Act IV, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Young Fortinbras: nephew to the aged king of Norway
Captain: officer in Fortinbras’ army
Fortinbras sends his Captain to Claudius, seeking escort for his army’s safe march through Denmark. He says if the King wishes, he will meet personally with him. Fortinbras exits with his army. Hamlet and Rosencrantz enter and learn from the Captain that the army, headed for “some part of Poland,” means to attack a “little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name,” not worth “five ducats.” Hamlet doubts the Poles will defend such a worthless area, but the Captain tells him “it is already garrisoned.” Hamlet comments that “Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats” is a high price to pay for something so worthless, and notes that this sort of behavior results from “much wealth and peace,” destroying from within like an abscess.
Left alone, having sent his companions on ahead, Hamlet notes that events are conspiring to spur his revenge. He says a man who only eats and sleeps is but a beast; surely God gave us reason. He wonders why he does not act on his thoughts, since he has “cause, and will, and strength, and means To do’t.” Hamlet says that even young Fortinbras, “a delicate and tender prince,” takes great risk for little gain, “When honor’s at the stake.” Hamlet notes his own great motivations (“a father killed, a mother stained”) do not move him to action, while Fortinbras’ army is about to engage in a battle in which more men will be killed than the worthless land they fight for can hold in burial. He vows to have only “bloody” thoughts from now on.
In Scene 4, Hamlet is moved to note his own delay and inaction in seeking revenge, as contrasted with the willingness of Fortinbras’ and the Polish armies to fight and die for nothing more than honor. Their battlefield is nearly worthless, but he has great motive: “a father killed, a mother stained.”