Act IV – Scene.vii
Claudius receives Hamlet’s letter and knows that he is still alive. He
now offers Laertes an opportunity to obtain revenge and he hatches a plot whereby Laertes can kill Hamlet in a duel.
Hamlet will use a fencing foil, but Laertes’ foil will have a sharp point,
not blunted like Hamlet’s, then if Hamlet is killed it will just appear to be an unfortunate accident. However, Laertes suggests that his sword be dipped in a lethal poison so that any minor scratch will
instantly kill Hamlet. Claudius introduces a further safeguard in that he will arrange for Hamlet’s drink to be poisoned should Laertes fail to draw blood.
Gertrude enters to report that Ophelia has been found drowned.
Apparently she was sitting on a branch, which gave way and she fell into the brook below. Laertes finds his grief uncontrollable and exits in a rage.
In order to placate Laertes’ quest for vengeance
against Hamlet, Claudius gives him two reasons why he has not punished Hamlet. Firstly, his wife, the Queen ‘lives almost by his looks’, meaning that she would be devastated if anything happened to her son and
it was seen that Claudius had instigated the hurt, and secondly, because of the great love that the people of Denmark have for Hamlet, and this would undermine his position on the throne.
The Scandinavian countries at the time elected their kings, and monarchs
obtained power, not necessarily through succession.
Shakespeare indicates that Gertrude’s father was the King before King
Hamlet, and he was selected by his predecessor to marry Gertrude. This marriage ensured King Hamlet’s election to the throne by the Knights of the court.
Claudius, therefore, could not afford to lose the support of his Knights, and cannot afford to lose Gertrude. This is why he cannot act against Gertrude’s son, Hamlet. Claudius, therefore, needs Laertes’ assistance in dispatching Hamlet. Laertes is renowned for his swordsmanship. Laertes is the perfect foil for Hamlet. He wastes no time in fancy words and morose behavior. He wishes to get on immediately with the task at hand and now has the additional loss of his sister to motivate him.
At last the audience have another hero to root for, just as the main hero
starts to look tarnished.
The audience suspects that Ophelia has committed suicide, and again
Shakespeare suggests that she was pregnant as it was the convention at that time that unmarried, pregnant women would drown themselves.
The pressures on Ophelia were great. She had committed a cardinal sin and faced the prospect of a future alone, shunned by the court, her father was dead, and she was about to face her condemning brother.
It is ironic that now Hamlet, returning to the scene, has become an
instrument of evil. He has caused the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia and it is clear that something is ‘rotten in the State of Denmark’. His honorable quest for revenge has now turned sour, for he has
committed wrong in order to obtain vengeance in respect of Claudius’ wrongdoings.