Hamlet

by: William Shakespeare

What Does the Ending Mean?

Summary What Does the Ending Mean?

Claudius and Laertes set Hamlet’s ending in motion when they plan to kill Hamlet during a fencing match. Both Hamlet and Laertes are fatally poisoned during the match, and before he dies, Hamlet kills Claudius. The ending of Hamlet leaves it unclear whether the events leave Hamlet’s struggles with self-doubt unresolved, or whether they in fact settle his various quandaries. Hamlet has spent the whole play debating whether to avenge his father’s death and/or to commit suicide, and the finale effectively enables him to perform both acts. What’s unclear, though, is the degree to which Hamlet’s final acts are intentional. For instance, when Hamlet agrees to the match, he suspects there’s a plot against him, but it isn’t clear what he expects to get out of the fight. Does he simply hope to die and put an end to his misery? Likewise, it isn’t clear whether Hamlet gets any satisfaction from finally killing Claudius. When he strikes the fatal blow Hamlet calls his uncle “incestuous” (V.ii.), which suggests a preoccupation with Claudius’s marriage to Gertrude rather than his murder of King Hamlet. These ambiguities leave it unclear what psychological state Hamlet is in when he perishes.

The play’s ending also has important political implications. One of the Hamlet’s subplots revolves around an ongoing dispute between Denmark and Norway. This dispute has grown more inflamed ever since King Hamlet killed the Norwegian monarch, King Fortinbras, in battle. Now the slain king’s son, Prince Fortinbras, plans to invade Denmark. In Act Two Claudius learns that Fortinbras’s army has been redirected to Poland, and this is the last we hear of Fortinbras for a while. In the meantime, the turmoil in Elsinore incrementally weakens Denmark’s ruling family. The transition from the late King Hamlet to his brother Claudius has already put Denmark in a vulnerable position. And as Hamlet descends into madness, he not only defaults on his former promise as a statesman, but he also puts the family’s political lineage in jeopardy. The infighting at Elsinore grows, eventually spiraling into the deadly violence of Act Five. The conditions are therefore perfect when, in the play’s final moments, Prince Fortinbras makes a surprise attack on the castle. With everyone in the Danish royal family dead, Fortinbras achieves an easy victory. In the end, then, the moral corruption of the Danish royal family places Denmark in the hands of a foreign invader.