Act IV, Scenes 1–4 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1280
Act IV, Scene 1:
Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all enter the queen’s room. Upset over her confrontation with Hamlet, Gertrude dismisses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before explaining what happened. She says that Hamlet, in a fit of madness, thrust his sword through the tapestry and killed Polonius. Remarking that it easily could have been him behind the tapestry, Claudius declares that Hamlet is a danger to them all. Aware that this is a delicate political situation, Claudius wonders how he can handle Polonius’s murder without being blamed for it. He decides that Hamlet must be sent to England at dawn, admitting that it will take all his skills to smooth over Polonius’s death with the court. He calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back, ordering them to find Hamlet and take Polonius’s body to the chapel.
Act IV, Scene 2:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet just after he has disposed of Polonius's body. When they ask where the body is, Hamlet refuses to tell them. Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz of being “a sponge” who soaks up the king’s favor, power, and rewards. He also warns that when the king needs the information Rosencrantz has gleaned, he will squeeze it out of him. Rosencrantz doesn’t understand what Hamlet is saying, and he insists that Hamlet must tell them where Polonius’s body is and then accompany them to the king. Ignoring the first request, Hamlet instructs them to bring him to Claudius.
Act IV, Scene 3:
Claudius enters with some of his lords, explaining that he has sent people to find Hamlet and the body. He says that Hamlet is too dangerous to be allowed to walk freely, but he admits that the situation is complicated by Hamlet’s popularity among the people of Denmark. To keep the situation under control, Claudius reasons that the decision to send Hamlet away cannot appear to be rash. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive with Hamlet, who is under guard. When Claudius demands to know where the body is, Hamlet archly replies that Polonius is “at supper” with the worms. Hamlet suggests that Claudius may send a messenger to search for Polonius in heaven or go search for him in hell himself. Eventually, Hamlet hints that Polonius’s body is near the castle lobby, and Claudius sends attendants to go search there. Claudius then informs Hamlet that, for his own safety, he will be sent to England immediately. Hamlet agrees and says goodbye. After sending everyone away, Claudius speaks aloud of his hope that England will not disregard the secret orders he is sending with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—orders that call for Hamlet to be executed immediately upon arrival.
Act IV, Scene 4:
Nearby, Fortinbras sends his Captain to Elsinore Castle to ensure safe passage through Denmark for his troops. Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern encounter the Captain as they leave the castle for their ship. When Hamlet asks what Fortinbras is trying to accomplish with his army, the Captain replies that Fortinbras is going to war over a worthless piece of Polish land. Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to ride ahead. Once he’s alone, he reflects that events seem to be conspiring to speed up his revenge. Remarking that a man whose only purpose in life is to sleep and eat is nothing but an animal, Hamlet wonders why he still has not taken action against Claudius. Contrasting himself with young Fortinbras, Hamlet notes that Fortinbras is willing to bravely risk everything for a meaningless cause, while Hamlet cannot even bring himself to take revenge on his murdering, incestuous uncle. Taking inspiration from Fortinbras’s boldness, Hamlet vows that his thoughts from this point onward will be worth nothing if they are not bloody.
Claudius’s role as the play’s villain is cemented in these four short scenes. His reaction to the news that Hamlet has killed Polonius emphasizes his scheming personality. Tellingly, his first concern is not for Gertrude, who actually witnessed the murder, but for himself: “Oh heavy deed! / It had been so with us had we been there.” Claudius is upset by the murder only insofar as it might hurt him politically, for he worries that he will receive the blame: “Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered? / It will be laid to us.” Claudius further admits that it will take all his “majesty and skill” to escape being tainted by Polonius’s murder, demonstrating his sensitivity to the political ramifications of recent events.
Viewing Hamlet as both a physical and political threat, Claudius is determined to eliminate him as soon as possible. His decision to have Hamlet killed in England demonstrates both his lack of moral integrity and his political cunning . Aware that Hamlet is beloved by Gertrude and the people, Claudius knows he cannot publicly arrest or kill him. Instead, Claudius comes up with a villainous plot to have Hamlet dispatched in secrecy, calling to mind the sneaky way in which Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. While act III showed the audience that Claudius does feel burdened by guilt, act IV makes it clear that this will not stop him from committing further sins.
As Claudius descends further into wickedness, Hamlet’s own moral integrity is now seriously in question. He self-righteously criticizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for soaking up the king’s favors like sponges, yet Hamlet’s own moral transgressions seem to far outweigh Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s inept attempts to report on his behavior to Claudius. In addition to killing Polonius, Hamlet has emotionally tormented Gertrude and Ophelia, two women whom he previously claimed to care for. While these actions were arguably taken in the service of his revenge, this justification for Hamlet's behavior wears thin as his revenge drags on. In fact, Hamlet now seems to have hurt nearly everyone but Claudius. At this juncture, it is difficult to know whether Hamlet truly feels guilty for the pain that he has caused, and his flippant refusals to reveal what he has done with Polonius’s body further erode his claim to the moral high ground. At this point, it is difficult to determine whether Hamlet is merely being callous or whether his apparent indifference to murder is the result of a deteriorated mental state.
Hamlet’s soliloquy in scene 4 echoes the earlier speech he gave after watching the player perform in act II. Faced with another’s conviction and determination, Hamlet is once again forced to confront his own hesitancy and inaction. Young Fortinbras acts as a foil to Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras has suffered the loss of a greatly admired father and now lives under the control of his uncle, the new king. Both Fortinbras and Hamlet have the capacity for great passion; yet unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras is a man of action. Indeed, at the very outset of the play, Fortinbras is attempting to avenge his father by reclaiming some of Denmark’s lands. The hotheaded Fortinbras does not even hesitate long enough to notify his king about his plan—a direct contrast to Hamlet’s seemingly endless contemplation. Though they differ in temperament, Hamlet’s respect for Fortinbras’s actions is notable. As the Captain explains, Fortinbras is going to war over a totally worthless piece of land that will likely only be conquered after a great loss of life. Hamlet’s admiration of Fortinbras’s pursuit of a goal—regardless of the collateral damage or the worthiness of the goal itself—suggests that Hamlet cares little for those who are hurt in his quest for revenge. Indeed, Hamlet’s ominous vow that his thoughts moving forward will be “bloody or nothing worth” foreshadows the casualties of his revenge that are yet to come.