On the surface, the conventions of melodrama run away with the last scene of the play. The focus of the action is a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet. The excitement can be arranged into a threefold pattern: lead-up to the duel, the unfolding of the fencing match, and the discovery and aftermath of the king’s treachery as various characters die violent deaths.
The lead-up has two main ingredients. One is a thread of conversation between Hamlet and Horatio in which Hamlet displays important developments as a character. The second is the posturing of the comic character Osric, representative of the king, as he self-importantly sets up the ground rules for the duel.
The fencing match is a highpoint of dramatic “stage business.” Sword play was an absolute favorite of audiences in Shakespeare’s day (and perhaps universally). Before we get to the sword play, we have trumpet sounds, the ceremonial entrance of the spectators, and such rituals as the choice of swords. The governing motif in the actual duel is that of treachery, and it consists of three main ingredients: one of the swords is both poisoned (“envenomed”) and “unbated” (that is, unblunted and left sharp enough to injure or kill an opponent), and a chalice of poisoned drink is placed on a table in expectation that Hamlet will drink it between phases of the match. As the violent scene unfolds, Hamlet is wounded with the poisoned sword, the swords get switched at a certain point and Laertes also receives a death wound, Gertrude catches the king off guard by drinking the poison, and Hamlet kills the king before he himself dies.
Two main events make up the aftermath. The dying Hamlet charges Horatio with the task of telling the world the story of the villainy of Claudius and the integrity of Hamlet. Then the Norwegian prince Fortinbras arrives with a small army. He is appalled by the spectacle of death that he sees and by Horatio’s recap of the “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” (line 364) that have occurred. Fortinbras assumes kingship of Denmark, and in his final speech he praises Hamlet and vows to reestablish order to the kingdom.
The melodramatic nature of the story might make it seem an unlikely candidate to become a good devotional “read,” but that is the view that this guide will propose. The key to this reading is the development of Hamlet into an example of Christian courage and resignation to divine providence. Subordinate themes are Hamlet’s acknowledgment of human weakness (a kind of self-abnegation, after a lengthy period of thinking that he could set the world right), and a spirit of reconciliation between himself and other characters. Much of this Christian coloring of the final scene is compressed into two key speeches that are so important that they need to be quoted.
The first occurs at the outset of the scene as Hamlet brings Horatio up to speed regarding what happened on the voyage to England. The important heart of the speech is as follows:
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well When our deep plots do pall [fail], and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will. (lines 8–11)
The underlying metaphor is that of God as sculptor (or alternatively a carpenter). The lines enshrine a twofold note of humility on Hamlet’s part. One is Hamlet’s confession of having mismanaged things, with references to his “indiscretion,” to the fact that his “plots” (plans and actions) “do pall” (that is, fail), and to the statue being “roughhew[n],” that is, not perfected. The second note of humility focuses on Hamlet’s attitude toward God’s providence, as encapsulated in the statement that “a divinity” (that is, God) “shapes our ends,” even though when left to themselves people do no better than perform some rough chippings on a would-be statue.
In effect Hamlet expresses a willingness to view the terrible events of recent days through a lens of God’s providential guidance. We can pause to note that the events in the second half of the play have a common thread of being things that happened without Hamlet’s orchestration. The traveling troupe of players happened to visit at a time when Hamlet could get them to perform the mousetrap scene. Hamlet happens to pass the door of Claudius at the moment he was kneeling in prayer. It happened that Polonius rather than Claudius was behind the curtain. The pirate ship happened to come alongside the ship headed for England, and Gertrude happened to grab the poisoned chalice. A story with these events could be turned by an author in one direction or another; Shakespeare (as always) shows his theological allegiance by turning the chain of events in the direction of Christian faith in God’s providence.
Armed with a sense of confidence in God’s ability to direct human efforts to an appointed providential end, Hamlet becomes decisive as God’s agent of judgment. He tells Horatio how he sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, in reversal of what they intended to do to Hamlet. Hamlet ascribes his ability to do this to providence: “Why, even in that was heaven [God] ordinant [in control]” (line 48). After loads of self-accusation in the first four acts of the play, Hamlet expresses self-vindication in regard to his dealing with Rosencrantz and Guil- denstern: “They are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation [meddling] grow” (lines 57–58).
This self-vindication reaches also to Hamlet’s attitude toward seeking justice against Claudius. In just three lines, Hamlet states a fourfold case against Claudius: “He that hath killed my king [i.e., his father] and whored my mother, / Popped in between th’ election and my hopes, / Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (lines 63–65).The third and fourth of these refer, respectively, to Claudius’s usurping the kingship that should have gone to Hamlet, and to Claudius’s plan to have Hamlet murdered in England. In the very next line Hamlet speaks of being in “perfect conscience” (line 66) in regard to his desire for justice against Claudius, an obvious foil to all the pangs of conscience that Hamlet has (without warrant) expressed throughout the play up to this point.
The providential theme reaches its finest moment later in the ongoing conversation between Hamlet and his friend Horatio. When Hamlet shares the information that he has a pain in the region of his heart, Horatio entreats him to back out of the duel. Hamlet’s reply is so laden with mea ings that it needs to be quoted:
Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it [death] be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. (lines 197–200)
The overall meaning is that since a person does not know when his or her moment of death will come, the important thing is to trust to providence and be ready for death when it comes. But there are nuances of meaning beyond the overall meaning.
Hamlet begins by rejecting pagan notions of augury, which means divination or occult fortune telling to predict what will happen. Having dismissed such paganism out of hand, Hamlet contrasts it to Christian belief in divine providence. Shakespeare clearly signals this by an allusion to one of Jesus’s famous sayings: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31).
Two critical traditions exist in regard to Hamlet’s development in the final scene of the play. The “pagan” reading asserts that Hamlet achieves a stoic acceptance of fate, and nothing more. But Hamlet explicitly rejects paganism when he says, “We defy augury.” This is a shorthand way of saying that Hamlet rejects the whole outlook of paganism and its attitude toward fate or destiny. Furthermore, near the beginning of this scene Shakespeare had placed a speech about “a divinity [God]” who shapes a person’s life, and here in the “augury” speech Hamlet brings in a famous statement by Jesus about God’s care over a person’s life with the reference to the fall of a sparrow.
In this context of belief in God’s providence, Hamlet utters his most famous one-liner of all: “The readiness is all.” That is, the important thing is to be ready for death (and presumably any other event as well) when it comes. Reducing the Christian concept of providence to mere stoicism is a failure to give due weight to what Shakespeare put into these lines. To be ready for action is far more positive than passively resigning oneself to fate. We should also note that there are no soliloquies in act 5; up to this point, Hamlet’s soliloquies have been a substitute for action.
Hamlet’s final moments during the duel also elevate him in our estimation. When Hamlet kills Claudius, he fulfills his role as scourge—an agent in society set apart to punish a guilty person. Until now, Hamlet could provide no public proof that Claudius is a murderer and would-be murderer. But with the poisoning of Gertrude, as well as the information that Laertes supplies about the “unbated and envenomed” sword (line 300), the guilt of Claudius is legally established. Laertes summarizes the situation with the statements, “The king, the king’s to blame” (line 303), and “He is justly served” (line 310). Hamlet himself could not have arranged things to bring a public disclosure; it is another outworking of the providential theme of the play. One critic puts the situation into focus by saying that Hamlet “dies a martyr to justice and not . . . as an impenitent revenger.”
Hamlet is also reconciled to Laertes in a way that wins our admiration. Just before Laertes dies, he says, “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee” (lines 312–13). Hamlet replies, “Heaven [God] make thee free of it” (line 315). Earlier in the scene, Hamlet had asked Laertes for forgiveness: “Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong” (line 204). A critic correctly states that “Hamlet does not sink into passive resignation; he rises to affirmative reconciliation.”
The words spoken about Hamlet after his death add further notes of Christian nobility in regard to Hamlet. As Hamlet dies, Horatio says, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (lines 342–43), making it clear that Shakespeare wishes us to understand that Hamlet has gone to heaven. And yet another note of praise is sounded for Hamlet by the closing speech of Fortinbras as he takes over the kingship of Denmark: “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, / For he was likely, had he been put on [that is, become king], / To have proved most royal” (lines 379–81).
One further thing needs to be said about the final speech of the play. It was a theatrical convention of Shakespeare’s day that tragedies ended with a closing speech uttered by the person of highest rank who had survived the tragedy. Such speeches were formal-sounding and functioned as an epilogue to the play. As king-to-be, Fortinbras naturally utters the concluding speech. But there is a twist: usually the future king outlines what he intends to do to reestablish order in a kingdom that has been engulfed by the evil of the tragic hero. It is noteworthy that Fortinbras instead delivers a eulogy for Hamlet, repeatedly highlighting the nobility and soldierly stature of the fallen hero. Since Hamlet’s behavior through most of the play was far from noble, we need to do justice to the final speech as highlighting Hamlet’s upward movement in the final scene of the play.