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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2:

Page Index:
  • Enter Hamlet and Horatio.
  • Enter Osric.
  • Enter King, Queen, Laertes, others.
  • Enter Fortinbras with the English Ambassadors.

Enter Hamlet and Horatio:
As the scene opens, Hamlet and Horatio are in the middle of a conversation. Hamlet has already told Horatio something about what happened to him and is now coming to the crucial part. He asks Horatio if he remembers "all the circumstance," which probably means the events that happened just before Hamlet was sent to England. To show that he certainly does remember, Horatio replies, "Remember it, my lord?" The one part of that "circumstance" that we should keep in mind is that the King said the trip was for Hamlet's own safety. Now we are about to see how Hamlet discovered the King's true intentions.

Hamlet tells Horatio that when he was on the ship, "in my heart there was a kind of fighting, / That would not let me sleep" (5.2.4-5). Hamlet begins the next sentence with the word "rashly," but pauses in his story to praise rashness, and to say that "Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well" because "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will" (5.2.10-11). Our "ends" are our purposes or goals, and to "shape" means to give final form to something. Hamlet's general point is that the goals we set for ourselves are really only rough outlines; it's "a divinity" that gives them final form. Specifically, Hamlet formed his counter-plot to the King's plot only by chance, because of his rashness.

Returning to his story, Hamlet says he stole the "commission," King Claudius' message to the King of England, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's diplomatic pouch. Opening it, he found that the King of England was supposed to behead Hamlet as soon as he saw him. Horatio is astounded, and asks "Is't possible?" Hamlet answers, "Here's the commission: read it at more leisure" (5.2.26). This isn't a particularly memorable line, but it's worth remembering the fact that at this moment Hamlet has in his hand the King's order for his death. Now, it would seem that Hamlet must take action, because if he doesn't kill the King, the King will kill him.

However, right now Hamlet wants Horatio to hear the rest of his story. He asks Horatio, "But wilt thou hear me how I did proceed?" Of course Horatio wants to hear it, and Hamlet seems to be asking only because he's feeling pretty proud of himself. He had planned to make a plot of his own, but his finding of the commission showed that the game had already begun, and taught him what to do next. He wrote out a new commission, with a lot official-sounding drivel about the love and friendship between Denmark and England. Only, this commission says that it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are to be executed on sight.

Horatio asks how the commission was sealed, because without the proper seal, made in the sealing wax, it wouldn't look official. Hamlet replies that heaven took care of that, too, saying, "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant" (5.2.48). It so happened that he had his father's signet with him, and he used it to put the official Danish impression on the seal of the new commission.

Horatio remarks, "So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't," meaning that they're going to die, and Hamlet replies "Why, man, they did make love to this employment; / They are not near my conscience" (5.2.57-58). He's not saying that they knew that they were carrying an order for Hamlet's death, only that it was their own fault that they got themselves in above their heads, because "'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites" (5.2.60-62). He and the King are the mighty opposites, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are those of "baser natures," or, in current parlance, punks. (Question: Even if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are punks, do we admire Hamlet for sending them to their deaths?)

Horatio exclaims, "Why, what a king is this!" Hamlet's reaction is ambiguous. At first, he sounds like the Hamlet we heard in the second and fourth soliloquies, the one who beat himself up for not taking revenge against King Claudius. Hamlet asks Horatio "is't not perfect conscience, / To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd, / To let this canker [cancer] of our nature [i.e., human nature] come / In further evil?" (5.2.67-70). But Hamlet does not make a plan to move against the King. Horatio remarks that the King will soon know what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio is tactfully pointing out that Hamlet hasn't got much time, because once the King knows what happened in England, he will also know that Hamlet has reason to kill him. Hamlet understands perfectly well what Horatio means, but all he says is "the interim is mine; / And a man's life's no more than to say "One" (5.2.73-74). Then he changes the subject, and says that he is sorry that he lost his temper at Laertes. As a matter of fact, he sympathizes with Laertes, because they both have the same "cause," the loss of a father. He resolves to try to make it up to Laertes. This feeling for Laertes may be understandable, but it seems off the point. As Horatio tried to point out, Hamlet could be letting his chance to kill the King slip by, because once the King finds out what happened in England, there will be no chance of catching him off-guard.

Enter Osric:
As Hamlet is talking of his feelings about Laertes, in comes Osric, whose mission is to invite Hamlet to the fencing match with Laertes.

Osric is a coxcomb, a fop, a dandy. If he were played in modern costume, he'd probably have long blonde hair, an open shirt, and a gaudy gold chain. He believes that he is all that is charming, and loves to show his appreciation for the charm of others. When Hamlet sees Osric coming, he asks Horatio "Dost know this water-fly?" (5.2.82). A "water-fly" in Shakespeare's time was the same as in our time: a tiny little creature that flits aimlessly over the surface of the water. In short, Osric is one of Shakespeare's great comic creations. The only question we might have is "Why"? Why is it Osric who invites Hamlet to his death?

Hamlet hardly gives Osric a chance to deliver his message. Osric calls Hamlet "Sweet lord" (5.2.89), and gives him a flourish of his hat. Hamlet urges him to put his "bonnet" back on his head. Osric is just smart enough to realize that he might have gone a bit overboard with the hat business, but he doesn't want to admit that, so he says it's hot, and that's why he took his hat off. Hamlet contradicts him, saying that it's cold and the wind is northerly (which is almost always true in Denmark). Osric doesn't want to argue with the sweet prince, but he's gotten himself into somewhat of a corner, and so he tries to straddle the fence, saying "It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed" (5.2.97). "Indifferent" means "so-so" or "somewhat," and "indifferent" doesn't cut it, because Hamlet now switches sides and says that it's too hot. Osric tries to agree with that, too, but doesn't quite make it. Meanwhile, he's waving the hat around, because he can't quite decide what to do with it. Finally, he stumbles forward to the announcement that the King has laid a wager on Hamlet's head, and the fact that "here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman" (5.2.106-107).

Hamlet lets Osric prattle on about what a fine gentleman Laertes is, then beats Osric at his own game. He praises Laertes, too, but where Osric used two words for every one that was needed, Hamlet uses three or four, and longer ones, too. Osric doesn't really follow, but says that Hamlet "speaks most infallibly of him." Hamlet then asks Osric "Why do we wrap the gentleman in our more rawer breath?" (5.2.122-123), which is almost as hard to understand as it is to say. Thoroughly bewildered, Osric can only say, "Sir?" Horatio then comments, "Is't not possible to understand in another tongue? You will do't, sir, really (5.2.125-126). This comment is explained different ways by different editors of Shakespeare. One explanation is that Horatio is speaking to Osric, asking him if he can't possibly communicate without all the fancy words, and telling him that he can do it, "really." Another explanation is that Horatio is speaking to Hamlet, asking him if he truly needs to mimic Osric's jargon, and warning him that if he keeps it up, he's "really" going to get a lot more of the same from Osric. Whatever way you take Horatio's remark, it's clear that Hamlet has made his friend laugh at Osric, because a moment later Horatio says to Hamlet, "His purse is empty already; all's golden words are spent" (5.2.130-131).

After this, Hamlet continues to harass Osric, but Osric manages to get the message out. The King has a bet with Laertes--a fairly large bet, six horses against six rapiers and all their gear--that in a dozen bouts, Laertes won't win by more than twelve to nine. (That makes twenty-one bouts, not a dozen, but either way, the King gets those six rapiers if Hamlet just beats the spread.) Hamlet agrees to do it, saying "'tis the breathing time of day with me" (5.2.174). In other words, time for a bit of exercise. Thus, ever so casually, does Hamlet agree to the fencing match in which he will die.

As Osric runs to tell the King, he finally puts his very large hat back on his head, so Horatio remarks, "This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head" (5.2.185). Hamlet comments that there are many people like Osric, who have caught the tune of the time, and are admired, but who are as fragile as bubbles. Within a minute or so of Osric's departure, a "Lord" comes to make sure that Hamlet is ready to begin the fencing match. Hamlet says he is, and is informed that the "King and Queen and all" are already coming down to the hall where Hamlet is. Also, Hamlet is told that his mother wants him to be nice to Laertes before the match begins. Hamlet replies, "She well instructs me" (5.2.208), and the Lord leaves.

Now Hamlet has a minute or two alone with Horatio before the arrival of the King, Queen, Laertes, and a great crowd of courtiers and servants. Horatio thinks that Hamlet will lose, but Hamlet replies that he's in practice and pretty sure he can beat the odds. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, he says "But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart" (5.2.212-213).

He's not talking about chest pains, but about misgivings, second thoughts. Of course he has good reason to have second thoughts about this fencing match. He knows that Laertes blames him for the deaths of both Polonius and Ophelia. Not only that, but Hamlet certainly hasn't expressed any regret to Laertes. The last time they saw each other was at Ophelia's grave, where Hamlet called Laertes a "dog." But if any of that is on Hamlet's mind, we don't hear about it, because Hamlet quickly has second thoughts about his second thoughts. He says "It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman." Horatio is thoroughly alarmed and offers to go tell everyone Hamlet is sick. Hamlet replies,
Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a 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 has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be. (5.2.219-224)
Basically, Hamlet is telling Horatio to do nothing, to "let be." But the speech raises questions. The sparrow apparently comes from Matthew 10:29, where Jesus, encouraging the disciples to go out and preach, tells them to have no fear because the very hairs on their heads are numbered, and a sparrow "shall not fall on the ground without your Father." But Hamlet's sparrow isn't quite so comforting. Hamlet says in three different ways that the sparrow will either die now, or it will die later. And because he says it in three different ways, it sounds a bit comical, and more fatalistic than Christian. Then Hamlet says, that "the readiness is all." Does that mean that he is ready for whatever comes to him? If he is, why? How and when did he get ready? Finally, Hamlet asks, "since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?" In other words, since we can't take anything with us when we leave this world, what does it matter if we leave right away? The answer could be that there are a few things we'd like to do before we leave this world. We might, for instance, like to take revenge on the villain who murdered our father.

(Textual Note: The first Folio (F1), which was the first edition of all of Shakespeare's plays, and which was published in 1623, well after Shakespeare's death, is the source of the phrase, "since no man has aught of what he leaves." Most editors favor the phrase from the second edition of Hamlet (Q2), published in 1604: "since no man of aught he leaves knows." Editors punctuate this in different ways, trying to make it make sense.)

Enter King, Queen, Laertes, others:
As Hamlet is ascending towards the heights of philosophical calm, the real world comes noisily into the hall. Here come the King, the Queen, and Laertes. Here come servants with cushions, and others with the rapiers, and still others with wine, and a table to set the wine on. And here's Osric, ready to officiate in the fencing match. And here are more servants, with trumpets and drums, to make appropriate fencing-match music. Everybody's ready, and Hamlet proceeds with the fencing match.

The King has Hamlet and Laertes shake hands, and Hamlet makes a half-baked apology. He begins well enough, saying to Laertes,"Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong; / But pardon't, as you are a gentleman" (5.2.226-227). However, what he says next makes it hard to admire him. He says that whatever wrong he had done Laertes is the result of his madness. Hamlet even goes so far as claim to be the victim of his own madness, saying "Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd; / His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy" (5.2.238-239). Even if we think that Hamlet is a bit mad at moments, there is much evidence that Hamlet never considers himself mad, so he must be lying when he says that his madness made him do it. Perhaps Hamlet is just trying to be nice. It wouldn't be too nice to tell Laertes that his father was a damn fool who deserved what he got. Still, it's disappointing that Hamlet lies at all.

In the next breath Hamlet says that he did no "purposed [intentional] evil." That may be somewhat closer to the truth, but he isn't exactly innocent of Polonius' death, either. Laertes says that he accepts the apology on a personal level, although he reserves the right to take further action in defense of his honor. Meanwhile, he says "I do receive your offer'd love like love, / And will not wrong it" (5.2.251-252). Of course Laertes is lying through his teeth. His whole plan at this fencing match is to do wrong to Hamlet with a poisoned rapier.

This exchange of lies is not Hamlet's finest moment, but he seems wholly admirable in what follows--the fencing match itself. As the King predicted, Hamlet shows himself to be a noble man who wouldn't think of examining the rapiers carefully. While Laertes is making sure he gets the right rapier, Hamlet modestly says that his lack of skill will make Laertes look good. As for the rapiers, Hamlet chooses his quickly, merely asking Osric if the rapiers are all the same length. At the same time, the King sets the backup plot in motion. He orders wine set on the table and proclaims that if Hamlet wins the first or second bout, he'll drink to Hamlet's health and throw a rich pearl (the "union" or "onion") in Hamlet's cup. This pearl, we know, has been dipped in poison, so that it will poison the wine. So, although he doesn't know it, Hamlet is trapped. If Laertes' rapier doesn't get him, the King's poisoned wine will.

To start things off, the King now drinks to Hamlet, and makes a big show of it. He says that the kettle drums will speak to the trumpets, the trumpets to the cannon, the cannon to the heavens, and the heavens--echoing all that noise back to earth--will shout "'Now the king drinks to Hamlet'" (5.2.278). All of this is done, so that the fatal fencing match is preceded by the grand thunder of the King's hypocritical joy.

The fencing match is often performed with a great deal of swashbuckling flash and dash, with twirls and leaps and other moves that would get you killed in actual combat. Without the protective button, a fencing foil is a rapier, and two inches of it can make you dead within two minutes. This fencing match should be a time of high tension. Maybe if Hamlet and Horatio were playing catch with hand grenades, and we knew that one pin had been pulled, we'd get the idea.

Hamlet escapes death for a while only because, contrary to everyone's expectations, he's a much better fencer than Laertes. When Hamlet gets the first hit, Laertes can't believe it until Osric makes the official call: "A hit, a very palpable hit" (5.2.281). Laertes wants to start the next bout right away, but the King has already seen enough. He makes a big show of congratulating Hamlet, then drops the pearl in Hamlet's cup, as though doing him a great honor. The pearl poisons the wine, but Hamlet doesn't drink. He plays the second bout with Laertes, and wins again, so decisively that Laertes admits it. Now the Queen comes forward to congratulate Hamlet. In a motherly way, she gives Hamlet her handkerchief, to wipe his sweaty brows, and then takes up his cup, saying "The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet" (5.2.289).

At this moment the King's love for the Queen is tested and found wanting. He asks Gertrude not to drink, but she says she will, and he does nothing more. He tells himself it's "too late," but it's not too late for him to jump up and take the cup from Gertrude as Hamlet later does for Horatio. It's "too late" only if the King is willing to sacrifice his wife to his plot.

She drinks to Hamlet and offers him the cup. He refuses the drink, but she insists on wiping his face for him. While she is doing this, Laertes says to the King "My lord, I'll hit him now" (5.2.295). To stab Hamlet while his mother is wiping his brow would be a despicable, cowardly act, and it would cancel any possibility that Hamlet's death could be explained away as a fencing accident. Besides, Laertes realizes that "'tis almost 'gainst my conscience." Then Hamlet steps forward for the third bout, and Laertes' opportunity to be a coward is gone for now.

Hamlet, with apparent joviality, says that Laertes surely has just been fooling with him, and now it's time for Laertes to show what he can really do. This bout is the best so far, and the two of them seem very evenly matched. They play to a tie, but when Osric announces "Nothing, neither way," and Hamlet turns away, the frustrated Laertes rushes Hamlet, shouting "Have at you now!" (5.2.302). He nicks Hamlet in the shoulder or back. The stage direction here, "in scuffling they change rapiers," lacks color. This is an exciting action sequence. It turns out that Hamlet is so much better with his rapier that he is able to use it, even though it is practically harmless, to beat Laertes' rapier out of his hand. He then picks up Laertes' rapier, sees the sharp point that made him bleed, and says "Nay, come again." This is extremely funny in a sardonic way. Laertes, who no longer has the sharp rapier, isn't very eager for another bout, but Hamlet thinks it would be a fine time for Laertes to "come again."

There's a very brief battle, in which Hamlet wounds Laertes, and then everyone starts to go down. Laertes falls, and the Queen collapses from the effect of the poison. The King tries to cover his tracks by saying "She swoons to see them bleed," but the Queen knows the truth: "No, no, the drink, the drink,--O my dear Hamlet,-- / The drink, the drink! I am poison'd" (5.2.309-310). Following the Queen's example, Laertes also tells the truth in his dying moments. Hamlet has not a half hour to live, says Laertes, and "the king, the king's to blame" (5.2.320). Then there's a wonderful moment for those of us who like the sort of action sequences in which the evil-doer is beaten at his own game. Hamlet stabs the King with the poisoned rapier, and forces the cup into his face, making him drink the poisoned wine, right down to the poisoned pearl.

Once the King is dead, Hamlet feels the hand of death close about his throat, and he wants one thing above all--to have his story told. Laertes has just enough life to say that the King deserved his death, and to make a request: "Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: / Mine and my father's death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me" (5.2.329-331). Hamlet replies, "Heaven make thee free of it," and says "adieu" to his mother, but that's all he has to say to the dead. To the living he says that if he had time he could "tell" them something, but he doesn't have enough life left to tell what he could tell, and he asks Horatio to "Report me and my cause aright" (5.2.339). Horatio, out of love for Hamlet, reaches for the cup of poisoned wine, so that he can follow Hamlet in death. With his last strength, Hamlet wrests the cup away from Horatio and exclaims, "O good Horatio, what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!" (5.2.344-345). Presumably, Hamlet doesn't want to be thought of as a murderer and traitor, but perhaps there is more that he could say if he had time.

Enter Fortinbras with the English Ambassadors:
Before Horatio has a chance to respond to Hamlet's dying request, we hear cannons and the music of a march. Hamlet asks what the "warlike noise" is, and Osric says that Fortinbras, returning from his victory over Poland, has just saluted the English ambassadors, who are also approaching Elsinore. At this news, Hamlet predicts that Fortinbras will be king, and gives him his "dying voice." Hamlet's last words are, "So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less, / Which have solicited. The rest is silence" (5.2.357-358). That is, Horatio is to tell Fortinbras that Hamlet wanted him to be king, along with every one ("more and less") of the occurrences ("occurrents") that have "solicited," or instigated — something. We never learn exactly what the something is, but we can guess that it is the scene of blood, poison, and death which Fortinbras will see in a moment.

Naturally Hamlet wouldn't want to be remembered as a murderer or traitor, but his desire to have his story told seems oddly urgent, especially considering that he has not appeared to be a man who has particularly cared about the opinion of the world. Whatever the opinion of the world, Hamlet's reputation is secure with his one steadfast friend. Horatio's farewell is justly famous: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (5.2.359-60).

The rest of the scene wraps things up in ways that seem ironical. One of the English Ambassadors says that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, but so is the King, and so the ambassadors are left wondering "Where should we have our thanks?" (5.2.372). Horatio tells them that even if the King were alive, he wouldn't thank them. And we know that Hamlet, who sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, might well have laughed at the news. Nobody cares about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now, if anyone ever did.

Horatio tells both Fortinbras and the English Ambassadors what should be done. The bodies should be displayed "high on a stage" while he explains what happened to the "yet unknowing world":
                          So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' heads. . . . (5.2.380-385).
Of course, Horatio loved Hamlet, but he doesn't propose to tell a story in which Hamlet--or anyone else--is the hero. Horatio's story will be one of the world as it was described in Hamlet's first soliloquy: "Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely" (1.1.134-136).

Fortinbras agrees to Horatio's plan for the speech, but he also has something to say, which is that he, Fortinbras, is going to be the new King of Denmark. He has "some rights of memory," that is, some political claim, probably derived from a time when someone in the Norwegian royal family married someone in the Danish royal family. More importantly, he has "vantage," which is simply to say that both the King and Prince of Denmark are dead, and he, Fortinbras, is on the scene with an army. So Fortinbras says, "with sorrow I embrace my fortune" (5.2.388), which is reminiscent of Claudius' words about his brother's death: "we with wisest sorrow think on him, / Together with remembrance of ourselves" (1.1.6-7).

Horatio reassures Fortinbras that the speech he will give will both strengthen Fortinbras' claim to the throne, and put a stop to wild rumors. Then Fortinbras has the final words in the play. He orders that the bodies be taken to the stage where Horatio will make his speech. And, to do honor to Hamlet, "soldiers' music" is to be played, and cannon is to be shot off. The last words we hear are, "Go, bid the soldiers shoot" (5.2.403), and the last sounds we hear are the booming cannon shots that so irritated Hamlet when King Claudius used them as drinking-music.