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Claudius explains to Laertes that he was powerless to act against Hamlet because the queen loves Hamlet her son, as do the public which is very forgiving of any wrong that Hamlet does. Claudius plumbs weather Laertes is given to revenge, and to what degree—”I’d cut his throat i’ t’ church”—before suggesting the plan of a fencing match between the two in which one of the blunt practice blades would actually be sharp.
Laertes agrees, saying that he has a poison that he will add to the blade to make sure. To which Claudius says he will make double sure by poisoning a drink that he will offer as a toast to him.
The queen enters and informs Laertes that Ophelia has drowned, by accident, but in which she did nothing to try to save herself.
Horatio is approached by sailors who give him a letter from Hamlet.
I have a wild conjecture: Hamlet arranged this. (You AP students need to be clear: this is my own musing. I would not include it on a test essay, as it is not supported by clear and copious text evidence.)
Inference: if “I see a cherub that sees [Claudius’ purpose]” (4.4.56) means that Hamlet has figured out that he’s being sent to his death— further supported by “There’s letters sealed; and my two schoolfellows, whom I trust as I will adders fanged,/…they must sweep my way/ and marshal me to knavery” (3.4.225-228)—and if Hamlet is resourceful enough to know a variety of rough characters, it would be quite convenient to arrange a pirate encounter that lasts only long enough for him to board the pirate ship and be “held hostage” and, thus, escape.
Total conjecture on my part.
Ophelia has actually gone mad with the news that Hamlet has killed her father. Her songs seem to suggest some meaning to what she’s feeling, but “God dild you. They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be. God be at your table” (lines 47-49) lack any clarity.
Claudius regrets burying Polonius quickly, without ceremony, for it has bred conspiracy theories that feed a secretly-returned Laertes, who, presently, storms Elsinore with a rebellious mob.
As the King and Queen explain to a bloodthirsty Laertes how Polonius was slain, Ophelia enters to give everyone flowers and herbs from a basket. Laertes is griefstricken, and his desire for revenge is deepened.
Claudius tells Laertes to gather his advisers as judges: he will explain everything, and if it is not clear and honest, Claudius will hand over the throne.
I’ll be with you straight. Go a little before.
[Exeunt all but Hamlet.]
How all occasions do inform against me
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event,-
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward,- I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (Lines 33-69)
On the way to the ship to England, we meet the young Fortinbras who is stopping his army to give courtesy notice that he is passing through Denmark.
Hamlet meets a captain, and asks what’s afoot; The captain relates that they are going to take a piece of Polish land that is basically worthless. Hamlet points out that surely if it’s worthless the Polish won’t defend it, but the captain says there is a fort there.
Hamlet muses that if this Prince Fortinbras can compellingly convince men to arms for this trifle, that he can find his own motivation.
Where is Polonius? At supper! I suppose biologists have a name for the food-chain progress for a king going a’coursing from grave to worm to fish to beggar to dung to worm…
Claudius hints at his plan in line 55, and makes them clear in lines 67-77: the sealed letters that Hamlet will deliver are secretly his own death warrant. But Hamlet “sees a cherub that sees” Claudius’ purpose (line 56).
O heavy deed!
Claudius thinks aloud: that would’ve been me! Now I’ll take the blame for this for letting Hamlet run about freely in this mad condition.
Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a sponge:
ROSENCRANTZ Take you me for a sponge, my lord?
HAMLET Ay, sir; that soaks up the King’s countenance,/ his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the/ King best service in the end. He keeps them, like an/ ape, in the corner of his jaw; first mouth’d,/ to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have/ glean’d, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you/ shall be dry again.
Sounds crazy, huh? but:
“I’ll eat you last”: the King pays you for your spying on me, but when he’s done with you…
There is so much that has been said of this scene: The inherent sexism. The Oedipal undertones. Books and doctoral dissertations’ worth of words, words, words.
And here are some more. It is said that conversation and swordfighting have much in common: A person’s argument is an attack that attempts to make a point. The adversary may block, parry, deflect. The adversary might make a counterpoint, a retort, reply, riposte. So it goes here: Gertrude attacks and is deflected and struck with Hamlet’s retort. She becomes a frightened by his hot-blood-drinking passion and cries for help, to which the hidden Polonius cries out, and Hamlet kills him thinking—hoping—it is Claudius caught spying. Alas, the wrong ass behind the arras.
“Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger”: you should’ve kept your nose out of my business.
We will briefly touch upon the sexism and hypocrisy in Hamlet’s condemnation of his mother.
The ghost shows up—to Hamlet’s eyes only—with a time’s-a’wastin’-best-get-on-it message.