Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Act 4, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Back at Elsinore Castle, Ophelia has requested an audience with Gertrude. Having heard that Ophelia has been acting strangely since her father's death, the queen does not want to speak with her. But Horatio and other advisers suggest it might be better to speak with her than to let her wild talk and accusations fall on fertile ears. Gertrude submits.

Ophelia enters and is obviously in a disturbed state, singing and talking in a disconnected way. Claudius joins them and both king and queen are shocked by Ophelia's behavior.

When Ophelia leaves, Claudius informs Gertrude that Laertes has secretly returned from France after hearing of his father's death. As they speak, there is noise beyond their door, and a messenger enters to warn king and queen that Laertes, leading a riotous group of people, has come to see them.

Laertes enters; though angry, he convinces his followers to wait outside. He confronts Claudius and Gertrude, demanding answers and his father's body. As the king and queen try to calm him, Ophelia returns, still singing, offering flowers, and wandering in her distraction. Laertes's anger is nearly overwhelmed by his grief at the sight of his sister. Claudius seizes Laertes's moment of weakness and, with comforting words and gestures, convinces Laertes to come with him so that he may explain the circumstances of Polonius's death. Claudius promises Laertes that he will give his crown and kingdom if they find him—or Gertrude—at fault, but otherwise they will stand beside Laertes and help him through this tragedy.

Analysis

Madness once again is central in this scene; this time the madness—real as opposed to feigned—is Ophelia's. It comes to the foreground as Gertrude and Claudius realize that Ophelia has lost control of her senses at her father's death (and the loss of Hamlet's affection). Her songs, though they may seem nonsensical, point to her concern with her dead father and the loss of Hamlet's affection.

On the heels of this revelation, Laertes storms Elsinore. He has evolved into a man of action—perhaps more like Fortinbras than before. Whereas he had seemed more in alignment with Hamlet in the past, his time away may have changed that. However, Laertes now appears to lack balance, and his taste for revenge will be his undoing—and the undoing of several others. By the play's end, both Fortinbras and Hamlet will have achieved their independence, although only Fortinbras will live to carry it into his maturity. Laertes, though he initially seems to be of strong character, is batted about by Polonius and Claudius, and never comes into his own.

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