The Ending of Hamlet: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Karen Harker

Karen has taught high school English and has a master's degree in Shakespearean Studies

This lesson will provide a short summary of the end of William Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'', calling attention to key quotes and events in the final scene of the play.

It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare's tragedies normally conclude in death, and Hamlet, written in 1600 to 1601, is no exception. The last scene alone reveals the death of six different characters, and that is after the death of Hamlet's father, Polonius, and Ophelia in earlier scenes. Although the ending is steeped in tragedy, Shakespeare does not fail to provide readers and audiences with beautiful poetry and thought-provoking word play amidst the deaths of Hamlet, Laertes, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Breaking the final scene down into three smaller sections can help to reveal how the tragedy unfolds in a clearer manner to modern readers and can help draw attention to the most important quotes of the final scene.

The final page of Hamlet as printed in the First Folio, published in 1623.
End of Hamlet Folio

Part One: Hamlet, Horatio, and the Deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

The beginning of Act 5, scene 2, the final act of the play, begins with a conversation between Hamlet and Horatio, his best friend and loyalist companion throughout the play. Hamlet reveals to Horatio that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are supposed to be Hamlet's friends, attempted to carry out a plot to have him killed under the order of King Claudius:

'... I found, Horatio -

O royal knavery! - an exact command ...

My head should be struck off' (5.2.19-20, 26).

Hamlet then reveals to Horatio that in an act of revenge against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he 'devised a new commission, wrote it fair' that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should be 'put to sudden death' (5.2.33, 47). The deaths of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern occur off-stage, that is, where the audience does not see the action of the murder but rather only hears a report of it from another character.

Part Two: Osric, the Wager, and Foil Characters

The scene continues with Osric, a courtier sent from King Claudius who announces that Claudius wants Hamlet and Laertes to duel. Although this portion of the scene seems to be unimportant, it sets up the final part of the scene, which is the actual fencing duel wherein Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius all die. Most importantly, Osric reveals that Claudius has placed a bet that Hamlet will win against Laertes, but all of this is part of a larger plot to ultimately murder Hamlet.

Although Horatio does not think it is a good idea for Hamlet to agree to the duel, Hamlet responds to the challenge stating: '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' (5.2.166-68). Although within the context of the scene this line seems to refer merely to the duel, it carries a much larger meaning in the context of the play, as it seems Hamlet is accepting that he may die at the hand of Laertes. This line seems to be a response to Hamlet's most famous line in the play, 'To be, or not to be' where he famously contemplates whether or not he wants to live, and he seems to arrive at an acceptance that death will come, whether it be now or later on.

After this, Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes enter. Before the duel begins, Hamlet apologies to Laertes. The relationship between Hamlet and Laertes within the context of the larger plot is interesting, and Shakespeare draws a connection between the two characters: both Hamlet and Laertes are seeking to avenge their fathers' deaths. While Hamlet famously debates whether or not he should take action throughout the course of the play, Laertes is much more proactive and assertive. He intends to kill Hamlet in the duel with a poisoned sword as a way of avenging Polonious's death. In this way, the characters are foils, that is characters who stand in contrast to one another. However, the word foil has another meaning as well within a fencing context. It is a type of sword used in fencing. Therefore, when Hamlet says, 'I'll be your foil, Laertes' it carries a double meaning, and is a pun, or play on words.

Photograph of the final scene from a production of Hamlet by Edward Gordon Craig in 1911 at the Moscow Art Theatre
Hamlet Final Scene

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