Hamlet, Act 4


Act IV represents a change of pace, and a change of scene. After 4.3 Hamlet is mostly absent (except for a brief moment in 4.4). It is Claudius who is more prominent, appearing in 4.3 (where he gets a soliloquy),4.5, and 4.7. (He was also prominent in 3.1 and 3.3 where he gets a soliloquy).

In 4.1 Gertrude, as she promised, assures Claudius that Hamlet is mad. In 4.2 Hamlet tells Rosencrantz that he is the “son of a king” but in 4.3 Claudius tells Hamlet that he is “thy loving father.” The brief 4.4 seems designed to compare Hamlet who delays with Fortinbras who acts. But it’s not obvious to me that Hamlet has grounds to accuse himself. Is his revenge “dulled” and is Hamlet really acting like a beast or a coward, or with “craven scruples”? Is he not now under some constraint? Has he not acted when he had the opportunity? Are his thoughts not already “bloody”? In any case, is Fortinbras really a model of “rightly great” conduct? Is it “great” to wage for and spill blood for a “straw”? Even Hamlet’s words seem to suggest he is not sure. “Rightly to be great/ Is not to stir without great argument . . .” — but editors note that Hamlet must have meant to say “Rightly to be great/ Is not not to stir . . . but greatly to find quarrel in a straw/ When honor’s at the stake.” Maybe Hamlet is trying to say that being “great” requires action of some kind rather than finding reasons not to act.

4.5 is Ophelia’s big scene, and a long one. In her first appearance she seems to be distressed both by Hamlet’s cold behavior and by her father’s death, but in her second appearance (after Laertes has arrived) she seems mostly distraught about her father’s death. Her madness, Laertes notes, is “more than matter,” recalling Claudius’s comment that there is “method” in Hamlet’s madness.

In this scene, and especially in 4.7, Claudius sees that he can make use of Laertes. Claudius assures Gertrude that she need not fear for Claudius’s life, because “there’s such divinity doth hedge a king/ That treason can . . ./ Act little of his will.” This looks back to Rosencrantz’s speech about kings and forward to Hamlet’s quite different comment that “there ‘s a divinity that shapes our ends.”

The short 4.6 with Hamlet and the business about the letters moves the plot along, as does 4.7, another long scene, this time with Claudius and Laertes. Just as Hamlet had asked himself why he has delayed to act, so his foil Laertes asks Claudius why he has delayed in acting. There’s some comedy in this scene, as Claudius lays out for the rather slow-witted Laertes a revenge plot. Laertes is “lost,” says he will be ruled” by Claudius, but his repeated questions suggest that he doesn’t catch on. At one point Claudius in exasperation has to ask him if he wants to revenge his father’s death. It is probably significant that it is Laertes who comes up with the idea of the unblunted and poisoned foil (which leads in the end to his own death) and Claudius who comes up with the back-up plan of the poisoned chalice (which leads to the death of Gertrude).

The report of Ophelia’s death seems to make clear that it was an accident: she was gathering flowers, and leaned out too far over the water. We’ll hear more about that in the first scene in Act 5.


I’m not entirely sure, maybe nobody is, but I tend to think the act divisions are not necessarily authorial but introduced by the compositors as they set text for printing. For Sh. the reality of the play was, I expect, the acted script rather than the printed text.

I think Claudius seems to promise his support to Hamlet for the election at 1.2.109, “You are most immediate to our throne . . .” And his desire to keep Hamlet close to him, rather than letting him go back to Wittenberg, may come of this. This would connect with what Rosencrantz says at 3.2. It might make election less clear if Hamlet is off in Wittenberg when the succession becomes open. So Claudius’ disinclination to let Hamlet return to Wittenberg may not be ill nature, but a political move.

I agree that Hamlet is rational and clear-eyed about what he’s doing, or mostly so, and the only qualification might be his emotional state after hearing the Ghost’s account of what he suffered in the murder, and what he suffers now in his purgatorial punishment. Hamlet does seem to go out of control emotionally in the soliloquy at 2.2.519-20, and his earlier longing for death in the first soliloquy suggests emotional fragility. To me this connects with his decision not to kill Claudius when he has the chance when he sees him in apparent prayer. If he were calm and Horatio-like he would see that this is the perfect moment and that Claudius’ spiritual state is not his concern. In fact if Claudius has committed a murder, he still would have a good deal of purgatorial purging ahead even if he has confessed and been absolved (which he has not). But I feel Hamlet’s possibly irrational anger keeps him from his vengeance. And at the same time Hamlet’s sense of betrayal by his mother also seems to drive him beyond reason. But to me most of the antic disposition seems enacted. What he does with Ophelia in what she reports of his coming to her is harder to gauge; it suggests madness, but her report of it to Polonius and Claudius may fit his desire to seem mad.

I find the “To be, or not to be” quite puzzling. Maybe especially that “No more.” It would seem that “taking arms against a sea of troubles” means death, suicide, and that sleep would mean death. Is “no more” referring not to sleep, but an interjection suggesting a response to living? In this sense, death would seem a reasonable thing since it ends heartache and the other ills. But then the thought that the sleep of death may bring the dreams of an afterlife opposes that easy sense of death as a solution. And then the possibility of dreams in that afterlife — that marvelous “undiscovered country from whose bourn . . .” — keeps us from suicide and makes us suffer those slings and arrows. I take it that “conscience” means consciousness, not the modern meaning, and that the “native hue of resolution” means the end of suicidal impulses and the acceptance of the pale cast of thought. What’s odd is that the opposing of suffering, accepting “enterprises of great pith and moment” (vengeance?) are what choosing death would mean. Is that right? It seems Hamlet is talking himself out of suicide, but what has that to do with his charge of revenge? Unless he means that killing Claudius would lead to his death.

I’m not sure if he means to be overheard by Claudius and Polonius, and if he does, what exactly he means to communicate to them. I’m happy to be enlightened here. In a sense, Hamlet’s rejection of suicide would seem to be an acceptance of the Christian idea that one should not kill oneself, but in a thinking through that’s not at all orthodox and seems even a bit tentative.
Does my reading of the speech accord with yours?

I wonder if Horatio would rather make the ideal revenger in that he’s not passion’s slave, that is, not tempted to extend his vengeance into damnation. Able just to do the job the Ghost demanded. Hamlet cannot just do the job.

I think we must have different lineation, since 261-66 doesn’t correspond to the play-within -the -play in my text. Any parts of the player queen’s speeches could be Hamlet’s, maybe especially the “Nor earth give me food or heaven light” and ff. Since it’s right after this that Hamlet confronts his mother about the play.

Hamlet is surely wrong to conclude that Claudius goes to heaven just because he sees him attempting to pray. Of course he is not fit and seasoned for his passage. And we know shortly that Claudius cannot pray, cannot be forgiven, which is a wonderful irony. I wonder if the Elizabethans thought of the executioner when they saw Hamlet with his raised sword; the executioner was always carefully separated from his act and the spiritual state of his “client.” Hamlet’s non-act is the opposite in his yearning for a “more horrid hent.”

I feel Hamlet is mistaken, tragically so, not to kill Claudius at this point, and Claudius’ failure really to pray or repent is the play’s confirmation of that. If he had killed him instead of Polonius in the next scene, this would have been a proper vengeance, but maybe too accidental? And of course the play would be over.

Is it significant that Hamlet sees the Ghost not in his armor, in warlike guise, but “in his nightgown”? At this point the Ghost seems to complain that Hamlet has missed his chance — is that how we’re to understand “thy almost blunted purpose”? And he tells Hamlet to comfort Gertrude. Hamlet’s “How is with you, lady?” seems a bit lame. But the real question is whether he is fulfilling what the Ghost had earlier told him about leaving his mother to heaven and her own guilt. He does seem to offer comfort, but does he spoil it altogether in ll. 181ff?

That scene with Fortinbras strikes me an almost entirely ironic. Here’s this guy marching off with a huge army to take some portion of territory that’s not worth having, and all because of honor. For a moment we seem to be back with Hector and Troilus. I don’t know what to make of Hamlet’s concluding couplet; is this really the guy we’ve been following? Was this whole scene a mistake?

Ophelia gets two mad scenes in act 4. I think one or the other is often cut in modern productions. But together they do evoke considerable pathos. Now we do seem to see real madness. Her death does seem accidental, not suicidal. But treating it as suicidal creates further irony.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell