From the moment we first meet Hamlet until he leaves for England, he is trapped between will and action. But when he returns to Denmark in Act V he is a changed man: still serious, yet far less melancholy and far more at peace. Even his letter to Horatio in the end of Act IV reveals a different Hamlet from the one we met in the beginning of the play. How is this? What changed him?
All Hamlet does in the first four acts is mope around pondering what he should do: should he kill Claudius, was his father’s ghost really a demon, or should he live or escape all the pain in the endless sleep that is death? When ever he actually does do something, it does not go as planned.
After his encounter with his father’s ghost, Hamlet is certain it is his duty to execute the culprit behind his father’s death, Claudius. But still Hamlet can’t shake the feeling that he might be wrong about the ghost. What if the ghost wasn’t his father, but really a demon? This question haunts him, and so, he comes up with a plan to see If his uncle truly is a murderer: a play depicting the events of his father’s death as told to him by the spirit. The play is a success - Claudius flees the scene. He knows he’s been found out. Hamlet follows him back to his chambers, where he is praying, and is ready to strike him down before thinks to himself
“Now he is a-praying. And now I’ll do ’t. And so he goes to heaven. And so am I revenged.—That would be scanned. A villain kills my father, and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.” (3.3.77-83)
Hamlet’s soul remains conflicted. Boiling with hatred, Hamlet rushes to his mother’s room to confront her. Polonius is there too and hides behind a curtain as to eavesdrop on what the “troubled child” will say. In a fit of rage, Hamlet accuses his mother and threatens her, frightening her so that she cries for help. Hearing this, Polonius does the same, and Hamlet, thinking it is his uncle behind the curtain, recklessly thrusts his sword into Polonius, killing him. When Claudius is told what happened, his is outraged, and even more so when Hamlet hides the body and refuses to tell where it is hidden. Claudius then sends Hamlet off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with the intent of Hamlet never returning. Hamlet has just about given up when just before they set sail, Hamlet is consulted by a Fortinbras captain. The captain tells Hamlet that they are on their way to invade a small portion of Poland worth almost nothing. Hamlet knows that this small disagreement will lead to more trouble than it’s worth. Hamlet now knows he’s wasted enough time and must act on his revenge.
“How all occasions do inform against me, And spur my dull revenge! What is a man If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” (4.4.31-34)
Hamlet knows he has the will and ability to do what he must, but whether it be sheer cowardice or from thinking to much, he won’t allow it to stop him any longer.
Hamlet is determined to confront his uncle when he returns from England but is strangely attacked by pirates. In this scuffle, he discovers two things: one, a letter from his uncle detailing Hamlet’s murder (the perfect piece of evidence to convict his uncle), and two, he is no longer on his ship and surrounded by pirates. But by the grace of God, they treat him quite well, in return for a favor to which Hamlet agrees. It is in his letter to Horatio that there seems to be something cheerier about Hamlet. We see this more when he and Horatio meet the grave digger as they almost flippantly discuss a very grave matter.
Hamlet: Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
Gravedigger: mine, sir. [sings]
Hamlet: I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in ‘t.
Gravedigger: You lie out on ‘t, sir, and therefore ‘tis not yours. For my part, I do not lie in ‘t, yet it is mine.
They banter on until Hamlet discovers the identity of the owner of the grave - his beloved Ophelia. The death of her father has driven her mad to the point that she had drowned herself. Hamlet is heart-broken, realizing he had caused this with his uncertainty and burst of foolish rage. Laertes is infuriated that Hamlet would dare show his face at Ophelia’s funeral after what he did to her, telling her he never loved her, that she should be sent to a nunnery, and killing her father. Laertes charges Hamlet rightfully accusing him for the lost of Ophelia. When separated, Hamlet tell them he he intended not for this but that he truly loved her.
“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1.285-286)
Hamlet never meant to hurt Ophelia and must face the consequences of his thoughtless actions. He and Horatio move on to discuss the events that took place whilst he was away and how he managed to survive.
Hamlet almost didn’t believe it himself when it happened. In the middle of a pirate attack he stumbled upon the letters to the King of England containing instructions from his uncle to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet took the original letter and quickly wrote a new letter to the king ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed, and sealed it with his father’s signet that he just so happened to have in his purse. During the orchestra of yelling, cannon and gun fire, Hamlet boarded the enemy vessel only to then realize that his ship had escaped the mess and left him to the pirates. The pirates realized who they had just captured decided rather to ask for a favor and return him home on the account of his current family situation. Hamlet realizes none of what had just happened was by chance. (“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” 5.2.11) Hamlet knows that if it is God’s will for him to enact revenge upon Claudius then it will happen. If Hamlet is to die today, he will; and if not, then he will die some other time.
“There is a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it 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. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.” (5.2.233-238)
Hamlet tells Horatio this just before he faces Laertes in a duel - a duel that is Claudius’s final attempt to kill Hamlet. Hamlet has come to grips with providence and lets go of the reigns, knowing that God is in control. With in a hundred lines, everyone is dead; Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes. Horatio is the only one left. Horns blare as Fortinbras arrives, expecting to take back what is rightfully his by force, only to be told by Horatio of the tragic and heroic scene has just taken place. Fortinbras is astounded by the events, but orders that Hamlet be given an honourable burial.
“Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proven most royal; and for his passage, the soldier’s music and the rite of war speak loudly for him.” (5.2.441-446)
Fortinbras knew Hamlet has overcome a battle not many men face and yet managed to come out victorious, having restored justice and peace to Denmark. Hamlet succeeds in avenging his father, and also pays the price for killing Polonius. In the end all, was made right.