When we last left the Hamlet plot summary, we were at the end of Act Four, Scene Four, with our melancholy Dane watching the approach of the Norwegian army under Fortinbras, waiting to be taken to his death in England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and deciding to make his own thoughts “bloody” (IV.iv.66). As we enter Act Four, Scene Five, we’re back into the palace at Elsinore, with Queen Gertrude refusing to see someone.
If it was only so easy as to be Claudius… but it isn’t.
It’s the now “indeed distract” (IV.v.2) Ophelia, despondent over the death of her father.
It’s reported that she “speaks much of her father” (IV.v.4), saying “things in doubt // That carry but half sense” (IV.v.6-7). In short, “her speech is nothing” (IV.v.7). While Gertrude doesn’t want to speak with her, Horatio sees value in meeting with Ophelia: “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew // Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (IV.v.14-5), sounding more like the politically shrewd Claudius than what we’ve heard from him before. This prompts Gertrude to allow Ophelia access.
When Ophelia enters, she sings a song both of “truelove” (IV.v.23) and of a dead man’s grave, seemingly linking Hamlet and her father. Claudius enters and Ophelia shifts her song to a much bawdier one, finishing with nonsense mixed with ominous:
Her brother shall know of it, she says. But he already does.
After discussing what has driven her mad (“her father slain” [IV.v.79], Hamlet gone, and the old man’s burial rushed in a vain attempt to keep the populace from growing “thick, and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers” [IV.v.82] … practically sounds like “Previously on Hamlet…”), Claudius says that Laertes “is in secret come from France” (IV.v.88). If it was secret before, it certainly isn’t within the next twenty lines, as there are chaotic sounds from outside, and a messenger arrives to speak of Laertes leading “the rabble” (IV.v.102) to Elsinore. If that wasn’t bad enough news for Claudius, this same rabble “cr(ies), ‘Choose we! Laertes shall be king!’” (IV.v.106).
[again, I wonder at the rules of “royal” succession in Denmark…]
And with that, Laertes and the mob burst into the scene. Laertes orders the rabble out, and after a momentary denial, they leave like well-trained “false Danish dogs” (IV.v.110)–Gertrude’s words, not mine.
Laertes calls Claudius “vile King” (IV.v.115) and demands his father. When Claudius confirms that Polonius is dead, Laertes wants to how it came to pass, saying, “I’ll be revenged // Most thoroughly for my father” (IV.v.136). Claudius tells Laertes that he is “guiltless of (Laertes’) father’s death” (IV.v.149), but before he can reveal the true culprit, Ophelia re-enters.
Again, she sings of a dead man’s passing. Without recognizing (or even noticing) her brother, she then hands out different flowers to those in attendance, naming each flower’s significance as she hands them out. Then she departs–still without acknowledging her brother, who can only describe her as “a document in madness” (IV.v.175).
Claudius tells Laertes to gather his “wisest friends” (IV.v.198), and says that he will tell them all what happened. If, he says, they find that Claudius is responsible in any way,
we will our kingdom give,
Our crown, our life, and all that we call ours,
To you in satisfaction
On the other hand, the king says, “And where th’ offense is, let the great ax fall” (IV.v.212). You can almost hear the wheels turning in Claudius’ mind as they exit to end the scene.
The short Act Four, Scene Six finds a sailor delivering to Horatio a letter from Hamlet, recounting a pirate battle (kidnapped by pirates is good… especially for Hamlet), his arrival back in Denmark, and his need for Horatio to make sure another letter makes it to the king. Oh, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still heading for England. “Of them,” Hamlet writes, “I have much to tell thee” (IV.vi.28-9).
Act Four, Scene Seven, finds Claudius and Laertes together, discussing how not only did Hamlet kill Polonius, but how Hamlet also “pursued (the king’s) life” (IV.vii.5). Laertes then demands why Claudius did not take action against the prince. The king responds with two reasons: he could not move against Hamlet, without Gertrude’s consent; also, there’s the “the great love the general gender bear him” (IV.vii.18)–the prince’s popularity with the populace has stopped Claudius.
While Laertes announces, “But my revenge will come” (IV.vii.29), the conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a messenger (via Horatio?) with letters from Hamlet to the king and queen, announcing the prince’s arrival back in Denmark. Hamlet leaves a nice little dig at Claudius and his plans in his postscript: “Alone” (IV.vii.50), signifying that his spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are no longer with Hamlet.
Claudius says that he has devised a plan for the “death” (IV.vii.64) of Hamlet, one that can be seen as an “accident” (IV.vii.66). Laertes states his desire to be the “organ” (IV.vii.68) or cause of the death. The king tells Laertes of the news that had come to Denmark in his absence, outlining his skill in fencing. This news had “envenom(ed Hamlet) with… envy” (IV.vii.101), and the king plans to use this envy to bring the two men into a fencing match.
Since Laertes is willing to “cut (Hamlet’s) throat i’ th’ church” (IV.vii.124), he is more than willing to take part in the plan where the king plans to make sure that Laertes’ sword will not have a protective tip, thus allowing him to kill Hamlet. In fact, Laertes is willing to go one step even further: with a drug he has purchased, he will
touch (his) point
With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly,
It may be (Hamlet’s) death.
Claudius adds another fail-safe. He knows that the fencing match will make both participants “hot and dry” (IV.vii.155), and he plans to poison Hamlet’s drink.
Their plans are interrupted by Gertrude’s entrance and (more) horrible news: Ophelia is dead. She was attempting to hang a flowered garland on a tree’s branch, but the branch broke, she fell into the water, and her
garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Laertes exits, and Claudius disingenuously tells Gertrude,
Now fear I this will give it start again.
Therefore, let’s follow.
And with that bit of duplicity, the fourth act of Hamlet comes to an end.