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Hamlet Act 4, Scene 7 Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The concluding scene of ''Hamlet,'' Act 4 sets the play's final plot in motion. Shakespeare shows that the corruption of the court has already started to turn on itself. Claudius and Laertes hatch a plan to counter Hamlet's dangerous return to Denmark. Ophelia is the play's first innocent victim.

Act 4, Scene 7 in Context

In Act 4 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, everything is falling apart. At the end of Act 3, Hamlet killed Polonius, in the mistaken belief that he was killing his uncle. This has set off a violent chain reaction. The queen is convinced that her son is insane. Claudius, alarmed, sent Hamlet off to England, intending to have him assassinated. En route, Hamlet has learned that Norwegian troops are marching on Denmark.

Learning that her former lover killed her father, Ophelia has gone insane. Claudius and Gertrude, recognizing their shared guilt in the circumstances leading to this, are horror-struck. Horatio has just received the news that Hamlet has escaped both assassins and pirates, and has returned to Denmark. Laertes, Ophelia's brother, has also returned, and is bent on revenge, or retaliation, against Hamlet.

Claudius Persuades

Shakespeare opens Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet with Claudius and Laertes in mid-conversation. Claudius has just talked Laertes out of wanting to wreak revenge on him by explaining that he, not Laertes' father Polonius, was Hamlet's intended victim. He then explains at great length to Laertes why he hasn't punished Hamlet for attempted assassination. Not only does Claudius want to avoid hurting his wife, Gertrude, but he's afraid of the reaction of the common people, who adore Hamlet (lines 11-26, Folger edition). The conversation reveals that Claudius is not a good king, or a strong person; he's just ruthless.

Their exchange is interrupted by a note from none other than Hamlet. Brief and disjointed, it could be the letter of a madman. It could also be the letter of someone recklessly brave. We've seen more of Hamlet's true feelings in his earlier, longer letter to Horatio. Here, he mocks Claudius, ironically calling him 'high and mighty' (line 49). Although his self-description as 'naked' could refer to his powerlessness, it could also be a veiled threat, comparing himself to a naked sword, a weapon ready to use.

A Murderous Plot

Laertes is delighted to hear that Hamlet's back in Denmark: it means he can accuse him of being responsible for his father's death and his sister's madness (lines 61-63). Claudius rejoins that they can do better than that: they can arrange to have Hamlet killed in such a way that even the queen will call it an accident (lines 71-76). Claudius' plan is to stage a fencing bout between Hamlet and Laertes, in which Laertes' sword will remain 'accidentally' sharp. Laertes loves this plan, and adds that he'll put some poison on the sword, so that Hamlet will die, even if he's only scratched. Laertes' extreme eagerness to take revenge for his father's death is contrasted implicitly with Hamlet's inaction.

It's easy to sympathize with Laertes' grief and anger, but Shakespeare leaves the audience with questions, as well. Who buys a poison off a traveling salesman? What kind of life has Laertes been leading in Paris, that he is famous for sword fighting and just happens to have a deadly poison on him? Claudius is better at plotting than Laertes. After all, he has practice. Having decided on assassination, he also has a backup plan ready: he'll poison a glass of wine, so that if Laertes doesn't succeed in touching Hamlet with his sword, they can poison the prince another way.

Ophelia Drowns

For the second time in the scene, Claudius and Laertes are interrupted. Gertrude comes in, obviously distraught. When she can catch her breath, she addresses Laertes directly. In ignoring the king, she's breaking the rules of court etiquette, but her news is dire: Ophelia's drowned.

J. E. Millais, Ophelia in the Brook
Millais

Later artists have been guilty of prettifying Ophelia's death; there's a lot of sexist voyeurism in the Victorian fascination with the scene so vividly described by Gertrude. In the context of the play, however, Shakespeare makes this horrifying. Even the king and queen are deeply disturbed. Shakespeare wants his audience to share this feeling. In the queen's identification of flowers that are sometimes given sexual nicknames, and sometimes called 'dead men's fingers,' she alludes to Hamlet's cruelty and Polonius' death as the twofold cause of Ophelia's madness (lines 193-95).

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