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).
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.
As we have seen, one of the important themes of
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:
Young men will do ’t, if they come to ’t.
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed." (IV.v. 59–62 )
Some readers have interpreted passages such as these, combined with Hamlet’s sexually explicit taunting of Ophelia in Act III, scene ii, as evidence that Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet was sexual in nature. Of course, this is impossible to conclude with any certainty, but from these lines, it is apparent that Ophelia is grappling with sexuality and that her sexual feelings, discouraged by her father, her brother, and her society, are close to the forefront of her mind as she slips into insanity. But, most important, Ophelia’s insanity is designed to contrast strongly with Hamlet’s, differing primarily in its legitimacy: Ophelia does not feign madness to achieve an end but is truly driven mad by external pressures. Many of the worst elements in Denmark, including madness, fear, and rebellion, so far have been kept hidden under various disguises, such as Hamlet’s pretense and Claudius’s court revelry, and are now beginning to emerge into the open.
After exiling Hamlet to England in Act IV, scene iv, Shakespeare now returns him to Denmark only two scenes later through the bizarre deus ex machina—an improbable or unexpected device or character introduced to resolve a situation in a work of fiction or drama—of the pirate attack. The short Act IV, scene vi is primarily devoted to plot development, as Horatio reads Hamlet’s letter narrating his adventure. The story of the pirate attack has little to do with the main themes of the play, but it does provide an interesting variation on the idea of retributive justice, since instead of punishing someone for doing something wrong, Hamlet states his intention to reward the pirates for the right they have done in returning him to Denmark. “They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy,” he says, “but they knew what they did: I am to do a good turn for them” (IV.vi.17–19). Additionally, Hamlet’s letter features a return of the motif of ears and hearing, as the prince tells Horatio that “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb,” an open reference to the poison poured into King Hamlet’s ear by the murderous Claudius (IV.vi.21).