Hamlet: Act V

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13355

In the final act, you'll see that the plans made in Act 4 have unintended consequences. You'll also learn a famous acting technique to take the first steps in your preparation to play Hamlet!


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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actor holding a skull prop

  • Have you ever seen an image like this one before?

This may be the most common visual associated with Shakespeare's work, and it comes from Act 5 of Hamlet!

Read this act to see who will make it out of the play alive and to discover the context for this famous image.

You should have completed all the Related Lessons in this series on Hamlet, found in the right-hand sidebar.

You should also still have your copy of the play or continue using William Shakespeare's Hamlet courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library.

In the fifth act, some plans come to fruition while others backfire or have unintended consequences. All the build-up in Act 4 culminates in a bloody final scene, and few characters will survive the play.

Act 5, Scene 1

Just as Polonius added some levity and comic relief to the beginning of the play, the gravedigger provides some unexpected comedy at the beginning of this act.

He jokes with the other gravedigger, showing dark humor, and he engages in wordplay about the double meaning of arms as a coat of arms and one's physical limbs. He also jokes that a gravedigger builds homes that last forever and are stronger than a stonemason's or carpenter's.

  • What comments of Hamlet's from earlier in the play remind you of the gravedigger's humor in this scene?

The two gravediggers also debate whether Ophelia should get a Christian burial.

  • Why would she not get a Christian burial?
  • Why do the gravediggers suspect that she is still able to be buried in the churchyard?

Hamlet and Horatio come upon the gravedigger, and Hamlet is offended by his careless treatment of the bones in the graves. He argues that these bones may have belonged to great men in life, and now are being disrespected.

  • What do you think is the reason for Hamlet's sudden need to honor the dead, after joking about bodies as worm food in the earlier acts?

The gravedigger and Hamlet have a conversation where Hamlet tries to learn whose grave is being dug; however, he finds a match for his wit in the gravedigger, who evades his question.

When Hamlet asks about a skull the gravedigger exhumes, he discovers it belongs to Yorick, the king's late jester who knew Hamlet as a child. Hamlet gives his "Alas, poor Yorick!" speech while holding the skull as pictured above. (5.1.190)

Hamlet is marveling to Horatio that the ashes of a great man may become clay and are later used to cork a bottle or patch up a wall when Ophelia's funeral party enters. The two hide to watch, not knowing whose funeral they're seeing.

Laertes enters arguing with the priest, who will not perform a full ceremony for Ophelia. Hamlet gathers from their conversation that Ophelia has died.

Laertes, mourning the death of his sister, jumps into her grave and calls for the gravedigger to bury him with her. Hamlet reveals himself and leaps into the grave along with Laertes, and the two fight until they are pulled apart.

  • What issue does Hamlet say he is fighting Laertes over?

Hamlet exits, and Claudius urges Laertes to wait for his revenge and carry out their plan with patience.

Act 5, Scene 2

Hamlet reveals to Horatio how he escaped Claudius' plan to have him killed in England.

  • How did he find out about the plan?
  • What orders did Hamlet send to England, and who is now in danger?

Hamlet expresses an increased desire for revenge against Claudius now that the king tried to have him killed, but he says he is sorry for the way he acted toward Laertes since the two men are in a similar position, both grieving the loss of their fathers and of Ophelia.

Just then, a young courtier named Osric comes to deliver the fencing challenge to Hamlet.

  • What is Hamlet's opinion of Osric? Does Horatio seem to agree?

Osric reveals that Claudius has bet Hamlet will not lose to Laertes by more than three hits, and Hamlet agrees to fight even though he has a bad feeling about the situation.

  • What is Horatio's reaction to Hamlet's misgivings about the fight?

Gertrude has urged Hamlet and Laertes to speak privately before the fight. In this conversation, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for his behavior at Ophelia's grave, blaming his madness for his conduct.

  • How does Laertes react to this apology?

Claudius drinks to Hamlet's health. He drops a pearl into Hamlet's cup that is actually poison and sets it aside for when Hamlet gets thirsty during the fight.

The fight begins, and Hamlet wins the first two hits, though he accuses Laertes of going easy on him. Gertrude drinks to her son's health, but she drinks out of the poisoned cup. Hamlet refuses the drink and continues fighting Laertes.

In the fight, Hamlet is wounded with the poisoned rapier. Then there is a scuffle in which the two men end up with each other's rapiers, and Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned one.

Gertrude collapses and with her last words says that she was poisoned. Laertes, dying, tells Hamlet that the king's plan has killed his mother and that Hamlet will soon die as well.

  • How does Hamlet kill Claudius?

Horatio rushes to Hamlet's side and makes a move to kill himself with the last of the poison, but Hamlet stops him.

  • What does Hamlet urge Horatio to do for him?

In his final moments, Hamlet learns that Fortinbras is headed toward the castle. Now that most of the royal family has died, Fortinbras has a claim to the Danish throne. Hamlet voices his support of Fortinbras as the king.

Hamlet dies, and Fortinbras enters to see the bloody scene. Horatio promises to explain to Fortinbras what happened here, and Fortinbras has the bodies carried away and the cannons fired in honor of Prince Hamlet.

When you've finished reading the act, move on to the Got It? section to analyze the "Alas, poor Yorick!" speech and test your knowledge of the play!

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