Hamlet Act IV, Scenes 1–4 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

Hamlet book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Hamlet Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Act IV, Scenes 1–4 Summary and Analysis

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 claims that Hamlet, in a fit of madness, thrust his sword through the tapestry and killed Polonius. Claudius remarks that it easily could have been him behind the tapestry and 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, and he admits that it will take all his skills to smooth over Polonius’s death. 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 comments that events seem to be conspiring to speed up his revenge. Declaring 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...

(The entire section is 1,339 words.)