Hamlet plot summary: Act Five

When we last left Hamlet the play, Laertes had returned, Ophelia had drowned (herself, or at least allowed herself to drown), and Hamlet the prince was ready to make his re-entrance into the play. And now we are ready to complete the Hamlet plot summary.

When Act Five, Scene One begins, it’s with two “clowns, one a gravedigger” (V.i. opening stage direction), discussing the propriety of “a Christian burial when (the deceased) willfully seeks her own salvation” (V.i.1-2). It seems that because she was not common–a “gentlewoman” (V.i.24)–certain allowances have been made.

And when the non-gravedigger exits, leaving the other to sing song in the grave he’s digging, Hamlet and Horatio enter, as a skull is thrown from the open grave. Hamlet ponders the identity of the former owner of the skull, and waxes both poetic and ironic/sarcastic. The prince calls the gravedigger forth and they engage in a playful banter on the ownership of graves and what it means to lie in one (both to lay one’s body down, and to tell falsehoods).

When Hamlet asks the gravedigger how long he’s been doing this line of work, the answer is important to the timeline of the play:

I came to ’t that day that our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras. … It was that very day that young Hamlet was born … I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.
  • V.i.135-6, 138-9, 152-3

[so Hamlet is thirty?]

The gravedigger hands Hamlet a skull that has been in the earth “three and twenty years” (V.i.163-4), and tells him that the skull belonged to a man–it turns out–Hamlet knew: the court jester Yorick. Cue one of the most famous (and famously mis-quoted) lines in Shakespeare: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio” (V.i.174; not “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well”…).

Hamlet and Horatio retreat and watch as Ophelia’s funeral party enters. When Laertes leaps into the grave to embrace his sister one last time, and demands to be buried in the grave, Hamlet can take no more. He step into the scene with a flourish:

What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.
  • V.i.245-8

Not only he does denigrate Laertes’ emotional response, but he declares himself (at least to this gathering) King of Denmark (“the Dane”). Laertes attacks Hamlet, who proclaims his love for Ophelia and even for Laertes. When cooler heads prevail, and Hamlet exits, Claudius counsels Laertes, “Strengthen your patience in our last night’s speech. // We’ll put the matter to the present push” (V.i.284-5), and the we are set for the final scene.

The final scene begins with Hamlet and Horatio discussing what happened during Hamlet’s enforced English trip: He had read the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying to the English king from Claudius which ordered that upon Hamlet’s arrival, his “head should be struck off” (V.ii.25). Hamlet substituted it with one of his own composition which reversed the order, with “those bearers put to sudden death” (V.ii.46), using his father’s signet to seal the letter. On the following day, the “sea fight” (V.ii.54) with the pirates took place. Horatio is stunned to think that all this was under order of the king, but Hamlet is not surprised at all, given what else Claudius has done:

killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
  • V.ii.63-65

As if on cue, a landed gentleman arrives with the latest of Claudius’ schemes, the wagered fencing bout between Hamlet and Laertes. There is quite a bit of (bitingly) comic wordplay between Hamlet and this Osric. Hamlet accepts this challenge for “immediate trial” (V.ii.150) and tells Osric to relate the news to the king.

While Osric goes to deliver the news, Horatio voices his concerns: he can delay the match if Hamlet suspects anything. Hamlet demurs, saying,

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.
  • V.ii.197-200

Hamlet is ready for all this to come to its conclusion.

The fencing party arrives with the king, queen, Laertes, and attendants. Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for all that has happened, blaming it on his “madness … (which) is poor Hamlet’s enemy” (V.ii.217) as well. Laertes accepts the apology “in nature” (V.ii.222), but in “honor” (V.ii.224) demands that their match continues. Hamlet agrees. The foils are selected, and the king sets up the respite wine, including the poisoned one for Hamlet.

The match begins and Hamlet wins the first two points. He passes on the wine glass; his mother instead drinks it, despite Claudius warning her not to. The bout continues, “in scuffling, they change rapiers” (V.ii.285 stage direction), and “they bleed on both sides” (V.ii.287) meaning both have been cut with the poisoned blade. The queen swoons, and she announces what she has realized: “The drink, the drink! I am poisoned” (V.ii.293). Then Laertes reveals the truth about the poisoned blades, and proclaims, “The king, the king’s to blame” (V.ii.303).

Hamlet wounds Claudius with the (implicitly) poisoned blade, then tells the king to “drink off this potion” (V.ii.309). It’s not stated explicitly that the king does finish the poisoned wine, but it is stated that the “King dies” (V.ii.310 stage direction). And before Laertes dies, he begs forgiveness of Hamlet.

The prince then tasks Horatio to “report (him) and (his) cause aright // To the unsatisfied” (V.ii.323). Though Horatio want to take his own life, Hamlet stops him.

There is the sound of Fortinbras and his army arriving back from Poland giving “the ambassadors of England” (V.ii.334) a cannon volley of acknowledgement. Hamlet realizes he will not survive long enough to hear the news from England, but gives Fortinbras his “dying voice” (V.ii.339) in the election to follow.

Fortinbras and the English ambassador enter to the “dismal” (V.ii.350) scene. The ambassador delivers the news that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (V.ii.354). And while Horatio says that he can later explain “how these things came about” (V.ii.363), Fortinbras announces he will “embrace (his) fortune… in this kingdom” (V.ii.371,372), his first act being to set up a “soldier’s…rite” (V.ii.382) for the dead prince.

And thus ends the play, with “a sight as this (which) // Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss” (V.ii.384-5).

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