Hamlet By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 4

Summary

In accordance with their plan, Horatio and Marcellus meet Hamlet on the battlements of the castle. A trumpet sounds, and the Prince bitterly comments on the King's propensity for wine and revelry. He disapproves of this behavior as it reflects badly on all Danes and gives them a reputation for drunkenness that makes them the butt of jokes. He points out that people often judge a man of great stature by his smallest "mole of nature" and not by his strength. Before the discussion can go further, Horatio notices the Ghost's arrival.

Despite his uncertainty as to whether the Ghost "airs from heaven or blasts from hell," or whether the Ghost harbors "wicked or charitable" intentions, Hamlet immediately identifies the apparition as his father. He empowers the Ghost to explain the purpose of his visit and charges the spirit to speak and make things clear. The Ghost beckons Hamlet to follow, and, despite the entreaties of his comrades to beware, Hamlet follows the spirit into the night.

Analysis

Again Hamlet reveals his preoccupation with the disparity between appearance and reality. Claudius appears to be a powerful man, yet harbors a decided weakness for wine and revelry. Thus, says Hamlet, Claudius makes all Danes seem drunkards to their critics and attracts disrespect from both allies and enemies. Just as an individual's weaknesses can overshadow all virtue, so one "swinish" man, especially a swinish leader, can overshadow all virtuous compatriots. Hamlet completes his critique of the new king/satyr the very moment before the old king, the great Hyperion himself, appears. Claudius' evil habits garner more suspicions than the Ghost's motives. The true evil lies in the heart of the successor, and the degeneracy of the court reflects the necessary outcome of foul deeds.

Hamlet's speech about Claudius' carousing is important on a number of levels. Critics refer to this speech as the "dram of evil" speech because Hamlet ends it by saying, "The dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt, / To his own scandal." In this speech, Hamlet indicts the Danish people, including himself — he is, after all, "to the manner born" — for their hedonism. Large appetites for wine and revelry indicate the kind of dissipation that weakens cultures and usurps nations. The fact that "swinish" behavior characterizes the Danish collective reputation embarrasses Hamlet.

Critics have viewed Hamlet as a latter-day morality play in which Hamlet, a sort of Renaissance Everyman, must navigate through moral depravity toward the light of reason and good deeds to find his way to righteousness. His sense of honor drives him to do the right thing, but the right thing actually contradicts God's law. Hamlet is torn between right and right rather than right and wrong. Hamlet's definition of the subjective "right" differs drastically from Claudius' definition. As A.C. Bradley points out, Hamlet cares for nothing so much as he cares for "human worth," and Hamlet has an "aversion to evil." In fact, Bradley suggests that we might consider the play a "tragedy of moral idealism as much as a tragedy of reflection."

Glossary

shrewdly bitterly.

rouse a toast in which all glasses must be drained before lowering.

wassail revelry, carousing.

Up-spring a high-kicking, wild German dance.

Rhenish Rhine wine.

bray out celebrate.

the triumph of his pledge his drinking ability.

to the manner born accustomed to it since a child.

traduc'd and tax'd defamed and censored.

of by.

clepe to call or address (a person).

mole blemish.

o'er-leavens ferments.

nature's livery, or fortune's star inborn or the result of bad luck.

His virtues else his other virtues.

general censure public's judgment.

The dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt, / To his own scandal a much-disputed passage. Perhaps a line is missing. The general meaning seems to be that it takes only a small portion of evil to bring a scandal on the entire substance, however noble it may otherwise be.

spirit of health There are two possible meanings. First, a saved (healthy) soul, not a lost one. Second, a healing or beneficent spirit.

goblin damn'd damned agent of the devil. Hamlet, from the very first, seems to question the authenticity of the ghost as the true spirit of his father.

hearsed buried.

cerements cloths or sheets wrapped around a dead person; shrouds.

inurn'd buried; entombed (literally, put the ashes of a dead person into an urn).

complete steel full armor.

flood sea. Elsinore is situated on the Danish coast.

beetles o'er overhangs.

toys of desperation desperate fancies or impulses — referring to the impulse to jump off a high place.

Nemean in Greek mythology, a reference to a fierce lion from Nemea killed by Hercules as the first of his twelve labors.

lets hinders.

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