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ACT IV, SCENE 7
Claudius has successfully convinced Laertes that he did not murder Polonius. In fact, he tells Laertes that Hamlet not only killed Polonius, but tried to kill him as well. Laertes asks the King why he has not taken any action against Hamlet. Claudius gives two reasons: first, he does not want to hurt the Queen; and second, Hamlet is a favorite of the people of Denmark. The King's reasoning does little to satisfy Laertes, who wants his father's murder avenged. The King assures Laertes that Hamlet will get his punishment in England.
A messenger arrives with two letters from Hamlet--one for the King and one for the Queen. Hamlet's letter to the King simply announces that he has returned to Denmark and will call on the King the next morning. The King is understandably shocked; Laertes is eager to get his chance for revenge.
The King proceeds to develop a plan for Hamlet's death, making it appear to be an accident. There will be a fencing match between Laertes and the Prince; however, Laertes' blade will be uncovered, allowing him to kill Hamlet. Laertes not only agrees to the King's plan, he also goes a step further. He decides to smear the tip of his foil with deadly poison so that even if he only scratches Hamlet, his death will be certain. Claudius suggests yet another back-up plan in case Laertes fails to wound Hamlet. He says he will poison a cup of wine for Hamlet to drink.
Queen Gertrude enters with the sorrowful news that Ophelia has drowned. She tells Laertes that Ophelia slipped into the stream while hanging her flower garlands on the branches of a tree. Her clothes became heavy with water and pulled her down to her "muddy death." Laertes tries to suppress his grief, but cannot; he leaves enraged. The King lies, telling Gertrude he has done his utmost to calm Laertes' anger, but that this news will certainly fuel his desire for revenge.
In this scene, the villainous Claudius is terrified to learn that Hamlet has escaped from England and returned to Elsinore. Knowing that the Queen and the Danish people love Hamlet, he does not want to murder the Prince himself; therefore, he manipulates Laertes into a plan for killing Hamlet. To his credit, Laertes is not easily or quickly controlled. He questions Claudius about everything, until he is fully convinced that Hamlet, not Claudius, is guilty of murdering his father.
Claudius shows his shrewdness in gaining Laertes' participation in his plan. He cunningly praises Laertes' skill in fencing, knowing that the young man's pride is great. He then convinces Laertes to have a fencing match with Hamlet, in which the blade of Laertes will be left uncovered. Fearful he may not strike a death blow, Laertes suggests poisoning the tip of the sword so that a mere scratch will be fatal to Hamlet; it is obvious that he has no moral scruples like the Prince. Claudius also comes up with another back-up plan; he will also poison Hamlet's wine. The back-up plans, though a bit contrived, serve useful purposes in the culmination of the action of the plot.
It is significant that the success of Claudius' plan depends upon Hamlet's "most generous and free from all contriving nature." Hamlet is so trusting that he will not examine the foils to be used for the duel. Thus, Laertes can easily take his revenge and make it appear accidental.
The scene closes with Gertrude telling of Ophelia's death by drowning. In attempting to put garlands in a willow tree, Ophelia has slipped into the stream and met her muddy grave. Laertes is enraged that he has lost a second member of his family to a needless death. He blames Hamlet, not Claudius, for both of them and wants revenge more than ever.