truth he cannot avoid. Laertes bears the news:

It is here Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain,
No medicine in the world can do thee good,
In thee there is not half an hour of life —
The treacherous instrument is in they hand,
Unbated and envenomed. The foul practice
Hath turned itself on me; lo, here I lie,
Never to rise again. Thy mother's poisoned —
I can no more — the king, the king's to blame.

Knowing that he is a dead man, and realizing, at last, exactly what fate the stars hold for him, Hamlet attacks Claudius with the vengeance that has resided in his heart all along. He stabs Claudius and, for extra measure, pours the poison down the King's throat. To heighten the drama as Claudius' death approaches, a chorus of the assembled court cries, "Treason, treason!" and Claudius begs, "Oh yet defend me friends, I am but hurt." A tense moment occurs as Hamlet must consider that his adoring public may perceive him a villain. After all, executing a king who rules by Divine Right constitutes high treason. Yet the court does not stir, and Claudius dies. Hamlet's sense of righteous vengeance fortifies him.

Now Hamlet must face his own death. In order to shuffle off his mortal coil, Hamlet must make peace. He first reconciles with his foil Laertes. The two men exchange pardons, and they consign one another to Christian Heaven by releasing themselves from culpability for the lives they have taken. The one task Hamlet must still complete is to find a conduit for the words that have kept him alive, which have been as much his sustenance as his torture. So he asks the loyal Horatio to tell his story.

Horatio, Hamlet's calmer mirror image, now carries the responsibility of juggling the conflict between thinking and doing, between words and action. Hamlet gives his "dying voice" to Fortinbras, who has arrived in Denmark from fighting in Poland just as Hamlet prepares to take his final breath. In Fortinbras, Hamlet recognizes a kindred spirit who can appreciate the significance of the words and who can restore honor to Denmark as he claims the throne. Hamlet then releases himself to death once and for all. "The rest is silence."

Fortinbras takes immediate charge, listening to the story Horatio tells and immediately ordering his soldiers to clean up the mess. He replaces the confusion with calm by ordering a hero's funeral for Hamlet. He will obliterate the corruption of Claudius' reign, and end what Horatio reported as the "carnal, bloody and unnatural acts" that have ruled Denmark.

We know that all will be well because the last words in the play belong to strong, unequivocal Fortinbras:

Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

The final scene also completes the revenge triangle. All the sons of the murdered fathers (King Hamlet, King Fortinbras, and Polonius) have seen vengeance served. The sons have appeased the medieval code of honor while satisfying the Christian expectation of forgiveness. Most importantly, Hamlet is finally a warrior. Like Achilles' son Phyrrus, to whom the First Player referred in Act II, Hamlet has stopped standing "like a neutral to his will and matter." After his stunned pause, Phyrrus took a "rousèd revenge" and killed King Priam. So Hamlet has overcome his paralysis and has killed King Claudius. And, like Phyrrus, he will be buried with the hero's glory that he has finally earned.

Continued on next page...

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