Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 5 Scene 2 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 5, Scene 2

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains Act 5, Scene 2 in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Act 5, Scene 2 | Summary



In the final scene, all are back at Elsinore Castle. Hamlet gives Horatio the details of the failed journey to England. He describes discovering that the papers carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern called for Hamlet's death. Hamlet tells Horatio that he replaced the original documents with forgeries that called for the bearers to be put to death—and that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying them when the pirates captured Hamlet.

A courtier, Osric, approaches Horatio and Hamlet with a message for Hamlet from the king. Osric tells Hamlet that he has been invited to test his skills in a friendly duel with Laertes. Claudius wagers against Hamlet's abilities and wishes to know if Hamlet will accept the challenge. Hamlet does.

People gather for the duel: Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Hamlet, Horatio, and a number of lords and attendants. Hamlet and Laertes shake hands, and Hamlet asks for Laertes's forgiveness.

The duel begins, and Hamlet hits Laertes. The king cheers on Hamlet and, with a false display of affection, drops a poisoned pearl into Hamlet's cup of wine. An attendant offers the cup to Hamlet, who waves him off. After Hamlet hits Laertes a second time, Gertrude reaches for the drink. Claudius attempts to stop her, but she insists and unknowingly drinks the poison. Yet again, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to great effect, as Claudius accidentally murders his wife.

Laertes, becoming desperate, finally scores a hit on Hamlet. A scuffle ensues, the foils are exchanged, and, as the duel resumes, Hamlet makes his third hit on Laertes—this time with the poisoned foil. Before anything more can occur, the queen succumbs to the poison she has drunk and collapses. Laertes, realizing that he has been hit by his own poisoned foil, cries out that he has been killed by his own treachery. On the heels of his words, the queen realizes what is happening, exclaims that the drink has been poisoned, and dies.

Hamlet calls for the doors of the hall to be locked at once and demands they get to the cause of the treachery. Laertes speaks up in his final moments, informing everyone that he and Hamlet have been poisoned by the foil, that Gertrude has also been poisoned, and that the king is to blame. In a fury, Hamlet hits the king with the tainted foil and forces him to drink from the poisoned cup. Claudius soon dies. Laertes calls out, begging Hamlet's forgiveness and saying that if they forgive each other, neither his nor his father's death will be on Hamlet and Hamlet's death will not be on him. They agree as Laertes closes his eyes.

Hamlet, now failing, bids his dead mother goodbye and collapses. Horatio comforts him and attempts to drink the last of the wine, but Hamlet stops him. Hamlet implores Horatio to live on and, if he loved him, to take his story to the world.

Sounds in the castle announce the return of Fortinbras from Poland and the arrival of the English ambassadors. Hamlet prophesizes that Fortinbras will become king of Denmark. As he dies, Fortinbras and the ambassadors enter, shocked at the carnage around them. Horatio tells the arrivals what has occurred, and Fortinbras asks that Hamlet be borne away with the honor of a soldier.


As with all Shakespearean tragedies, the final scene ends with a number of dead people. That it includes Hamlet and Laertes moves us; that it includes Gertrude, who fell an unwitting victim to her husband's schemes—as she has been from the outset—adds to that sorrow. That Claudius is dead leaves the audience with the feeling that the "something rotten in Denmark" may have been cleaned up at last.

This scene touches on a number of the major themes:

  • Truth versus deception: The entire play rests on Claudius's original act of deception: murdering his brother and taking his crown and his queen. That it ends here in this scene, with Claudius having put together yet another plot to secure his power, gives the play a feeling of having come full circle. That this particular scheme has gone bad, costing Claudius and Gertrude their lives, are instances of situational and dramatic irony.
  • Thought versus action: Hamlet, in this final scene, may finally have struck a balance between thought and action. It is as if the idealistic intellectual finally woke up, realizing thinking alone is not enough. That he won't be able to take that new-found skill into maturity contributes to the tragedy.

    Thought versus action is also evident in Fortinbras. This Fortinbras is different from the character the audience heard about when he was initially passing through Denmark. Time and experience—and now the stunning scene he finds at Elsinore—seem to help Fortinbras become a more tempered person. He shows himself bold but thoughtful when he stumbles into the death-filled hall; clearly someone needs to take charge, and Fortinbras does.

    But the feeling communicated here is that, unlike the Fortinbras who at the beginning was all action and no thought, this Fortinbras thinks as he acts. In a sense, it is as if Fortinbras and Hamlet, originally representing two ends of a continuum, have now moved to the middle—to the point that they may have more in common with each other than not. Sadly, the world Shakespeare has created within this play will never know what might have been.
  • Madness: Madness has permeated the play. In Act 1, Scene 1, the soldiers on the watch do not want people to know they think they saw a ghost. By Scenes 4 and 5 of Act 1, Hamlet and Horatio wonder if they have actually seen King Hamlet's ghost, prompting Hamlet to assume an "antic disposition." In Act 2, others begin to question Hamlet's sanity; close to the end of Act 4, everyone agrees Ophelia truly is mad; and audiences must certainly wonder about Claudius's sanity. But by the end of this scene, it is only Claudius's madness—spurred by a need to secure his position—that the play contends with.

  • Mortality: Musings on mortality abound throughout the play. The ghost, Hamlet's dress in the beginning of the play, the grave and the graveyard, Yorick's skull, the many deaths in the play (and the various ways by which characters die) all underscore that we all must eventually face death. In the final scene, Laertes, Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius all die. There is situational irony in that Laertes and Claudius die by the scheme they've hatched. Gertrude's death shows dramatic irony, as she is caught up in a trap set by her husband to catch her son. And Hamlet, who is just coming into his own, suggests that death is inevitable and truly waits for no man.
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