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

Summary

On his way to England, Hamlet observes Fortinbras leading his troops through Denmark toward Poland. He questions a captain and learns that the Norwegians plan to wage war over a worthless patch of land in Poland. Hamlet lingers behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to reflect on the fact that these Norwegians and Poles are willing to die over land worth virtually nothing to anyone. They have left their homes and committed themselves to a principle no more substantive than an eggshell. Yet, he ponders, he possesses sufficient reason to take action against his enemy, but remains paralyzed.

Analysis

Hamlet's soliloquy as he observes the Norwegian soldiers heading for Poland represents Hamlet's turning point: "What is a man / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? Now, whether it be Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on th'event — a thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom and three parts coward — I do not know Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do,' Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do't."

Hamlet finally realizes that his duty to revenge is so great that the end must justify the means. He can no longer escape the necessity for action. Up until now, the consequences of the murder he must commit worried him, and he thought "too precisely on th'event." In weighing the willingness of the Norwegian soldiers to lay down their lives for a worthless piece of land against his own inability to act though motivated by sacred filial duty, he sees that he has stalled long enough. This soliloquy represents Hamlet's last flirtation with words. From here on, he will shed his attachment to the words that cause a deed's "currents to turn awry and lose the name of action."

You can divide the soliloquy into five thematic sections:

The first section identifies Hamlet's mission: revenge. Hamlet says that everything he encounters prompts him to revenge: "How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!"

The second section exhorts him to act. Hamlet must stop over-thinking events and recognize in himself the strength, and means to complete the required act

The third section sets Fortinbras' example of how Hamlet should act. "Led by this army of such mass and charge, / Led by a delicate and tender Prince . . . to all that fortune, death and danger dare, / Even for an eggshell." Once again Fortinbras holds up a mirror to his Danish counterpart.

The fourth section specifies Hamlet's perplexity over the Poles' and Norwegians' willingness to die for so little in contrast to his own inability to act on so much.

The fifth section provides resolution. Hamlet resolves to avenge his father at last.

Oh from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.

Glossary

ranker greater.

in fee outright.

imposthume abscess or festering sore.

fust grow moldy.

fantasy an odd notion; whim.

trick something trifling.

continent containing enough ground.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Approximately how much time has passed between the death of King Hamlet and the remarriage of Gertrude to Claudius?




Quiz