Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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How does the political situation change in act 4 of Hamlet?  

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In act 4, scene 4, young Fortinbras, the nephew of the king of Norway, leads his army through Denmark on the way to Poland. They go to win "a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name," according to the Captain (4.4.19–20). Despite the land's lack of value, the Polish are already set to fight to defend it. Hamlet is struck by how Fortinbras can "find quarrel in a straw / When honor's at the stake" (4.4.58–59). In other words, the young Norwegian is willing to risk danger and death in order to retain his own honor by attempting to win this land for Norway. This seems like a political move as well.

In addition, Polonius's son, Laertes, has returned to Denmark to avenge his father's death. People refer to Laertes as lord and call for him to be made king. "They cry, 'Choose we, Laertes shall be king!'" and they toss their hats to the sky and chant his name (4.5.116). Politically, then, it seems that Claudius has really lost favor with the populace—if he ever had it to begin with—and this is a problem for him as king, certainly.

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There are several changes in the political situation in Act IV. The first change begins with the death of Polonius. This action forces the return of Laertes to Denmark. Laertes is furious over the death of his father and the way the funeral was handled. As he stands outside Elsinore, he gathers a mob which yells, "Laertes will be king." Claudius, who is stuggling to keep his throne, now has another rival for it. He deftly handles Laertes and convinces him that he was not responsible for Polonius' death. While Laertes and Claudius are speaking, Hamlet, who has been sent to England, supposedly to die, announces his return to Denmark. This is another threat to Claudius who turns to Laertes and together they plot to kill Hamlet. One significant scene that the audience may miss is the scene where Hamlet encounters the Captain of Fortinbras' army. Claudius promised Fortinbras safe passage through Denmark while Fortinbras is on his way to Poland. This will also set up another political change later in the play.

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