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ACT IV, SCENE 5
Horatio pleads with Gertrude to speak to Ophelia, who is distraught over her father's death. He tells the Queen that Ophelia seems to have lost her wits and goes around speaking distractedly about how her father has been murdered. Her actions are causing people to speculate on the reason for Polonius' death. When the Queen consents, Horatio brings in Ophelia, who appears to have had a breakdown. Claudius enters and also tries to speak to the girl, but her replies are meaningless. Claudius tells Horatio to watch her closely.
As soon as Claudius is alone with Gertrude, he bemoans the state of things, mentioning Polonius' secret burial, Ophelia's apparent madness, and Hamlet's strange behavior. Additionally, he is concerned that Laertes, who has returned to investigate his father's death, will find out the truth.
Suddenly, Laertes and an angry mob burst into the castle. Laertes asks the whereabouts of his father. Gertrude throws herself on Laertes in a misguided attempt to protect Claudius. The King, ever cool and composed, tells Laertes he is not responsible for Polonius' death. Just as he is about to explain, Ophelia reenters, and Laertes is overwhelmed by her pitiful state. She speaks incoherently and hands flowers to everyone, speaking in a lifeless way. Laertes vows to wreak vengeance on the person responsible for the destruction of his family.
Claudius assures Laertes that he too is deeply grieved by Polonius' death and Ophelia's insanity. He slyly assures Laertes that the axe of justice will fall on the guilty person, knowing fully well that Laertes will find Hamlet responsible for his father's death. Thus, Claudius sows the seeds of enmity between Laertes and Hamlet-a kind of back-up plan if his English murder fails.
The last scenes of Act IV reveal the disintegration of many of the key characters in the play. Polonius is dead; the Queen, suffering from guilt and turbulent feelings, appears to be divided against her self; and Ophelia has suffered a total breakdown. It seems that the poison poured by Claudius has contaminated the entire society.
Appearance vs. reality comes into play in an ironic manner in this scene. Whereas Hamlet has appeared to be mad, Ophelia is really mad. She sings meaningless songs and wanders glassy-eyed about the stage, searching for her father and lamenting her life. Some critics see Ophelia's madness as unnecessary to the plot and cruelty on Shakespeare's part. They argue that Laertes has sufficient motivation to act against Hamlet and does not require the additional impetus of a sister driven mad. Ophelia's madness does, however, serve to point out the general corruption and decay that is spreading throughout the entire body politic. Since the source of evil is the King himself, it is not surprising that the entire society, right down to the innocent and pure, have been affected.
From her very first appearance in the play, Ophelia has been associated with flowers, especially with violets. Flowers, normally symbolic of love and passion, have additional meaning in the hands of Ophelia. To Laertes she gives rosemary, a symbol of remembrance used in funerals; she seems to be foreshadowing her own death and asking her brother to remember her. To Claudius she gives fennel, which appropriately stands for flattery. Ophelia then gives Gertrude columbines, which represent gratitude. She also gives the Queen rue, symbolizing sorrow, and daisies, which symbolize women easily won over by love. It is significant that in her madness Ophelia does not carry any violets, the symbol of faithfulness. Like Ophelia herself, her violets have withered and dried up; her madness seems to mark the end of love and kindness in the play. Appropriately, Ophelia's distribution of flowers links this scene to the Gravediggers Scene, where the Queen drops flowers over her grave.
This scene also draws comparisons and contrasts between Laertes and Hamlet. Both have a murdered father, and both seek vengeance. But unlike Laertes, Hamlet does not have the single-minded determination to sweep unhesitatingly to revenge his father's death. Upon learning about his father's murder, Laertes returns from Paris and quickly raises a rebellion against the King; he acts swiftly, without scruple, never pondering his actions. Daring damnation, he declares, "Let come what comes; only I'll be reveng'd / Most thoroughly for my father." When Laertes sees Ophelia in her state of insanity, he is even more overwhelmed with grief and dismay.