Summary and Analysis
A calmer Hamlet recounts the events leading up to his escape from the plot to kill him. He says that he is convinced now more than ever that divine providence governs man's life, and that things happen as they are meant to happen. He tells Horatio that the night before the pirates took him, he found himself unable to sleep. He used this opportunity to investigate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin. Groping about in the darkness, he discovered letters addressed to the English King, which he managed to open with surreptitious skill. To his surprise, he read that Claudius had requested the king of England to imprison and behead Hamlet as quickly as possible. Horatio remains incredulous until Hamlet hands him the letter. While Horatio reads, Hamlet continues. He says that he immediately conjured a brilliant plan. He composed a second set of letters in the flowery style of the original ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed. He sealed the letters with his father's State Seal, which he carried in his purse. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not know that Hamlet has replaced the letters, and thus, according to Hamlet, their demise will be due to their own actions in delivering the letters to the English king.
Claudius' behavior horrifies Horatio. "Why what a king is this!" he exclaims. Hamlet reminds him that this same king killed the rightful king, made Gertrude a whore, and robbed Hamlet of his own birthright, all in one fell stroke. Horatio worries that Claudius will learn the outcome of events in England too quickly, but Hamlet assures him that he will now act expeditiously to eliminate the King.
Hamlet says he is only sorry about one thing now: That he has had to engage Laertes in the business. Osric, a courtier, enters and Hamlet mocks the man's flamboyance. Osric tells Hamlet that Laertes invites the Prince to duel with him. The King has wagered that Hamlet will win, and Osric is to return and report whether Hamlet will accept. He does. After Osric's exit, a lord enters with instructions from the King to see if Hamlet wants more time before meeting Laertes. Hamlet says he is ready whenever the King wants to get started. Then the lord tells Hamlet that the Queen wishes him to extend Laertes a pre-duel overture of friendship. Hamlet agrees, and the lord exits.
Horatio feels uneasy about the duel and suggests that Hamlet could lose. Hamlet shrugs off any possibility of Laertes' winning, but says that, in any event, one cannot avoid one's destiny. Hamlet must do what he must do. All that matters is being prepared for the inevitable. "The readiness is all."
With great flourish, the scene is set for the duel. The King calls Hamlet and Laertes together and has them begin the duel by clasping hands. Hamlet asks Laertes to forgive his earlier acts of madness at Ophelia's grave. He further claims that his madness, not he himself, is responsible for Polonius' death, and he begs pardon for the crime. Laertes remains stiff and suspicious in his response, but says he bears Hamlet no grudge.
Osric brings the swords, and Laertes makes a show of choosing his; Hamlet asks only if the one he has chosen is the same length as the others. The King sets wine out for the duelists to drink and holds up the cup intended for Hamlet. Laertes and Hamlet fence for a moment until Hamlet asks for a judgment call from Osric the referee. Osric proclaims a hit in Hamlet's favor, and Claudius holds up Hamlet's goblet and takes a drink. With high pomp, Claudius drops a pearl, his gift to Hamlet, into the wine.
When Hamlet hits Laertes a second time, Laertes protests that it is a mere touch. Claudius assures Gertrude that, "Our son shall win." Gertrude agrees. She takes Hamlet's wine, wipes his brow, and offers him a drink, which he refuses. She then toasts her son. Claudius asks her not to drink, but she does and then wipes Hamlet's brow one more time.
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