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In the final scene, the violence, so long delayed, erupts with dizzying speed. Characters drop one after the other, poisoned, stabbed, and, in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, executed, as the theme of revenge and justice reaches its conclusion in the moment when Hamlet finally kills Claudius. In the moments before the duel, Hamlet seems peaceful, though also quite sad. He says that he feels ill in his heart, but he seems reconciled to the idea of death and no longer troubled by fear of the supernatural. Exactly what has caused the change in Hamlet is unclear, but his desire to attain Laertes’ forgiveness clearly represents an important shift in his mental state. Whereas Hamlet previously was obsessed almost wholly with himself and his family, he is now able to think sympathetically about others. He does not go quite so far as to take responsibility for Polonius’s death, but he does seem to be acting with a broader perspective after the shock of Ophelia’s death. Hamlet’s death at the hands of Laertes makes his earlier declaration over Polonius’s corpse, that God has chosen “to punish me with this and this with me,” prophetic (III.iv.174). His murder of Polonius does punish him in the end, since it is Laertes’ vengeful rage over that murder that leads to Hamlet’s death.
That death is neither heroic nor shameful, according to the moral logic of the play. Hamlet achieves his father’s vengeance, but only after being spurred to it by the most extreme circumstances one might consider possible: watching his mother die and knowing that he, too, will die in moments.
The arrival of Fortinbras effectively poses the question of political legitimacy once again. In marked contrast to the corrupted and weakened royal family lying dead on the floor, Fortinbras clearly represents a strong-willed, capable leader, though the play does not address the question of whether his rule will restore the moral authority of the state.