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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 4, Scene 5:

Page Index:

Enter Queen, Horatio and a Gentleman:
This scene begins in the middle of a conversation. The first thing we hear is "I will not speak with her" (4.5.1), spoken by the Queen as she comes into the room. Horatio and a gentleman follow the Queen into the room, trying to get her to change her mind. As the scene progresses, we learn that they must be speaking of Ophelia, who has gone mad and wants to see the Queen. The gentleman says that "Her mood will needs be pitied." The Queen asks, "What would she have?" (4.5.3), but the gentleman doesn't answer her question. Instead, he tells the Queen it would be a safer to speak to Ophelia, because she has been talking about her father, and "tricks," and she's making people wonder what's going on. Horatio sums it up by saying, "'Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds" (4.5.14-15). Apparently Horatio has more influence with the Queen than the gentleman does, and she says that Ophelia can come in.

Alone for a moment while Horatio and the Gentleman go to get Ophelia, the Queen reveals why she doesn't want to speak to Ophelia. She says "To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is, / Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss" (4.5.17-18). That is, she feels great guilt, and any little thing can make her think that everything is about to go terribly wrong. We still don't know exactly what makes her feel guilty, but she feels so much guilt that she's afraid that even her efforts to hide it may give her away.

Enter Ophelia:
The rest of the scene is more interesting if we remember the Queen's fear of Ophelia's madness, and the fact that Ophelia has asked to speak with the Queen. Random craziness can be quite boring, but Ophelia, though she is indeed crazy, must think that she is delivering some sort of message to the Queen.

When Ophelia enters she asks, "Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?" (4.5.21), and sings an old ballad that begins "How should I your true-love know / From another one?" In the closet scene, Hamlet asked Queen Gertrude that same kind of question, and answered it, too. In his view, King Hamlet was her "true love," and he could be distinguished from "another one" by the fact that he was handsome and noble, whereas Claudius is an ugly murderer. In Ophelia's song, the question is answered by saying that the "true-love" is a pilgrim on his way to the holy shrine of St. James in Spain. Then the Queen asks Ophelia what she means, and Ophelia answers with another bit of song, beginning, "He is dead and gone, lady" (4.5.29). Ophelia's father is "dead and gone," but so is King Hamlet, and perhaps Ophelia is singing as one bereft woman to another.

Enter King:
As Ophelia is singing of the funeral of the one who is "dead and gone," the King enters, and Ophelia promptly changes a line of the old ballad. The ballad describes a beautiful, sentimental funeral, in which a pure white shroud covers the body. On the shroud are mounds of flowers, and as the body is lowered into the grave, the flowers are "bewept" by "true-love showers." That is, the dead one's lover is crying so hard that the flowers are getting all wet. Ophelia, however, adds a contradictory "not" to this pretty picture. She sings that the body was "Larded with sweet flowers / Which bewept to the grave did not go / With true-love showers" (4.5.38-40). There could be two connections between Ophelia's "not" and the King. The King got Polonius' funeral over with as quickly and quietly as possible. And probably the King didn't have much time for tears at his brother's funeral, either, seeing that he was set on marrying his brother's wife.

When the King asks Ophelia how she's doing, she answers with a greeting and then a kind of philosophical comment: "They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be" (4.5.42-44). According to legend, a baker's daughter was stingy when Jesus asked her for bread, so she was turned into an owl. This was a strange transformation, and what Ophelia says seems to indicate that we are all subject to such transformations, because we "know not what we may be." The King, for example, was the King's brother, and now he's the King himself. And Ophelia, for another example, was once beloved of both Hamlet and her father. Now, one has killed the other, and she's crazy.

Finally, Ophelia sings a song that she says will say "what it means." The song is about St. Valentine's day, and it starts out lilting and romantic, with a girl saying she is "a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine" (4.5.50-51). But then the song turns darkly cynical. The man opens his door to "Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more" (4.5.54-55). This says, with a pun, that the girl was a virgin when she went in, but not when she came out. Then the girl complains that her valentine promised to marry her if she went to bed with him, and he pulls the old double-standard trick on her. Sure, he would have married her, if "thou hadst not come to my bed" (4.5.66).

Why does Ophelia sing this song? Perhaps because it expresses just what her brother told her about Hamlet. Laertes told her that even though it might look like Hamlet really loved her, as soon as he got her into bed, it would be all over, because he wouldn't marry her. If this is what Ophelia is referring to, being crazy seems to have made her more knowing about how the world goes.

As Ophelia leaves, she says she can't help herself from weeping at the thought of "him" in the "cold ground." If the "him" is her father, her next words probably give the King a little scare: "My brother shall know of it . . . ." At the end, Ophelia seems to imagine herself as a kind of princess, calling for her coach and saying "Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night" (4.5.72-73).

Exit Ophelia and Horatio:
Horatio goes out with Ophelia, and the King and Queen are alone. The King bewails their fate. Troubles are piling up. Polonius has been killed and buried "hugger-mugger," Ophelia has gone mad, the "muddied" people are passing around rumors about Polonius' death, and to top it off, Laertes has secretly come back from France and is listening to those rumors. Already, everybody probably thinks the King killed Polonius. The King says "O my dear Gertrude, this, / Like to a murdering-piece, in many places / Gives me superfluous death" (4.5.94-96). A "murdering-piece" is a canon that works like a shotgun, shooting hundreds of pellets all over the place. It's enough to almost make us feel sorry for the King, if he hadn't brought it all on himself.

Just as the King is finishing his complaint, we hear noises and in comes a messenger with more bad news. Laertes is just outside, at the head of a mob which is clapping, cheering, and shouting, "Choose we: Laertes shall be king!" (4.5.107).

Enter Laertes:
No sooner has the messenger delivered his warning than Laertes himself comes bursting in, shouting, "O thou vile king, / Give me my father!" (4.5.116-117). To protect her husband, Gertrude rushes forward and clings to Laertes, but the King acts the part of a king and faces Laertes down. He tells Gertrude to let Laertes go, because "There's such divinity doth hedge a king, / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will" (4.5.124-126). This king hasn't much divinity in him, but he gets his way. Laertes is full of words, saying that he doesn't care if he's damned to hell. He says, "Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father" (4.5.136-137). But Laertes doesn't act. Instead he listens as the King tell him that "I am guiltless of your father's death, / And am most sensibly in grief for it" (4.5.150-151).

Re-enter Ophelia:
At this point, just as it appears that the King is getting Laertes to calm down, there's more trouble. The mob outside begins rumbling again, and we hear someone say "Let her come in!" Ophelia has apparently gotten free of her keepers, and she comes back into the room, alone, and very deranged.

Traditionally, she appears--in the sixteenth-century phrase--"with her hair about her ears," and carrying flowers. As soon as Laertes sees her, he understands that she has gone mad. His first reaction is horror; he doesn't want to look at what he's seeing, saying "tears seven times salt, / Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!" (4.5.155-156). In other words, he wishes that his tears could make him blind. His next thought is of revenge, and he promises that someone will have to pay for his sister's madness. Last, he mourns. He addresses his sister as "O rose of May! / Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!" (4.5.158-159). Then he asks if a young woman's wits can be destroyed as easily as an old man's life, and decides that Ophelia loved her father so much that her sanity followed him to the grave.

As before, Ophelia sings. Now she seems to be singing of how her father was carried to his grave, never to return. But before she finishes singing the song, Ophelia passes out flowers. Today, we associate roses with love, and lilies with Easter. In Shakespeare's time, many more flowers had meaning, and it seems that Ophelia's flowers have some kind of mad meaning. Perhaps the rosemary for remembrance and the pansies for thought go to Laertes, who remembers his father and thinks about his sister. The fennel for flattery and the columbines for ingratitude could go to the King. Ophelia has some rue, for sorrow and repentance, and maybe she gives some to the Queen, with the comment that "you must wear your rue with a difference" (4.5.183), because the Queen's sorrow and repentance are not the same as Ophelia's. There's a daisy for dissembling, which could also go to the Queen, or perhaps the King. Finally, there's violets for faithfulness. Ophelia says of them: "I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end" (4.5.184-186). Then Ophelia sings again of a funeral, and says goodbye, and is gone.

Exit Ophelia:
After Ophelia has gone, the King gets right back to work on Laertes, telling him how sorry he is, and that Laertes can choose anyone he wants to judge whether or not he had anything to do with Polonius' death. If the King is guilty, Laertes can have the kingdom and everything else the King has. If not, Laertes must let the King help him get revenge on the guilty party. Laertes still wants know why his father didn't get a better funeral, but it's clear that the King is going to be able to make use of Laertes' anger for his own purposes.