Gertrude and Horatio discuss Ophelia. Gertrude does not wish to see the bereaved girl, but Horatio says that Ophelia should be pitied, explaining that her grief has made her disordered and incoherent. Ophelia enters. Adorned with flowers and singing strange songs, she seems to have gone mad. Claudius enters and hears Ophelia’s ravings, such as, “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter” (IV.v.42). He says that Ophelia’s grief stems from her father’s death, and that the people have been suspicious and disturbed by the death as well: “muddied, / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers / For good Polonius’ death” (IV.v.77–79). He also mentions that Laertes has secretly sailed back from France.
A loud noise echoes from somewhere in the castle. Claudius calls for his guards, and a gentleman enters to warn the king that Laertes has come with a mob of commoners. The mob calls Laertes “lord,” according to the gentlemen, and the people whisper that “Laertes shall be king” (IV.v.102–106). A furious Laertes storms into the hall, fuming in his desire to avenge his father’s death. Claudius attempts to soothe him by frankly acknowledging that Polonius is dead. Gertrude nervously adds that Claudius is innocent in it. When Ophelia reenters, obviously insane, Laertes plunges again into rage. Claudius claims that he is not responsible for Polonius’s death and says that Laertes’ desire for revenge is a credit to him, so long as he seeks revenge upon the proper person. Claudius convinces Laertes to hear his version of events, which he says will answer all his questions. Laertes agrees, and Claudius seconds his desire to achieve justice in the aftermath of Polonius’s death: “Where th’ offence is, let the great axe fall” (IV.v.213).Read a translation of Act IV, scene v →
In another part of the castle, Horatio is introduced to a pair of sailors bearing a letter for him from Hamlet. In the letter, Hamlet says that his ship was captured by pirates, who have returned him to Denmark. He asks Horatio to escort the sailors to the king and queen, for they have messages for them as well. He also says that he has much to tell of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio takes the sailors to the king and then follows them to find Hamlet, who is in the countryside near the castle.Read a translation of Act IV, scene vi →
As we have seen, one of the important themes of Hamlet is the connection between the health of a state and the moral legitimacy of its ruler. Claudius is rotten, and, as a result, Denmark is rotten too. Here, at the beginning of Act IV, scene v, things have palpably darkened for the nation: Hamlet is gone, Polonius is dead and has been buried in secret, Ophelia is raving mad, and, as Claudius tells us, the common people are disturbed and murmuring among themselves. This ominous turn of events leads to the truncated, miniature rebellion that accompanies Laertes’ return to Denmark. Acting as the wronged son operating with open fury, Laertes has all the moral legitimacy that Claudius lacks, the legitimacy that Hamlet has forfeited through his murder of Polonius and his delay in avenging his father’s death.
Laertes is Hamlet’s best foil throughout the play, and in this scene the contrast between the two, each of whom has a dead father to avenge, reaches its peak. (A third figure with a dead father to avenge, Fortinbras, lurks on the horizon.) Whereas Hamlet is reflective and has difficulty acting, Laertes is active and has no use for thought. He has no interest in moral concerns, only in his consuming desire to avenge Polonius. When Claudius later asks Laertes how far he would go to avenge his father, Laertes replies that he would slit Hamlet’s throat in the church (IV.vii.98). This statement, indicating his willingness to murder Hamlet even in a sacred place of worship, brings into sharp relief the contrast between the two sons: recall that Hamlet declined to kill Claudius as the king knelt in prayer (III.iii).
As befits a scene full of anger and dark thoughts, Act IV, scene v brings a repetition of the motif of insanity, this time through the character of Ophelia, who has truly been driven mad by the death of her father. Shakespeare has demonstrated Ophelia’s chaste dependence on the men in her life; after Polonius’s sudden death and Hamlet’s subsequent exile, she finds herself abruptly without any of them. Ophelia’s lunatic ravings reveal a great deal about the nature of her mind at this stage in her young life. She is obsessed with death, beauty, and an ambiguous sexual desire, expressed in startlingly frank imagery: