Act IV, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter; Claudius remarks on Gertrude’s sighing, which he asks her to explain. She dismisses the two young men, and then relates to Claudius the recent events in her closet; she says Hamlet, “in his lawless fit,” has killed Polonius. Claudius notes that he himself would have been killed, had he been the one hiding behind the curtain. He regrets that, out of love for Hamlet, he neglected to do what was best; that is, he “Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt / This mad young man,” but instead “let [him] feed / Even on the pith of life” like a disease kept unacknowledged.
Gertrude reveals that Hamlet, who has gone to remove Polonius’ body, “weeps for what is done,” which she says proves his madness is genuine. Claudius reminds Gertrude that he is shipping Hamlet out at daybreak, which must be made acceptable to the court. He summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and bids them hasten to find Hamlet, “speak fair,” and bring Polonius’ body into the chapel. They leave, and Claudius advises Gertrude that they must tell their “wisest friends” what has happened to Polonius, and that they are sending Hamlet away. The King hopes, by coupling these two events, to throw all ill will toward Hamlet, avoiding any taint of slander himself. They exit, with Claudius “full of discord and dismay.”
Act IV begins with four relatively short scenes, presenting the King and Queen; then Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; then Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Hamlet, and the King; then Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the Captain of Fortinbras’ army. Shakespeare is speeding up the action in these brief scenes, quickening the pace as Claudius moves swiftly to protect himself from Hamlet, even as Hamlet baits him by playing hide-and-seek with Polonius’ body. When Hamlet and the others encounter Fortinbras, Hamlet desires to get on with his appointed task of avenging his father. Shakespeare thus continues the sense of building urgency in this act.