Inside Elsinore, Hamlet tells Horatio the story of his escape from the ship bound for England. Even though Hamlet was not a prisoner, per se, on the first leg of his journey, he felt like one, and was determined to get free. One night, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern slept, he snuck into their cabin and stole the papers they were carrying. When he opened the letters, he realized that Claudius was trying to order Hamlet’s execution. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wrote a new letter, copying Claudius’s handwriting, ordering the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on sight. After sealing the letter with his father’s signet, Hamlet returned it to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s chambers. In the encounter with the pirates the following day, Hamlet escaped the ship and sent his old friends on to their death.
Hamlet brags about his cunning actions against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even as it remains clear that Hamlet hasn’t actually done anything to them. He has secured revenge upon them through an absence of action, and by fleeing the situation rather than acting directly against the men who betrayed him.
Horatio is stunned by Claudius’s cunning and cruelty. Hamlet says he is more determined than ever to kill the man who killed his father, “whored [his] mother,” and stole Hamlet’s own throne. Horatio urges Hamlet to do the deed quickly, as news of what Hamlet has done to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will soon arrive from England.
Even though Hamlet says he’s ready at last to kill Claudius, it is worth nothing that he’s still standing around talking to Horatio about his anger rather than acting upon it, suggesting that Hamlet may be feeling more ambivalent about the act than he is letting on.
A young courtier named Osric enters and greets Hamlet. Hamlet quietly tells Horatio that Osric is a “water-fly” and a fool in spite of the great parcels of land he owns—and his resulting political power. Osric says he has a message for Hamlet from the king. He uses florid language to compliment Laertes and praise the man’s good, strong nature, then states that Claudius has bet on Hamlet in a fencing match against Laertes. Osric asks if Hamlet accepts the terms of the bet and will agree to a duel. Hamlet says he does, and Osric runs off to give Claudius the news. Hamlet cheekily advises him to deliver Hamlet’s “yes” with the same “flourish” Osric used to beseechingly describe Laertes.
Just as Hamlet has expressed contempt for and superiority towards Polonius, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern throughout the play, so too does he feel superior to this new character, Osric. Despite his status as a prince, Hamlet knows that the throne is a corrupt institution, and has no respect for anyone who benefits from proximity to it or swears fealty to the king who sits upon it.
As Osric runs off, Horatio and Hamlet mock him—but then Horatio tells Hamlet he has a bad feeling about the outcome of the wager. Hamlet insists he’s prepared to fight Laertes—even as he admits that he, too, has an “ill […] about [his] heart.” Horatio urges Hamlet to back out of the fight, but Hamlet is determined to participate and leave his fate to God.
Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Osric, and many lords and courtiers bearing trumpets, fencing rapiers, and wine enter the hall. Claudius urges Hamlet and Laertes to come together and shake hands. As Hamlet approaches Laertes, he apologizes for the pain he’s caused Laertes and his family—but says that he cannot be held accountable for the actions he took under the spell of madness. Laertes assures Hamlet he “receive[s his] offered love” with gratitude, “and will not wrong it.”
Laertes appears to forgive Hamlet and accept his apology, but in reality, he is designing an attempt on Hamlet’s very life. Whereas Hamlet has been paralyzed with inaction in regards to seeking revenge for his father’s murder, it’s clear that Laertes is prepared to actively seek justice for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia.
Osric hands Hamlet and Laertes their swords, and they prepare to duel. Claudius says that he will blast the castle’s cannons in honor of the winner, and reward him, whoever he may be, with a delicious wine. He orders the fight to begin, and Hamlet and Laertes start fencing. Hamlet hits Laertes in the first round, and Claudius offers him poisoned wine to drink in celebration. Hamlet refuses it, stating he’ll drink it later. In the second round, Hamlet hits Laertes again. Gertrude, thrilled, picks up Hamlet’s cup and drinks to his success. Claudius, in an aside, laments that he has been unable to stop his queen from drinking the poisoned wine.
Gertrude is a casualty of a scheme devised by the very man who should have been able to protect her. Claudius seems sad that Gertrude has been swept up in his plan—but doesn’t step in to save or comfort her in her final moments before the poison seizes her.
As the third round begins, Hamlet challenges Laertes to give it his all. The men are evenly matched—but Laertes at last lands a hit on Hamlet. Both men drop their swords—and pick up one another’s in the scuffle. As the fight resumes, Hamlet hits Laertes with Laertes’s poisoned sword. Claudius asks for the fight to stop, but Hamlet is determined to keep dueling. Gertrude collapses, to everyone’s horror, and Laertes quickly follows, lamenting that he is “a woodcock to [his] own springe”—in other words, a bird caught in his own trap.
As Laertes’s plan begins to backfire and people start dying, he admits that his scheme has failed. So many plots, schemes, and ploys have failed already in this play—and Laertes is almost angry with himself for failing to see how this one, too, could have floundered.
Though Claudius insists the queen has just swooned at the sight of such action, Gertrude insists the poisoned wine is what has felled her—she warns Hamlet not to drink it. Hamlet calls out for Osric to lock the doors—there has been “treachery” in the hall, and they must find out who is responsible. Laertes, however, speaks up and confesses that he is the traitor. He tells Hamlet that Hamlet has been poisoned and will soon die—there is “no medicine in the world” which can save him. As Laertes dies, he calls out that “the king’s to blame.” Hamlet, realizing the swords are poisoned, stabs Claudius, then forces him to drink from the poisoned cup of wine. Claudius dies. With his dying breath, Laertes cries out that Claudius has gotten what he deserves, and tells Hamlet he forgives him.
Laertes regrets joining up with Claudius against Hamlet—his quickness to action has backfired, and now the blood of the entire royal family is on his hands. He feels guilty and remorseful—showing that action is not necessarily preferable to inaction, as death comes for everyone in the end, regardless of whether they act or do not act.
As Hamlet himself collapses and dies, he bids goodbye to the “wretched queen,” and laments that “Death is strict in his arrest.” He begs Horatio to tell his story. Horatio picks up the poisoned cup of wine, seemingly desiring to die and follow Hamlet—but Hamlet takes the cup from Horatio, urging him to live on, tell Hamlet’s tale, and exonerate him to the world.
For all the pondering Hamlet has done about death over the course of the play—his father’s murder, his own suicide, his desire to kill his uncle—he is shocked by how “strict” and swift death really is.
Before Hamlet dies, the sounds of war trumpets come through the door. Hamlet asks what’s happening. Osric enters and informs Hamlet that Fortinbras has returned successfully from Poland. Hamlet says, with his dying breath, that Fortinbras should be the one to bear the Danish crown. “The rest is silence,” Hamlet says, and dies. Horatio bids Hamlet “Good night, sweet prince.”
Fortinbras enters the hall with an English ambassador. He is shocked and confused by the bloody, messy scene around him, and laments the deaths of “so many princes.” The English ambassador says he’s come to announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead—but there is no one important left to hear the news. Horatio points to Claudius and says that even if he were still alive, he would not thank the ambassador, as he was not the one who ordered their deaths. Horatio offers to tell Fortinbras and the ambassador “of [the] carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” that have led to this terrible scene. Fortinbras laments the sorry state of Denmark, but says he’s ready to make his claim upon the throne. Horatio says that he will support Fortinbras even in the midst of such chaos.
Most of the main characters of the play are dead—and the ones left to clean up the pieces represent a new guard led by Fortinbras. Death has come for most everyone, regardless of their morality, action, or inaction—and someone foreign, without all the baggage of Denmark’s recent struggle and corruption, has risen to take the throne.
Fortinbras orders four of his captains to carry Hamlet’s body to a viewing platform. He laments that the prince would have made a great king. He orders the rest of his soldiers to remove all the dead bodies from the hall—though “such a sight […] becomes the field,” it looks wrong within the walls of such a stately castle.
Though most of Hamlet is about inaction and the failures of vengeance, it ends, surprisingly, with a bloody spectacle fitting of war. Fortinbras is perturbed by how these people have slaughtered one another—even with his impressive battle record. This shows that sometimes, intimate human struggles are more violent than even the goriest wars.