The duel begins with Osric as referee. Hamlet wins the first two passes, prompting Claudius to resort to the poisoned drink. Hamlet refuses the drink. In his stead, Gertrude drinks a toast to her son from the poisoned cup. After a third pass also goes to Hamlet, Laertes sneak-attacks the prince and wounds him. A scuffle ensues in which Hamlet ends up with Laertes' sword. He injures Laertes. Just then Gertrude collapses. She declares that she has been poisoned. Laertes, also dying, confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who finally attacks Claudius, stabbing him with the poisoned sword and then forcing the poisoned drink down his throat. Hamlet too is dying. He asks Horatio to explain the carnage to all onlookers and tell his story. Hamlet dies.
For centuries, scholars have debated Hamlet’s inability to act even when he has the opportunity to do so. Early in the play, his inactivity can be attributed to his lack of assurance that Claudius is guilty. Were he to kill the new king without justification, he would be seen as no better than a murderer himself, and no good would come of his action. Nevertheless, when he does appear to have sufficient evidence of Claudius’s role in his father’s murder, the prince still seems paralyzed. In a crucial scene after Claudius has seen the dumb show and left the room visibly upset, Hamlet finds his uncle praying in the castle’s chapel. It is a perfect chance to slay the king, but Hamlet refrains because he says he does not want to send his uncle’s soul to heaven. Such casuistry has been reason for several critics to claim that Shakespeare is simply drawing out the drama until the final catastrophe. By the final act, Hamlet has become totally fatalistic. Having killed Polonius accidentally, he has already bloodied his hands; he accepts the challenge of Polonius’s son, Laertes, with resignation, knowing that he will probably be killed himself. In the final scene, all of the principals meet their end—and almost all by some mischance of fate. Despite the resounding encomium pronounced over the body of the slain prince, the bleak ending offers little encouragement for an audience who has witnessed this great tragedy. Surprisingly, however, the ending seems justified, in that order has been restored to the Danish kingdom, although won at a terrible price. Such is the lesson of most great tragedies, and Hamlet ranks with the very best examples of the genre.