We start out with Laertes and Claudius having a little heart-to-heart about why Claudius hasn't had Hamlet punished for killing Polonius. Claudius says it's because Hamlet is too popular with the rest of Denmark. That idea of being killed by your own machinations comes back again here -- remember the "hoist with his own petard" idea from back in Act III Scene 4? Claudius brings it up again here when he says, "my arrows, Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind, Would have reverted to my bow again, But not where I have aimed them" (21-24).
So then a messenger brings the letter from Hamlet announcing his arrival. Hamlet's being very snarky even in letter form, calling Claudius "High and mighty" (42). I don't know about you, but to me that feels bolder than how he's addressed Claudius before this. He's been cheeky with Polonius and others, yes, but always a bit wary around Claudius. But now it's almost like he's thumbing his nose to Claudius. The Hamlet who returns from his brief exile is rather different than the one who left, and we'll explore that a lot in the last two scenes, but I think already here we can see that he's done with what my dad would call "mousing around." He's coming back, and he's going to tell Claudius how and why. But he doesn't tell him yet -- he lets Claudius wonder and worry for a while. Claudius has to be freaking out inwardly, don't you think? Wondering if Hamlet knows he'd told England to kill him.
And so Claudius hatches a plan to have Laertes kill Hamlet. He says that no one would suspect it was intentional, but I'm pretty sure that if anyone did cry foul, he'd disavow all knowledge of it and heap the blame on Laertes. Really, Laertes is getting used for Claudius' purposes just like his sister Ophelia, and grrrrrrr, that makes me mad. Laertes is so eager to avenge his father's death that he's only too happy to fall in with the king's machinations. In fact, he offers to improve on Claudius' whole "oops, one of these swords was accidentally uncovered and deadly" plan by smearing a deadly poison on it. I really wonder what Laertes was planning to do with that poison -- I figure he'd bought it on his way back from Paris, and was planning to... poison Hamlet with it somehow? Not sure he'd have thought it through much, actually, as he strikes me as much more of a "pantser" than a "plotter."
Well, as Gielgud puts it, "Claudius is a professional poisoner, and as soon as Laertes mentions it, we should see him already planning to go one better" (John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet, p. 71). An unbated sword smeared in poison isn't enough -- Claudius has to one-up Laertes and plan to put poison in a cup of wine too. Yeesh, poor Hamlet hasn't got a chance, has he?
And not only is Claudius a "professional poisoner," he's a skillful liar too. First, he says "revenge should have no bounds" (126) when he obviously thinks Hamlet's vengeance needs to be stopped. And then he says that Hamlet is "free from all contriving" (133), when Hamlet is obviously a very suspicious fellow and he knows it. But Laertes falls for all of it.
Then we get the sad news that Ophelia has drowned. My copy says that willows were commonly associated with mourning and forsaken love, so that fits very nicely with Ophelia's story, huh? I do sometimes wonder why Gertrude goes into such detail about how Ophelia drowned -- it almost feels like she witnessed it. Certainly someone did, to know that her clothes held her up a while. Who watched Ophelia drown and didn't help her???? This is really my biggest question or problem with this whole play -- that someone saw Ophelia drown and just let her. Could they not get to her? Who saw it? I think Horatio is gone by now, off to meet up with Hamlet, so who was watching over Ophelia and just let her go drown herself? This can be our Possible Discussion Question for the day.
"And you must put me in your heart for friend" (2).
"It warms the very sickness in my heart" (53).
"To cut his throat i' th' church" (124) (This is my favorite Laertes line.)
"One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow" (160-61).
"Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears" (182-83).