It is famously difficult to pin down his true thoughts and feelings — does he love Ophelia, and does he really intend to kill Claudius? In fact, it often seems as though Hamlet pursues lines of thought and emotion merely for their experimental value, testing this or that idea without any interest in applying his resolutions in the practical world. The variety of his moods, from manic to somber, seems to cover much of the range of human possibility.
The play opens during a bitterly cold night watch outside of the royal Danish palace. There is a changing of the guards: Bernardo replaces Francisco. Soon two more characters arrive, Horatio and Marcellus. We learn that Bernardo and Marcellus, two soldiers, have witnessed an extraordinary sight on both of the previous nights’ watches: the ghost of the former King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, has appeared before them in full armor. On this third night, they’ve welcomed Horatio, a scholar and a skeptic who has just arrived in Denmark, to verify their ghost sighting. Horatio initially expresses doubt that the ghost will appear. Suddenly, it does. The two soldiers charge Horatio to speak to the ghost but he does not. The ghost disappears just as suddenly as it arrived.
Soon after the ghost’s disappearance, Marcellus asks the other two why there has been such a massive mobilization of Danish war forces recently. Horatio answers, saying that the Danish army is preparing for a possible invasion by Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. We learn that Fortinbras’ father (also named Fortinbras), was killed many years before in single combat with Old Hamlet, the now-deceased king whose ghost we have just seen. Now that Old Hamlet has died, presumably weakening the Danes, there is a rumor that Fortinbras plans to invade Denmark and claim that lands that were forfeit after his father’s death.
After Horatio has finished explaining this political backstory, the ghost of Old Hamlet appears once more. This time Horatio does try to speak to the ghost. When the ghost remains silent, Horatio tells Marcellus and Bernardo to try to detain it; they strike at the ghost with their spears but jab only air. A rooster crows just as the ghost appears ready to reply to Horatio at last. This sound startles the ghost away. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet, Old Hamlet’s son, about the apparition, and the others agree.
This scene begins at the court of Claudius and Gertrude, the King and Queen of Denmark. They have just been married. This marriage has followed quickly after the death of the former King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, Claudius’ brother. Claudius addresses the quickness of the marriage, representing himself as in mourning for a lost brother even as he is joyful for a new wife, his one-time sister. Claudius also addresses the question of the young Fortinbras’ proposed invasion. He says that he has spoken to Fortinbras’ uncle, the King of Norway, who has made Fortinbras promise to halt any plans to invade Denmark. Claudius sends Cornelius and Voltemand, two courtiers, to Norway to settle this business. Finally, Claudius turns to Laertes, the son of his trusted counselor, Polonius. Laertes expresses a wish to return to France and Claudius grants permission.
At this point, Prince Hamlet, who has been standing apart from the king’s audience this whole time, speaks the first of his many lines. Claudius asks Hamlet why he is still so gloomy. Hamlet’s replies are evasive, cynical, and punning. He declares that his grief upon losing his father still deeply affects him. Claudius goes into a speech about the unnaturalness of prolonged grief; to lose one’s father is painful but common, he says, and Hamlet should accept this as nature’s course. He expresses a wish that Hamlet remain with them in Denmark instead of returning to Wittenberg, where he is a student, and when Gertrude seconds this wish, Hamlet agrees. The king, queen, and all their retinue then exit the stage, leaving Hamlet alone.
In his first soliloquy, Hamlet expresses the depths of his melancholy and his disgust at his mother’s hastily marrying Claudius after the death of his father. He declares his father to be many times Claudius’ superior as a man. After this soliloquy, Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo enter. At first, Hamlet is too aggrieved to recognize Horatio, his old school friend, but finally he welcomes Horatio warmly. After chatting about the state, Horatio tells Hamlet that he has seen his dead father recently – the night before. Hamlet asks him to explain, and Horatio tells the story of the appearance of the ghost. Hamlet decides to attend the watch that very night in hopes of seeing the ghost himself.
As the scene opens, Laertes is taking his leave of his sister, Ophelia. In the course of their farewells, Laertes advises her about her relationship with Hamlet, with whom she has been spending much of her time lately. He tells her to forget him because he, as Prince of Denmark, is too much to hope for as a husband. He adds that she should vigilantly guard her chastity, her most prized treasure as a woman. Ophelia agrees to attend to his lesson. As Laertes is about to leave, his father, Polonius, arrives. Polonius gives Laertes a blessing and a battery of advice before sending his son on his way.
With Laertes gone, Polonius asks Ophelia what they had been talking about as he arrived. Ophelia confesses that they had been talking about her relationship with Hamlet. She tells Polonius that Hamlet has made many honorable declarations of love to her. Polonius pooh-poohs these declarations, saying, much as Laertes did, that Hamlet wants nothing more than to assail her chastity and then leave her. He makes his daughter promise that she will spend no more time alone with Hamlet. Ophelia says that she will obey.
Alone with Hamlet, the ghost finally speaks. He tells Hamlet that he has come on a nightly walk from Purgatory, where his soul is under continual torment for the sins of his life. The ghost then reveals that he was not killed by a viper, as officially announced, but was murdered. Moreover, he reveals that his own brother, Claudius, who now wears his crown and sleeps with his wife, was the murderer. The ghost tells of how Claudius snuck into his garden while he was taking his accustomed afternoon nap and poured poison into his ear, killing him most painfully and sending his soul unpurified into the afterlife. The ghost demands vengeance, telling Hamlet not to plot against his mother, whom he describes as merely weak and lustful, but to focus the whole of his revenge on Claudius. The ghost then disappears.
Hamlet, overwhelmed and half-raving, swears that he will kill Claudius. After he has made this vow, Horatio and Marcellus arrive. Hamlet does not tell them what the ghost has revealed, but nevertheless insists that they swear not to speak of the apparition to anyone. They agree. Hamlet then insists that they swear again on his sword. They agree again, confused at these demands. The ghost of Old Hamlet, meanwhile, can be heard under the stage, insisting along with his son that they swear themselves to secrecy. Hamlet leads his friends to several different points on stage, insisting that they swear over and over again. He then reveals, parenthetically, that they might find his behavior in the next while to be strange – he might pretend to be mad and act otherwise unusually – but that they must still keep secret what they have seen. After this final agreement, Hamlet leads the others offstage, uneasily determined to revenge his father’s murder.
Act begins with Polonius speaking to one of his servants, Reynaldo, about his son, Laertes, who has by this time returned to Paris. We see Polonius in the act of sending Reynaldo after Laertes to inquire into his son’s conduct. He instructs Reynaldo very precisely in the method of obtaining this information. First, Reynaldo is to find out from strangers in Paris about the prominent Danes in the city without revealing that he has any particular attachment to Laertes. When Laertes’ name comes up, Reynaldo is to pretend to have some distant knowledge of him, and is further to suggest that he knows of Laertes as something of a happy-go-lucky youth given to gambling, drinking, fencing, swearing, fighting, and whoring. By this path of insinuation, Polonius explains, Reynaldo will hear from his hypothetical Parisian interlocutor the unvarnished truth about Laertes’ conduct in France. Having thus prepared Reynaldo to spy on his son, Polonius sends him off.
Ophelia enters, distraught. She tells her father that Hamlet has frightened her with his wild, unkempt appearance and deranged manners. After Ophelia describes Hamlet’s behavior, she further reveals that, as per Polonius’ orders, she has cut off all contact with Hamlet and has refused his letters. Polonius reasons, thus, that Hamlet’s madness is the result of Ophelia’s rejection. He had thought that Hamlet was only trifling with her, but it turns out (he now declares) that Hamlet was indeed deeply in love with Ophelia. Polonius hurries off to tell Claudius and Gertrude that he has discovered the reason for their son’s odd behavior.
King Claudius has made plans of his own to discover the reasons for Hamlet’s supposed madness. He has summoned two of Hamlet’s school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, both to comfort his nephew-cum-son and to try to discover the reason for his distemper (so he says). The two scholars are only too happy to oblige in this task.
After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave the royal presence, Polonius rushes in, announcing that he has found the reason for Hamlet’s madness. Before he reveals his news, however, he entreats Claudius and Gertrude to hear from the two ambassadors to Norway, Voltemand and Cornelius, who have just returned. They report that the King of Norway, after looking into his nephew Fortinbras’ actions, found out that he was indeed planning to invade Denmark. The King of Norway then rebuked Fortinbras and ordered him to abandon his plan of Danish conquest, which young Fortinbras agreed to do. Overjoyed at his nephew’s acquiescence, Norway then rewarded Fortinbras with a generous annual allowance. Further, Norway granted Fortinbras leave to levy war against the Polish. Finally, the ambassadors report that Norway seeks Claudius’ permission to allow Fortinbras passage through Denmark in this proposed campaign against Poland. Claudius declares his approval of this message and says that he will consider its details anon.
Polonius steps forward to reveal his discovery. He tells the king and queen, in a very roundabout way, that he has discovered Hamlet’s foiled love of Ophelia, and that he believes this lost love to be the root cause of Hamlet’s madness. Claudius asks how they might prove this to be the case. Polonius has a plan. He offers to loose Ophelia on Hamlet while he is reading alone in the library. Meanwhile, he suggests, he and Claudius could hide behind a tapestry and observe the meeting. Claudius agrees.
Just then, Hamlet enters, reading. Gertrude and Claudius exit while Polonius attempts to speak to Hamlet. Hamlet plays with Polonius, mocking him, evading his questions, and turning his language inside out. Nevertheless, Polonius “reads between the lines,” as it were, and interprets Hamlet’s nonsensical replies as motivated by a broken heart. Polonius leaves to contrive the proposed meeting between Hamlet and his daughter.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, surprising their friend Hamlet. The three friends banter philosophically for a good while before Hamlet asks the two why they have come to Elsinore. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to dodge this question, declaring that they have come for no other reason than to visit him. Hamlet, though, won’t let them off the hook, and makes them admit that the king and queen sent for them. When they admit it, Hamlet also tells them why they were sent for – because he has been deeply melancholy, and has foregone his accustomed behavior. He sinks deeply into a speech detailing this misery.
Rosencrantz changes the subject. He tells Hamlet that he and Guildenstern passed a troop of players on their way to Elsinore. They gossip briefly about the city theaters the troop had left before coming to Denmark (presumably those of London). Soon the players arrive with a flourish. Polonius rushes back into the scene, bearing the already stale news that the players have arrived. Hamlet banters with Polonius in the same mocking vein as before until the players burst into court, at which point Hamlet rushes up to welcome them.
Hamlet insists upon hearing a speech straight away, and in particular requests a recitation based on a scene in Virgil’s Aeneid, as related by Aeneas to Dido, recounting the death of Priam during the fall of Troy. Hamlet himself begins the speech and then cedes the floor to one of the players, who recites a long and fustian description of Priam’s death by Pyrrhus’ hand. The player goes on to speak of the wild grief of Hecuba, Priam’s wife, after her husband has been killed. While speaking of her agony, the player begins to weep and shake. Polonius finally cuts him off and Hamlet agrees.
Before the players retire, however, Hamlet pulls the main player aside and asks him whether the company knows a certain play, “The Murder of Gonzago.” The player says that they do, and Hamlet commissions it for the following night, saying that he will write some speeches of his own to be inserted into the play as written. The player says that this would be fine and then takes his leave.
Left alone on stage, Hamlet muses about the strangeness of his situation. He asks himself, “How can this player be so filled with grief and rage over Priam and Hecuba, imaginary figures whom he doesn’t even know, while I, who have every reason to rage and grieve and seek bloody revenge, am weak, uncertain, and incapable of action?” He curses himself and his indecisiveness before cursing his murderous uncle in a rage. Having regained composure, Hamlet announces his plan to make sure that the ghost of his father is genuine – that the apparition was not some evil spirit sent to lure his soul to damnation. He declares his intention to stage a play exactly based on the murder of his father. While it is played he will observe Claudius. If the king is guilty, Hamlet figures, surely he will show this guilt when faced with the scene of the crime.
An entourage consisting of the king and queen, Polonius and Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enters to begin the Act. Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what they have learned about Hamlet’s malady. The two reply that they have not been able to find its cause. They do mention, however, that Hamlet was very enthusiastic about the players’ performance that night, which prompts Claudius to agree to attend the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave. Polonius and Claudius then begin their plan to loose Ophelia on Hamlet and mark their encounter, hoping to find the root of his madness. They instruct Ophelia to pretend that she is simply reading a book and withdraw behind a tapestry.
Hamlet enters and delivers the most famous speech in literature, beginning, “To be or not to be.” After this long meditation on the nature of being and death, Hamlet catches sight of Ophelia. After a short conversation she attempts to return some of the remembrances that Hamlet gave when courting her. Hamlet replies caustically, questioning Ophelia’s honesty. He then berates Ophelia, telling her off sarcastically and venomously, with the refrain, “Get thee to a nunnery,” or in other words, “Go become a nun to control your lust.” After this tirade, Hamlet exists, leaving Ophelia in shambles.
Claudius and Polonius step out of their hiding place. The king states that he does not believe that Hamlet is mad because of his foiled love for Ophelia, or really mad at all, but tormented for some hidden reason. He determines to send Hamlet on a diplomatic mission to England before he can cause any serious trouble. Polonius endorses this plan, but persists in his belief that Hamlet’s grief is the result of his love for Ophelia. He consoles his daughter. Polonius suggests in parting that Claudius arrange a private interview between Hamlet and his mother after the play that evening and Claudius agrees.
Just as the play is about to begin, Hamlet instructs the players on the art of acting, telling them to act naturally and to avoid bombast. He sets the players to their preparations and then conferences with Horatio. After complimenting Horatio in the most sterling terms, Hamlet asks his friend to assist him in watching the king’s response to the play they are about to see (apparently Hamlet has by this time told Horatio what the ghost revealed). Horatio seats himself so as to view the king properly. The royal entourage enters. Hamlet manically chatters with Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and Ophelia, reserving special attention for the latter, whom he sits next to and teases.
The play begins with a “Dumb Show,” which is a pantomime of the drama to come. On stage, the basic form of the alleged murder is repeated: a king and queen are shown happily married; the king takes a nap; a poisoner enters and pours something in the king’s ear, killing him; the poisoner than takes possession of the queen. Ophelia seems confused by this plot but Hamlet tells her to wait for the speaker of the prologue to explain.
The prologue is a short little jingling rhyme. The player king and queen then immediately enter the stage. The king mentions that they have been married thirty years. The player queen expresses a hope that their love last as long over again. The king encourages the queen to remarry if he dies. The queen protests against this notion vehemently, swearing never to love another if were to she turn widow. With this, the king falls asleep and the queen exits. Hamlet asks his mother, Gertrude, how she likes the play, and Gertrude replies with the famous line, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Claudius is also outspokenly apprehensive about the nature of the play. It continues, however, with the entrance of Lucianus, the sleeping king’s nephew. This evil character creeps up to the sleeping player king and pours poison in his ear. Hamlet, unable to contain himself, erupts, telling everyone that Lucianus will soon win the love of the king’s over-protesting wife.
At this, Claudius rises and orders the play to end. He retreats with his retinue. Hamlet and Horatio laugh together, certain now that the ghost was telling the truth. After a short celebration, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell Hamlet that he has made Claudius very angry. They also say that Gertrude has ordered Hamlet to meet her in her chamber. They then entreat Hamlet to tell the cause of his distemper. Hamlet replies mockingly by saying that they are trying to play him like a pipe and that he won’t let them. Polonius enters and entreats Hamlet again to see his mother. All exit but Hamlet. In a short soliloquy, Hamlet reflects that he will be cruel to his mother, showing her the extent of her crime in marrying Claudius, but will not actually hurt her.
Claudius gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a sealed envelope with orders to convey Hamlet to England and give the envelope to the king there. In highly flattering terms, they agree to do the king’s bidding and exit. Polonius then enters, saying that Hamlet is going to meet with his mother, and declaring his intention to hide behind an arras and listen to their conversation. He exits. Alone, the king looks into his soul. He is deeply disgusted by what he sees. He kneels to pray, hoping to purge his guilt, but reflects that this penance will not be genuine because he will still retain the prizes for which he committed murder in the first place, his crown and his wife.
As Claudius is vainly attempting to pray, Hamlet comes up behind him. He reflects that he now has an opportunity to kill his uncle and revenge his father, but pauses, considering that because Claudius is in the act of prayer he would likely go straight to heaven if killed. Hamlet resolves to kill Claudius later, when he is in the middle of some sinful act. He continues on to his mother’s chamber.
In the chamber, awaiting Hamlet’s arrival, Polonius hides himself behind one of Gertrude’s curtains. Hamlet enters. Gertrude attempts to be firm and chastising, but Hamlet comes right back at her, saying that she has sinned mightily in marrying her husband’s brother. He pulls his mother in front of a mirror, saying that he will reveal her inmost part, and Gertrude momentarily misinterprets this, thinking that Hamlet may attempt to murder her. She cries for help. Polonius, hidden from view, also cries out for help. Hamlet thinks that the hidden voice belongs to Claudius. He stabs Polonius through the curtain, killing him. When he sees that he has killed Polonius, Hamlet declares the old man to be a “rash, intruding fool.”
Quickly forgetting about this death, Hamlet seats his mother down and presents her with two portraits, one of her first husband and the other of Claudius. He describes the two as opposites, the one all nobility and virtue, the other all deformity and vice. Gertrude is deeply affected by this comparison and seems to comprehend the enormity of her sin. Hamlet continues to berate her and describe Claudius in the most foul and hurtful language. While in the middle of this harangue, Old Hamlet’s ghost appears once more, telling Hamlet to stop torturing his mother and to remember his duty to kill Claudius. At the ghost’s command, Hamlet consoles his mother. Gertrude, unable to see the ghost, sees Hamlet talking to thin air and resolves that he is indeed insane. The ghost exits.
Hamlet tells his mother that he is not in fact insane. He reiterates that she should repent her marriage to Claudius and tells her in particular to stay away from their shared bed for the night. After describing the importance of this abstinence in the most colorful terms, Hamlet reminds his mother that he is ordered to England. Hamlet says that although he will go to England, he will not trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He exits his mother’s bedroom, dragging the body of Polonius behind him.
Next we see Fortinbras’ Norwegian army. They are at the borders of Denmark. Fortinbras sends one of his captains to the court of Claudius to ask permission to cross Denmark in the course of their march to Poland. The captain travels on and Fortinbras and the rest of the army exit.
The captain meets with Hamlet, who is being conveyed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the ship to England. Hamlet asks the captain about his army and his purpose in going to Poland. The captain says that in Poland there is “a little patch of ground” which Norway claims as her own. He describes this land as perfectly worthless and small. Hamlet suggests that the Poles will not likely defend such a piece of land, but the captain sets him straight, saying that Poland is already garrisoned and ready for their dispute. Hamlet wraps up his conversation with the captain. He hangs back from the others marching to the ship and delivers a long soliloquy on the irony of this occasion – these men are off to risk their lives for a worthless piece of land, while he, who has every reason to risk his life in the cause of revenge, delays and fails to act. Hamlet resolves to recast his mind to bloody thoughts. Ironically, however, just after making this resolution he continues on toward England, leaving Denmark behind him.
Back in the court of Denmark, we see Gertrude speaking with a gentleman who explains that Ophelia has gone mad. She is rambling nonsensically about her father and insisting on seeing Gertrude. The queen reluctantly admits Ophelia, who proceeds to sing a number of simple and haunting songs, some of them quite bawdy. The king enters and witnesses her madness. Ophelia then speaks openly of her father’s untimely demise and hasty, unofficial burial. She threatens, “My brother shall know of it,” and exits. Claudius reflects on the difficulty of their situation, admitting that their decision to cover up Hamlet’s deed and bury Polonius so covertly has gone against them. He says that Laertes has come from France, egged on by people who see the court as responsible for Polonius’ death.
On cue, a messenger arrives with word that Laertes has come to court with a mob of followers who wish to depose Claudius and make Laertes king. Laertes bursts in and tells his followers to wait outside. In a half-crazed state he insists that Claudius give him Polonius. Claudius attempts to calm Laertes and tells Gertrude to keep out of their talk and let Laertes question him to his heart’s content. Claudius tells Laertes that Polonius is dead. He also insinuates that he and Laertes are on the same side – that he has been injured by Polonius’ death too.
Just as Claudius is about to explain what he means, Ophelia enters again, bearing a bundle of flowers. The sight of his insane sister deeply grieves Laertes. Ophelia handles all those present gifts of flowers, each symbolizing a reproach to the receiver. She sings another song about her dead father and exits abruptly. As she leaves Claudius tells Laertes to inquire into the matter as deeply as he wishes, confident that he will find himself aligned with Claudius against Hamlet. Laertes agrees.
Claudius and Laertes are in conference. The king seems to have explained the strange occasion of Polonius’ death to Laertes’ satisfaction. He says that he did not try Hamlet for two reasons, first, because his mother loves him so much, and second, because the people of Denmark are supporters of Hamlet. A messenger arrives and delivers a letter to Claudius, who is greatly surprised to learn that the letter comes from Hamlet. The letter announces Hamlet’s imminent return to court.
With this in mind, Claudius and Laertes plot to find a means of killing Hamlet without upsetting Gertrude or the people. They propose to arrange a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, both of whom are accomplished swordsmen, though Laertes is the more reputed. Claudius suggests that Laertes be given a sharp sword while Hamlet’s remains blunt. Laertes does him one better, saying that he will dip his sword in poison so that the least scratch will kill Hamlet. Claudius says that on top of this he will prepare a poisoned cup and give it to Hamlet during the fight.
Gertrude enters with yet more tragic news. She says that Ophelia has drowned. She was watching Ophelia play in the branches of a willow by the water when she fell in. Gertrude says that Ophelia seemed ignorant of danger and went to her death slowly, singing songs. This news reignites Laertes’ rage and Claudius goes to console him.
The Act begins with a conversation between two gravediggers as they dig Ophelia’s grave. They repeat a rumor that Ophelia committed suicide and wonder whether she ought to be buried in hallowed ground. We learn that the king has overridden the objections of the clergy and provided for her burial. After some witty and macabre banter on the nature of gravedigging, Hamlet and Horatio enter. The main gravedigger sends his partner off for a cup of liquor and then commences to dig, singing songs all the while. Hamlet appears fascinated by the gravedigger’s indifference to the gravity of his profession. As the gravediggers throws various skulls out of the grave, Hamlet wonders whom they might have belonged to in life – whether a courtier or a lawyer.
Hamlet approaches the gravedigger and exchanges witticisms about this morbid work. The gravedigger informs Hamlet about the length of time it takes bodies to decay in the ground. He then produces a skull from the grave that he says has been lying there for twenty-three years. The gravedigger says that this is the skull of Yorick, the old king’s jester. Hamlet is amazed – he knew Yorick and loved him as a child. He takes up the skull and speaks about Yorick, a topic that leads him to consider the nature of mortality more generally.
A procession interrupts Hamlet’s reveries – Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes march toward the grave along with a priest and an entourage bearing a body. Hamlet notices that the burial is less elaborate than usual, signifying that the deceased was a suicide. He and Horatio stand aside while Laertes argues with the priest about the paltriness of the burial rites. In the course of his arguing with the priest, Laertes reveals to Hamlet that the dead body is that of Ophelia. Gertrude steps forward to say farewell to Ophelia. Laertes follows. In his intense grief, Laertes leaps into his sister’s grave to hold her body again and orders the gravediggers to bury him alive. Provoked by this show of grief, Hamlet then reveals himself. After grappling with Laertes, Hamlet declares that he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers could. The king and queen dismiss his avowal as madness. Hamlet then exits and Horatio follows him. After they have left, Claudius reminds Laertes of their plan to take care of Hamlet.
Hamlet explains to Horatio what happened on his journey to England. He says that he strongly suspected Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of foul play, and so decided to apprehend their letter to England. In the letter he found an order for his death. Hamlet then devised a substitute letter asking for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He happened to have a signet ring in the shape of the seal of Denmark, and so sealed the letter. Hamlet then replaced the letter while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were asleep. At this point, pirates attacked the vessel, as related previously.
A courtier, Osric, interrupts Hamlet and Horatio. In very ornate and silly language, Osric declares to Hamlet that Claudius has proposed a contest of swordsmanship between Laertes and he. Hamlet and Horatio mock Osric’s pompous and artificial mannerisms. Eventually Hamlet agrees to enter the contest. When Horatio worries that Laertes is better at swordplay than he, Hamlet declares that he has been in continual practice for some time.
A table is prepared and the king, queen and other figures of state gather to watch the swordfight. Hamlet begs Laertes’ pardon both for his outburst at Ophelia’s grave and for his rash killing of Polonius. Laertes appears to accept this apology but declares that his honor will not be satisfied until they have had their contest. Hamlet and Laertes choose their swords. Laertes nonchalantly chooses the unblunted sword with the envenomed blade. As they prepare to fight, Claudius proposes a drink to Hamlet.
The fight begins with Osric as referee. Hamlet wins the first point and the king offers him a drink to refresh himself, dropping a poisoned pearl in the wine just before he hands it over. Hamlet declines to take the drink for the time being. They play another round and Hamlet again wins a point. After this second pass, Gertrude toasts to Hamlet’s health. She takes up the poisoned chalice and has a drink despite Claudius’ protestations. Hamlet and Laertes have a third pass which ends in a draw.
After this pass, while Hamlet is unguarded, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned rapier. They scuffle and Hamlet ends up with Laertes’ poisoned sword. He wounds Laertes with it. Just then, the queen collapses. She declares that she has been poisoned by the drink and then dies. Hamlet asks for the treachery to be found out and Laertes confesses the plan hatched by the king and he. He says that they are both inevitably going to die, having been wounded by the poisoned blade. Hamlet takes the envenomed sword and wounds Claudius, then forces the king to drink from his poisoned cup. Claudius dies. Laertes asks Hamlet’s forgiveness and then also dies. Hamlet, knowing that he is about to die also, asks Horatio to explain this bloody spectacle to the confused onlookers. Horatio, on the contrary, wishes to die with his friend, but Hamlet convinces him to live a while and clear his name. Hamlet declares that Fortinbras should become King of Denmark. He then dies – “the rest is silence.”
A flourish is heard and Osric brings news that Fortinbras has arrived from his victory in Poland with ambassadors from England. Fortinbras enters the court only to find four noble bodies sprawled out on the floor. The ambassadors from England enter with news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed. Horatio explains that Claudius would not have welcomed this news even if he had been living to receive it. He orders that the royal bodies be taken up. Horatio further promises to explain the story behind the deaths, a story full of “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts; / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters; / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause.” In short, he promises to tell the story of Hamlet. Fortinbras agrees to hear it. He adds that, given the death of the Danish royalty, he will now pursue his own claims to the throne. Finally, Fortinbras declares that Hamlet shall receive a soldier’s burial. Some soldiers take up his body and bear it from the stage.