Hamlet, Act 5


5.1 seems to me one of the great comic scenes in Shakespeare, but also a searching commentary on mortality. Hamlet seems to take the grave digger as a kind of tutor on death. We learn that Hamlet was born just as the grave digger came to his profession, which suggests a certain connectedness between them. And just as he’s learned as much as he can of the ironies and emptiness of death, he finds that the grave is for the woman he had loved, and for whose madness — and her death?– he is at least in part responsible.

As he and Laertes grapple over or in the grave, Hamlet does seem at least momentarily mad, as the queen notes. The scene is quickly ended when Hamlet runs off. Earlier it was clear that Claudius and Laertes were planning Hamlet’s murder, so this hangs over the rest of the act.

I wonder what we’re to think of R & G’s fate. Scene 5.2 is largely given over to plot, but when Hamlet tells Horatio what he did to procure their death, Horatio’s only comment is “So Rosencranz and Guildenstern go t’it.” This might express judgment, but it’s certainly a loose thread that a later playwright can pull.

If “comic relief” is real — I’m never sure it is — Osric surely supplies some. In attempting a reconciliation with Laertes, Hamlet protests his madness. Do we believe him? There was perhaps a kind of madness in his rash thrust at Polonius. But was the madness toward Ophelia feigned or real?

I believe critics have felt there’s a calm or resolution that comes over Hamlet after his return. He seems to confess a kind of dread or apprehension to Horatio at 5.2.190. But he continues that he defies augury and accepts whatever fate awaits him. The “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” and the sense that “it” — which I assume is death — is either now or yet to come seems to express a fatalism or acceptance. “The readiness is all” may echo Lear’s ripeness is all.

Of course Claudius’ plot is entirely, or almost entirely (since Hamlet is killed), upended with Gertrude’s quaffing of the poisoned chalice and Laertes’ wounding with the bated sword. Claudius appears doubly poisoned, both by the sword and the poisoned chalice that Hamlet pours down him. Horatio is almost a casualty as well until Hamlet grabs the chalice from him, maybe spills it, and enjoins his post-mortem report, in that memorable formula, “Absent thee from felicity a while, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story.”

Horatio’s summary, “So shall you hear . . . ” sounds like a parodic summary of revenge tragedy. But it’s accurate here. Fortinbras says that “with sorrow” he embraces his fortune, but we probably don’t believe that. And what’s he doing here anyway? But it’s a question that we never really care to ask.

So how many questions are we left with at the end of the play? There is the question of Hamlet’s feigned or real madness. I think we decided that the madness is more feigned than real, but why, if feigned, is it directed at Ophelia? Was Gertrude involved with Claudius before the murder of old Hamlet? Why did Hamlet plot the death of R & G? He seems to have felt they betrayed him, but they seemed rather clueless about the whole matter, as Stoppard elaborated. Of course Hamlet finally got his revenge, so the Ghost should be satisfied on that point. What other questions remain?

And of course I’ve raised a good many questions above.


You’re of course right that Claudius says that Hamlet is “most immediate to our throne.” I overlooked that line. Are you suggesting that Claudius wants to make sure that young Hamlet succeeds him, or that Claudius wants to keep his friends close and his enemies closer? Maybe, as you imply, because Hamlet was in Wittenberg when his father was killed, the ‘voters’ figured it made better sense to elect Claudius than Hamlet.

Yes, we have different lineation. My 2.2.519-20 is in the middle of the Player King’s speech. Are you suggesting the words beginning “Am I a coward?”

Hamlet may hesitate to kill Claudius at prayer because he remembers that the Ghost lamented that he was “Cut off even in the blossom of my sin,/ Unhouseled, disapppointed, unaneled/ No reck’ning made, but sent to my account/ With all my imperfections on my head.” It appears to Hamlet that Claudius may be confessing, repenting, asking forgiveness. In 5.2 Hamlet gives orders for the “sudden death” of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “not shriving time allowed.” So I think there is a reasonable case to hold off from killing the king.

I think Hamlet’s reported behavior to Ophelia suggests enacted love woe — in fact, it displays, as Hamlet no doubt knew, all the standard signs.

“No more” is a puzzle: as you say, in addition to “death is not a big deal, it’s no more than sleep.” it might mean an interjected “no more life.” An actor might have to choose. Interesting that Hamlet imagines that no traveler returns from that undiscovered country, but in fact he thinks his father has just returned.

In order for the words beginning “And thus the native hue of resolution . . .” to make logical — note the “thus” — sense, “resolution” and “enterprises” must refer not to revenge but to suicide. (Critics who think Hamlet “delays” seize on these words, thinking they refer to his planned revenge.)

I continue to think it likely that Hamlet knows or at least suspects that he is being overheard, and wants to make Claudius and Polonius think he is depressed and suicidal but not going to kill himself, and is going to “bear . . . ills.” And I continue to think that the speech seems quite barren of any religious scruple, strikingly so since Hamlet elsewhere thinks in Christian terms about what happens after the death of his father, and what would happen after Claudius’s death (or after Gertrude’s), and says explicitly that self-slaughter is not allowed by God. Again, the absence of Christian scruple in the speech makes sense if we think of it not as revealing his deepest concerns, but as designed to be overheard.

You make a good point about Horatio as better equipped to be a revenger. Hamlet is ill-quipped: he thinks too much and he feels too much. Horatio says Hamlet inquires too closely. Horatio is ready to kill himself and doesn’t think about what might come after.

Yes, Hamlet is hard on his mother — but so was the Ghost. Hamlet in effect channels the Ghost’s angry disgust. And Gertrude is apparently not shaken after Hamlet’s hard words at 182ff. She reacted much more strongly at 89 (“O Hamlet, speak no more . . .”), 96 (“These words like daggers . . .”), and 157 (“thou has cleft my heart in twain”).

4.4 seems to be important because it keeps Fortinbras before our minds as a foil, and because it sets up “How all occasions do inform against me . . .” I agree that the comparison Hamlet makes between himself and Fortinbras is ambiguous. Hamlet seems to sense that Fortinbras is no model, wasting blood and treasure for “a straw.” Is Fortinbras another Hotspur, and is Hamlet another Hal? “Honor” seems to motivate Fortinbras. Does Hamlet think much about it? Polonius talks about Ophelia’s “honor” and Laertes’ “dishonor.” The King says Polonius is “honorable.” Hamlet thinks Danish drinking is a custom that should not be honored, i.e., it would be more honorable to violate the custom than observe it. The word is often used as an honorific (Your honor, honored lord). Laertes refers twice to his “honor” in 5.2.

In 5.1 questions are raised about Ophelia’s death. Maybe she did want to die. Maybe it was an “accident.” But it’s deemed “doubtful.” The discussion enables the gravedigger to analyze the three parts of an “act” — which of course bears directly on Hamlet’s actions.

I wonder why we get such specificity about dates: gravedigger has been sexton for 30 years, and gravedigger since Hamlet was born. If that’s two ways of saying the same things, Hamlet is 30 years old, which seems much too old for a student. So maybe the sexton only took on the additional duties of gravedigger seven years after becoming sexton. And then Yorick has been dead 23 years. Since Hamlet knew him, we do the math and again imagine that Hamlet might be in his late 20s. I’ve assumed “young Hamlet” is maybe 18. The graveyard talk gives us another image of what happens after death: nothing but rotting bodies turning to dust. (No dreaming, no consciousness, no undiscovered country.)

The fighting over Ophelia’s grave is introduced when Hamlet declares that he is “Hamlet the Dane.” Earlier “the Dane” had been a title reserved for old Hamlet and for Claudius. So he is in some sense laying claim to the throne, as he does when he signs and seals a death warrant with Old Hamlet’s ring. When Hamlet challenges Laertes, both the King and Queen think him mad. But he himself later says (in 5.2) that it was his “tow’ring passion” — an emotional response springing from his love for Ophelia. That’s not madness. This is also the first unambiguous evidence that Hamlet truly loved Ophelia.

As for the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet confesses that he has ordered it, and feels no guilt: they deserved it. So it is odd that in the closing moments of the play Horatio says that Hamlet did not give any commandment for their deaths.

I wonder why we need comic relief in the Osric scene in 5.2, since we had such good comedy in the gravedigger’s scene. Maybe “young Osric” is in the play as false courtier (vs. Hamlet as true courtier). Later in the scene comes that crucial line — “The readiness is all.” It has always seemed a central part of the changed Hamlet. It perhaps suggests that he has moved on from thinking about turning will into act, or refraining from acting, or delaying. Now he just wants to be ready when an occasion presents itself. (I can just as well argue against that point, since Hamlet seemed “ready” to act when he found Claudius at prayer and then thought he was behind the arras.)

Later in 5.2 Hamlet proclaims to Laertes that his earlier offensive action was the result of “madness,” and that’s evidence to support the theory that Hamlet was not just acting/pretending, and a problem for the reader to solve. His distinction between what Hamlet does and what his separate “madness” does recalls the gravedigger’s lines about the man going to the water or the water coming to the man, and the problematic (“doubtful”) death of Ophelia. How you decide whether an act is willed and deliberate(d) comes up again when Laertes says he “acts almost against his conscience.” And it perhaps gets another summary look when Horatio speaks at the end about “accidental judgments, “casual [i.e. chance] slaughters,” and “purposes mistook.” Things happen not because they are planned and willed but because of “providence.” So much for the idea that this is a play about revenge.

I am not sure what to make of Fortinbras’s entry line: “Where is this sight?” Has somebody told him that there is something he should “see”? It’s also curious that his word leads to some back-and-forth between seeing and hearing: “The sight is dismal . . give us hearing . . bodies placed to the view . . . let me speak . . so shall you hear . . . audience . . . cause to speak . . . speak loudly for him . . . such a sight as this.” Speaking is not aligned only with Horatio and seeing only with Fortinbras. But maybe there is a proposed shift from sight (the shocking view of many dead bodies — as in Greek tragedy) to speaking/hearing, telling a true story that will explain this mindless spectacle to future listeners.

As for “absent thee from felicity,” perhaps Hamlet thinks that Horatio thinks that death would be felicitious, but does Hamlet think so? And as for your final questions, I don’t find evidence that Gertrude committed any adultery. Hamlet’s behavior toward Ophelia is difficult to explain. One theory is that he was truly hurt when she followed her father’s instructions and rebuffed him. Another is that he spoke cruelly or tauntingly to her as part of his “antic” act. She is collateral damage, and Hamlet seems to acknowledge that he has some responsibility for her death. He feels less responsibility for the deaths of R and G. Yes, they were somewhat unwitting agents of Claudius, but they were willing to act as his agents and spy on Hamlet. And he’s not repentant for killing Polonius. When you stop and think about it, Hamlet is responsible for a lot of deaths, including those of Laertes and Claudius, but the one he kills with full knowledge and deliberation is Claudius.

Yes, Hamlet got his revenge, and a lot more. And the Ghost must finally be satisfied. Is it odd that Hamlet after the scene in Gertrude’s bedroom seems to forget all about the Ghost? And that Horatio, when he gives the summary of what has happened in the play, says nothing about Hamlet executing the fearful summons and setting things right? Maybe Shakespeare has undermined the whole idea of revenge and revenge play.

I think this play has occasioned more commentary from us than any previous play. More problems that are not fully solved and more questions that are not fully answered.


Some quick follow-up on Hamlet questions:
I doubt that Claudius is much concerned about Hamlet’s succession, but I’m sure he wants to keep him close. It’s clear he doesn’t trust him.

Yes, that soliloquy, especially toward the middle where he seems to shout, “Bloody, bawdy villain” ff, and then seems to catch himself. But here if anywhere he seems to go out of control, if only momentarily.

Yes, I agree that Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius because he remembers what the ghost said, but in my understanding this is exactly why he should not hesitate. The ghost asked for vengeance, not for Claudius’ damnation. Not killing him at this point involves what the ghost had cautioned him against, tainting his mind. And in the very next scene, he appears to offer some violence to Gertrude just before killing Polonius and toward the end of the scene berates her painfully. The ordering of the death of R & G may be an underscoring of this tainting of his mind, and their killing is not endorsed by Horatio.

What you say about the overhearing of the “To be, or not to be” makes sense, and it convinces Claudius that it’s not love-melancholy that troubles Hamlet. That Hamlet means for Claudius to understand it may be signaled by his glancing toward the arras as he speaks. I’ve seen it done where he notices their shoes, but that may be too obvious. And yes, I think the great enterprises and resolution refer to suicide. Hamlet does seem to turn away from suicide — perhaps to confuse Claudius?

I’m still troubled by 4.4 and wonder what it does beyond keeping Fortinbras in the picture. It pulls the rug out from a sense of military honor and the kind of bizarre overreach that Fortinbras is involved with.

I too imagine Hamlet younger than 30. But maybe the point is to associate him with the gravedigger. And the gravedigger draws Hamlet into yet another sense of death. So far we’ve had the Ghost and sleep and the undiscovered country. Now this very basic side, especially the wonder at Yorick.

Yes, Hamlet gets his revenge, but causes other deaths in the process, Polonius, perhaps Ophelia, R & G. Other deaths, Laertes’ and Gertrude’s, seem to come from the others.

In some ways it’s hard to put down the play, and it certainly has drawn a larger volume of commentary and argument from us. We could probably go on and on.


A little more on Hamlet (it’s hard to stop thinking and talking about the play): if you’re right that Hamlet’s mind is “tainted” and that he should have killed Claudius when he had the chance, then at the end of the play Hamlet himself and Horatio must be focusing their attention on later events, because neither one says anything about Hamlet’s failure to act earlier.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell