In Elsinore, Hamlet tells Horatio that he discovered that the letters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bore to England asked that Hamlet be executed. Hamlet switched the letter with one that requested Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be executed.
R and G are duped again. Their sad fate shows the way plots and deception tend to widen and take the lives of those on the periphery too.
Hamlet says he has no sympathy for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who gave up their honor to curry favor with the king. But he is sorry he fought with Laertes, who only wanted to revenge his own father.
Hamlet identifies with Laertes.
A dandyish nobleman, Osric, enters. Hamlet gets him to agree first that it's cold, then that it's actually hot. Osric announces that Claudius has wagered Hamlet can defeat Laertes in a duel. Hamlet agrees to fight.
Osric is what Hamlet most hates—a man who values appearance over reality.
Horatio says that Hamlet will lose the wager. Hamlet says he'll win a fair fight, but he has a bad foreboding. Horatio urges him to call off the duel. But Hamlet says there's no use trying to escape death: it will come no matter what.
Hamlet is finally at peace. He accepts death. Death comes for everyone, so why not face it now? Note that Hamlet has ceased to plot: he's chosen reality over appearance.
Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and the entire court enter to watch the duel. Hamlet apologizes to Laertes. Laertes won't accept the apology until he can consult an expert on honor. The two men select their foils (swords). Laertes picks the poisoned foil.
Laertes speaks of honor while plotting against Hamlet. He's sold his soul for vengeance.
Claudius announces that if Hamlet gets one of the first three hits he will drink to Hamlet's health and then drop a jewel into the cup and give it to Hamlet. The duel starts. Hamlet scores the first hit. Claudius drops the jewel into the wine. Hamlet, concentrating on the duel, says he'll drink the wine later.
The "jewel" is poison—appearance vs. reality.
Hamlet scores the second hit. Gertrude lifts the poisoned cup to drink in Hamlet's honor. Claudius tries to stop her, but can't tell her why without revealing his plot. She drinks.
Claudius is in so deep that he can't admit reality even to save his wife.
They duel. Laertes wounds Hamlet, drawing blood. They scuffle, and in the scuffle end up exchanging swords. Hamlet wounds Laertes.
Laertes gets his revenge, but it rebounds on himself.
Gertrude falls. Claudius claims Gertrude fainted because she saw Hamlet and Laertes bleeding, but Gertrude says the wine was poisoned. She dies.
Claudius lies right up until the end. But death is a reality that appearance can't hide.
Laertes, who knows he's dying of his wound from the poisoned sword, reveals Claudius's treachery.
Hamlet stabs Claudius and then forces him to drink the poisoned wine. Claudius dies.
Hamlet gets his revenge.
Laertes forgives Hamlet and asks for forgiveness. Laertes dies. Hamlet forgives him.
Hamlet and Laertes are honest before they die.
Horatio wants to kill himself, but Hamlet forbids it: Horatio must tell Hamlet's story to the world.
Through Horatio, Hamlet will reveal Claudius's lies.
In the distance a cannon sounds. Fortinbras is returning victorious from Poland, and fired the blast to honor English ambassadors arriving to Denmark. Hamlet says that Fortinbras should be made King of Denmark, then dies.
Fortinbras achieves "vengeance" by not pursuing it. He's the only character who never plots—he always chooses reality over appearance.
Fortinbras and the English ambassadors enter. Amazed at the carnage, the ambassadors announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
The deaths of R and G emphasize absurd and bloody reach of revenge.
Horatio begins to tell the story of what has happened in Denmark. Fortinbras orders Hamlet be honored as a soldier, since he would have made a great king.
Claudius's lies are swept away, and Denmark is "healed" by a legitimate succession from Hamlet to Fortinbras.