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Hamlet Commentary - Act V.

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Act V. Scene I. - A Churchyard.

Hamlet: "Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth?"

Hamlet and Horatio speak with a cheerful gravedigger. Hamlet famously realizes that man's accomplishments are transitory (fleeting) and holding the skull of Yorick, a childhood jester he remembers from his youth, creates the famous scene about man's insignificance and inability to control his fate following death.

At Ophelia's burial, the Priest reveals a widely held belief that Ophelia committed suicide, angering Laertes. Hamlet fights Laertes over Ophelia's grave, angered by Laertes' exaggerated emphasis of his sorrow and because he believes he loved Ophelia much more than her brother, Laertes.

Two gravediggers, called "Clowns" in the text, are digging. The First Clown makes his fairly low opinion of Ophelia clear by asking "Is she [Ophelia] to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?" (Is Ophelia who wilfully commits suicide, to be buried in a Christian manner?), (Line 1).

The First Clown's (Gravedigger's) question reminds us that in the gravedigger's opinion, committing suicide is sinful and less than deserving of a proper "Christian burial" as made clear by the tone of the First Clown's speech...

The Second Clown (gravedigger) assures the First Clown that yes, Ophelia will get a proper burial, telling his co-worker to "make her grave straight:" or do his job properly (Line 4).

The First Clown does not accept this, asking how Ophelia can receive a Christian burial; unless as he says, "she drowned herself in her own defence [defense]?" (Line 6).

The Second Clown tells the First Clown that she will be buried properly and now the First Clown argues that Ophelia "drowned herself wittingly" or deliberately (Line 13).

The First Clown continues pressing his point by arguing further that drowning is not suicide when the water comes to that person drowning them, but is suicide when one goes to the water and drowns (Lines 15-21).

The two men continuing speaking, the Second Clown making quite clear the First Clown's belief that the only reason Ophelia is receiving a Christian burial at all is because she was a "gentlewoman" (Lines 25-26).

The First Clown now describes himself and his co-worker as being "ancient gentlemen" (Line 33) like "gardeners, ditchers and grave-makers;" who all hold up "Adam's profession" he explains (Line 34).

Furthermore, the First Clown and Second Clown argue that their role as gravediggers is timeless; since a "gallows-maker;" builds a frame that "outlives a thousand tenants" (Line 48).

Hamlet and Horatio now enter at a distance, the First Clown sending the Second Clown off to fetch him "a stoup of liquor" or some alcohol to drink (Line 66).

The First Clown now alone, sings parts of a song whilst digging (Lines 67-70).

Hamlet watching this, is amazed that this man who digs holes for the dead can be so merry, asking himself, "Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?" (Line 72).

Horatio answers that "Custom" has made this man used to his job or desensitized him to feeling sad about his work (Line 73).

The First Clown continues singing, throwing up a skull in his work. This causes Hamlet to wonder at the endless possibility of whom that skull once represented (Lines 81-92), and Hamlet now realizes that whomever it once was, the skull is now merely food for worms, the Clown continuing his singing, hard at work (Lines 92-100).

The Clown now throws up another skull, and Hamlet again wonders whom that skull might once have belonged to.

Hamlet wonders whether it was a lawyer, noting how all that lawyer's prestige, "his quillets... his tenures," and so forth cannot prevent his bones now being knocked about by "this rude knave" [The First Clown] with a dirty shovel.

Again, Hamlet returns to the idea of whom the skull represented, saying that maybe it belonged to "a great buyer of land," who is now reduced to being in dirt, Hamlet now realizing that death truly is the great equalizer of life, ignoring status, reputation, position and power by reducing all to the same fate (Lines 106-120).

Hamlet now decides to speak with the First Clown and the two men exchange witticisms. This begins when Hamlet catches the last part of the Clown's song which says "O! a pit of clay for to be made / For such a guest is meet" (Line 128), Hamlet insisting this pit is for the digger.

The Clown refuses, saying that Hamlet is on it (the grave), not in it and so it cannot be Hamlet's whilst saying the grave is not his because he lies in it as Hamlet says, the Clown explaining that the grave is his but not because he lies in it (Lines 125-144).

Eventually Hamlet learns that the Clown is digging the grave for a woman, the First Clown saying "rest her soul, she's dead" (Line 145).

Hamlet is appalled at this rudeness and learns that the First Clown has been digging graves since "our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras" (Line 156), some thirty years ago (Line 176). The First Clown, not realizing he is speaking with Hamlet , King Hamlet's son, also adds that it was the year "young Hamlet was born;" a man who is now mad and has been sent to England.

The First Clown discusses his craft with Hamlet (Lines 177-190) before noticing a skull, the First Clown telling Hamlet that it is of Yorick, the King's (King Hamlet's) jester.

Hamlet wanting to see this, takes Yorick's skull (Line 201), famously exclaiming "Alas! poor Yorick" (Line 202) before explaining to the Clown that he remembered him fondly when he was growing up as a child (Lines 202-215).

In a now very famous scene, Hamlet still holding and looking at Yorick's skull in his hand, asks Horatio "Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth?" (Do you think Alexander the Great looked / looks like this in the dirt where he is buried?), (Line 217).

Horatio replies that he believes even Alexander the Great looks like Yorick in the dirt (Line 219) and Hamlet asks Horatio if Alexander the Great smells as bad before putting down Yorick's skull (Line 220).

Hamlet now famously comments on what a base or basic state we must return to in death no matter how great we may each have once been, Hamlet using Alexander as an example of this:

"To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?" (Line 225).

Hamlet now finally realizes how ultimately fleeting and insignificant one's existence really is, when he tells Horatio that "Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth [returned] into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam, and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?" (Lines 230-234).

Hamlet further explains that "Imperious Caesar [Julius Caesar], dead and turn'd [turned] to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:" (Line 235), further emphasizing that for all one's greatness in life, one cannot control one's fate after death nor avoid being used for the most basic or indeed humiliating of uses...

As such in Hamlet comparing man to dirt we see a parallel with his earlier comments about man being God-like in nature, the very paragon of animals, the "quintessence of dust?" (Lines 321-331, Act II, Scene II).

A procession now enters carrying the corpse of Ophelia, with Priests, Ophelia's brother Laertes, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and "Mourners" in tow.

Hamlet and Horatio retire or step out of view of this procession, Hamlet noting that Laertes is "a very noble youth:" (Line 246).

The First Priest speaks, insulting Laertes by saying Ophelia's death was "doubtful," (Line 250) a clear reference to the Priest suspecting Ophelia committed suicide and therefore should not be receiving a Christian burial.

The Priest even goes so far as to say what sort of burial Ophelia should have received for her suicide (Lines 251-256), making it quite clear that in his opinion, Ophelia is receiving a better funeral than he thinks she deserves as a women who in his opinion, committed suicide (Lines 248-256).

Laertes is angered that his sister is not further receiving the burial rites he believes she should have but the Priest stands firm (Lines 257-263).

Queen Gertrude bids Ophelia farewell, saying "Sweets to the sweet: farewell!", scattering flowers on Ophelia's coffin (Line 265), saying she had hoped Ophelia would have become Hamlet's wife (Line 266).

Laertes now openly mourns his sister's loss, leaping into her grave (Lines 268-276). Hamlet, however is unimpressed with Laertes mourning, believing it to be disrespecting Ophelia and to be overemphasized in his opinion. Hamlet also complains that if anyone should bear such displays of sorrow, it is he, "Hamlet the Dane" who loved her and he too jumps into Ophelia's grave (Line 279).

Hamlet and Laertes now fight atop Ophelia's grave, Laertes strangling Hamlet by the throat until Horatio asks Hamlet to calm himself and "Attendants" part the fighting men, taking them out of the grave.

Hamlet says he will still happily fight Laertes upon a "theme" or reason that we soon learn was Hamlet's love for Ophelia (Line 288).

Hamlet explains that "I lov'd [loved] Ophelia:" adding that "forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum" (forty thousand men's love could not match my love for Ophelia), (Line 292).

The King says Hamlet is mad, Queen Gertrude defending her son by playing along and agreeing. Hamlet now reinforces the idea that he is mad by rambling words of madness which appear to convince King Claudius, Queen Gertrude again helping her son by telling the King that Hamlet must be mad (Lines 297-314).

With Hamlet gone, King Claudius tells the insulted Laertes that he should be patient; soon Laertes will have his revenge as discussed the night before (Lines 315-320).

Act V. Scene II. - A Hall in the Castle.

Hamlet: "tell my story."

Hamlet explains to Horatio how he avoided the death planned for him in England and had courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead. Hamlet reveals his desire to kill King Claudius. Summoned by Osric to fence against Laertes, Hamlet arrives at a hall in the castle and fights him.

Queen Gertrude drinks a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet, dying. Hamlet wins the first two rounds against Laertes but is stabbed and poisoned fatally in the third round. Exchanging swords whilst fighting, Hamlet wounds and poisons Laertes who explains that he has been doomed by his own poison-tipped sword.

Using this sword, Hamlet stabs King Claudius, killing him. Hamlet, now dying, tells Horatio to tell his story and not to commit suicide. Hamlet recommends Young Fortinbras as the next King of Denmark.

Young Fortinbras arrives, cleaning up the massacre. Horatio promises to tell all the story we have just witnessed, ending the play.

Hamlet enters, telling Horatio of what had happened to him since he boarded the bark (ship) for England.

He explains that from his cabin on the bark, he woke himself up, found Rosencrantz' and Guildenstern's cabin and with "My fears forgetting manners-" (Line 17) groped in the dark and stole "Their grand commission;" or orders from King Claudius to them (Line 18).

Opening up the orders with the excuse that his opening the commission was as much for England's safety as Denmark's, Hamlet found out that he was to have had his head cut off by axe on arrival in England (Lines 17-25).

Horatio does not at first believe it, so Hamlet gives him the commission to read for himself (Line 27). Hamlet explains however, that he turned the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by writing a new commission in Claudius' writing, telling the English King of Claudius' desire to maintain good relations and to have "the bearers " of this commission, (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) "put to sudden death," (killed immediately), (Line 46).

Hamlet explains that he sealed the commission with his father's (King Hamlet's) signet which was the model for the "Danish seal;" King Claudius used, thus making the commission look authentic (Lines 48-55).

The next day, Hamlet explains, he had his "sea-fight," and so left the ship. Horatio is appalled by all of this, asking if the two courtiers are dead (Line 56).

Hamlet has no regrets for sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, saying "they did make love to this employment; / They are not near my conscience;" by which Hamlet means, the two courtiers did follow King Claudius and so in choosing his side to follow, must pay the price (Line 57).

Horatio is clearly not impressed by King Claudius' actions, asking Hamlet "Why, what a king is this!" or what kind of a king is Claudius (Line 62).

Hamlet now justifies the idea of killing King Claudius, saying King Claudius "hath [has] kill'd my king [killed King Hamlet his father] and whor'd [whored, or made Queen Gertrude a whore] my mother," (Line 64), Hamlet asking is it not right to stop such a man from committing further evil?

Horatio reminds Hamlet that soon King Claudius will know what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Hamlet replies that the "interim" or moment, though short, "is mine;" (Line 73).

Osric now enters, greeting Hamlet who quickly asks Horatio if he knows this "water-fly?" (insignificant person / nobody), Horatio saying "No, my good lord" (Line 85).

Osric now announces that he speaks "from his majesty" or King Claudius, Osric mentioning that it is hot, Hamlet saying it is cold in an effort to further convince the King that he is mad, Hamlet moving to make Osric put on his hat since it is obviously cold (Lines 97-108).

Osric announces the arrival of Laertes at King Claudius' court, noting that Laertes is "an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences," (Line 112) using a great many more words than are truly necessary to say this and echoing the late Polonius' own long-winded or periphrastic, wordy sentences (Lines 112-117).

Hamlet mocks Osric by verbosely (using alot of words) replying that he too respects Laertes (Lines 118-127) and eventually after attempting to tire and exhaust Osric with overly verbose (wordy) comments, Hamlet learns that he has been challenged to duel Laertes in a friendly fencing match to be watched by King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and company.

We learn that King Claudius has betted "six Barbary horses;" on Hamlet losing by no more than three hits out of twelve passes and that Laertes has matched this by betting "six French rapiers" (six French swords) that he will win by more than three hits (Lines 153-170).

Osric explains the rules of the match; there are to be a dozen passes between Laertes and Hamlet (Line 174) and Hamlet after initially hesitating, (Line 177) decides he will accept the challenge and "will win [the match] for him [King Claudius]" if he can, adding that if he loses, he will only gain the shame of a few blunt hits from the blunted sword not realizing or knowing that Laertes' swords will not be blunt at all (Line 185).

Osric leaves to tell King Claudius Hamlet has accepted Laertes' challenge, Hamlet and Horatio discussing how odd Osric is (Lines 190-202).

A Lord now enters, telling Hamlet that King Claudius now awaits Hamlet in the hall and that he wishes to know how much more time Hamlet will need before fighting Laertes (Lines 203-207).

Hamlet answers that he will "follow the king's pleasure:" or do as the King wishes, answering that he is ready to fight (Lines 208-212).

The Lord tells Hamlet that the King and Queen will arrive soon and that Queen Gertrude wishes Hamlet to "use some gentle entertainment" or entertain Laertes politely before the fight. Hamlet agrees, remarking that Queen Gertrude advises him well (Lines 214-218).

With the Lord leaving, Horatio tells Hamlet that he will "lose this wager, [bet]" or fight (Line 219) but Hamlet is certain he will not, telling Horatio that since he went to France, he has been continuously practicing his fencing skills. Hamlet now reveals that his heart is ill but immediately dismisses this thought as "foolery;" or nonsense (Lines 223-224).

Horatio tells Hamlet that if his mind dislikes or is not certain about this fight, Hamlet should postpone the duel, Horatio offering to "say you are not fit" or sick if necessary (Line 230) but Hamlet is determined to fight (Lines 232-238).

King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Laertes, Lords, Osric and Attendants with foils (blunt swords used in fencing) enter, taking their seats to watch the duel.

King Claudius begins the fight by placing Laertes' hand on Hamlet's and Hamlet now asks Laertes for his "pardon," or forgiveness for his earlier fight with Laertes atop Ophelia's grave (Line 240).

Hamlet explains that he is "punish'd / With sore distraction" (Line 244) , saying the reason for his behaviour was "His madness" (Line 251) and that if this madness led him to upset Laertes in any way it is "poor Hamlet's enemy" (Line 253).

Laertes replies that he is satisfied that Hamlet meant him no wrong but will "stand aloof," (Line 261) or not accept Hamlet's apology until he is satisfied that "elder masters," (Line 262) or men of known honor can assure Laertes that his own honor has not been damaged in anyway. Laertes adds that "till that time," (Line 264) however, he will receive Hamlet's love as love and not "wrong it" or abuse Hamlet's gesture of goodwill (Lines 259-266).

Hamlet accepts Laertes words "freely;" asking that they both be given their foils (blunt swords). Hamlet says that he will be Laertes' foil allowing Laertes skill to shine like a star in the darkest of nights but Laertes tells Hamlet "You mock me, sir [you are mocking me], Hamlet denying this (Lines 266-272).

King Claudius instructs Osric to give Hamlet and Laertes their foils, asking both if they remember the rules of this match, Hamlet reminding King Claudius that he has betted on "the weaker side" (Hamlet's) but King Claudius assures Hamlet that he thinks he is betting on the right man... Laertes not liking his foil, complains asking for another foil, Hamlet asking if all the foils have the same length (Lines 273-280).

As the two men prepare to duel or fight, King Claudius arranges some stoups of wine to be placed on a nearby table. He says that if Hamlet gets the first or second hit, "ordnance" or canons will fire to celebrate this (Line 284); furthermore King Claudius will drink to "Hamlet's better breath;" (Line 285) and will place a pearl which he calls an "onion" within a glass to be taken by the winner.

King Claudius now drinks to Hamlet after a succession of trumpets, cannons and kettles or kettle drums as they are also known, before the match begins (Lines 281-293).

Hamlet quickly scores the first hit, saying "One", Laertes disagreeing but Osric judging that Hamlet did hit Laertes fairly (Lines 293-296).

King Hamlet asks for a drink and tells Hamlet that "this pearl is thine [yours];" (Line 296) before telling him "Here's to thy [your] health" (Line 297), King Claudius wanting Hamlet to drink from the cup, earning his pearl (and being poisoned). Trumpets and canons now sound...

Instead of drinking the wine however, Hamlet says he will play first, asking for the cup to be set aside for awhile so that he can drink from it later (Line 298).

Hamlet and Laertes again fight, Hamlet scoring another hit on Laertes and asking him what he has to say about it. Laertes replies that the hit was only a "touch, a touch," King Claudius proudly saying "Our son [Hamlet] shall win" (Line 301).

Queen Gertrude is not certain Hamlet will win, noting that "He's [Hamlet] fat, and scant [short] of breath" but offers support, telling her son to take her napkin to rub his brow of sweat (Line 302).

King Claudius, now noticing that his wife Gertrude has picked up the poisoned glass, tells his beloved wife, "Gertrude, do not drink" (Line 304) but Queen Gertrude defiantly replies "I will, my lord;" asking King Claudius to pardon her for it in her unwittingly final act.

King Claudius in an aside, worries that "It is the poison'd [poisoned] cup!" Gertrude drinks from, and adds "it is too late" realizing that Queen Gertrude has drunk from it (Line 306).

Hamlet now refuses the cup offered by Queen Gertrude, Queen Gertrude telling Hamlet that she will wipe his face.

Laertes tells King Claudius that he is confident he will hit Hamlet with his poisoned sword but King Claudius no longer believes Laertes can do it, saying "I do not think't [I doubt it]" (Line 310). Laertes in an aside, reveals some guilt by saying he almost thinks striking Hamlet when he is not playing is against his conscience (Line 311).

Hamlet and Laertes continue fighting, Laertes finally wounding Hamlet followed by the two men exchanging swords with Hamlet now wounding Laertes with Laertes' own poisoned sword, dooming both men now to death...

King Claudius orders the two men parted but Queen Gertrude falls, Osric shouting "Look to the queen there, ho!" (Line 317).

Horatio notices Hamlet bleeding, Osric noticing that Laertes too is bleeding and when Osric asks Laertes how this can be (foils are supposed to be blunt not sharp), Laertes replies "I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery" (I have been rightly killed by my own treachery), (Line 321).

Queen Gertrude, who is now dying despite King Claudius' best efforts to ignore this, warns Hamlet not to drink from the cup, telling all that she has been poisoned, before dying (Lines 324-325). When Queen Gertrude earlier passed out before her poison accusation (Lines 324-325), King Claudius told Hamlet that it was because Queen Gertrude could not bear the sight of Hamlet's and Laertes' blood (Line 323).

Hamlet, crying villainy, orders the doors to the courtyard to be locked preventing the murderer from escaping, Laertes now falling.

Before dying however, Laertes tells Hamlet that "thou art slain;" (you will die), (Line 327), adding that he has " not half an hour of life;" left, and that "The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, / Unbated and envenom'd" (the treacherous instrument that killed you, this sword, is in your hand, still dipped or envenomed with poison), (Line 330).

Laertes also tells Hamlet that his mother (Queen Gertrude) has been poisoned and that "the king's to blame" (Line 334).

Noticing that the sword is still poison tipped or is "envenom'd", Hamlet shouts, "venom, to thy [your] work" stabbing King Claudius with the poisoned sword (Lines 336).

All present shout "Treason! treason! (it is treason to kill a king), (Line 338), Hamlet telling King Claudius who he describes as an "incestuous, murderous, damned Dane," to "Follow my mother" or die, which King Hamlet promptly does (Line 340).

Laertes, still alive, notes that King Claudius has been "justly serv'd;" or punished, asking Hamlet that they both should now forgive one another, saying "Mine and my father's [Polonius'] death come not upon thee [you], / Nor thine [yours] on me!" before Laertes dies (Line 344).

Hamlet speaks his hope that Laertes will be forgiven and made free of his guilt by heaven, saying that he will soon follow Laertes to death. Telling Horatio "I am dead, Horatio", Hamlet now bids his mother farewell by saying "Wretched queen, adieu! (Wretched Queen, goodbye!), (Line 348).

Hamlet now asks his dear friend to tell his story accurately following his now certain demise but Horatio wants to join Hamlet in death. Only Hamlet's threat that he will have "a wounded name," or bad reputation if Horatio does not live to clear it, convinces Horatio not to join Hamlet in death (Lines 354-362).

To the sounds of distant marching and a shot, Osric announces the arrival of Young Fortinbras who have just arrived from his success in Poland and who has just fired a shot in honor of the recently arrived "ambassadors of England" (Lines 364-366).

Hamlet now tells Horatio that he is finally dying, and hearing Fortinbras' forces approaching, tells Horatio that as surviving Prince, he chooses Young Fortinbras as the new King of Denmark (Lines 368-372).

Seeing his friend die, Horatio remarks that "Now cracks a noble heart" (Line 372), bidding his friend good-bye with the words "Good-night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee [you] to thy [your] rest!" (Line 374).

Young Fortinbras and the English Ambassadors now enter, the First Ambassador gazing upon the "dismal;" sight of so much blood shed and regretting that he cannot report to King Claudius that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" since so too is King Claudius (Line 385).

Young Fortinbras is not so disgusted by this bloodshed, no doubt being used to such sights, and Horatio now wraps up the play's action by telling all that he will soon tell "the yet unknowing world" (Line 393) the story "Of carnal [sexual, lustful], bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters; / Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd [forced] cause," or the story of Hamlet which Young Fortinbras in particular is keen to hear (Lines 387-399).

Young Fortinbras now orders "four captains" to bury Hamlet with full honors, "soldiers' music and the rites of war" since in Young Fortinbras' opinion, Hamlet acted most "royally:", Young Fortinbras also ordering the removal of all the other bodies.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark ends with a death march bearing off the dead bodies after which a "peal of ordnance is shot off."

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