Summary and Analysis Act IV: Scene 1


Claudius, flanked by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, finds Gertrude and questions her as to Hamlet's whereabouts. She asks to be left alone with the King and, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, she agitatedly tells him that she has seen a horror. Claudius wants to know what happened and asks after her son's welfare. She answers that Hamlet is madder than a storm at sea, and she describes the killing of Polonius. Realizing that he himself might have been the person hiding behind the tapestry, Claudius deplores Hamlet's violence, but he blames himself for not having been sterner with Hamlet from the beginning. He worries what he will tell his subjects; Gertrude tells him that Hamlet is contrite and has promised to dispose of the body. The King resolves to banish Hamlet quickly and calls to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells them what has happened and bids them bring Hamlet to him. He tells Gertrude that they must together confide in their wisest friends and find a way to disclose Polonius' death without raising suspicions against themselves.


Gertrude explains what has happened in a manner that exemplifies her own ambivalence and ambiguities. Does she really believe Hamlet has lost all reason? Or is she protecting the secret he has just revealed regarding Claudius' guilt — the secret she has promised to keep about King Hamlet's murder? Whether she knew anything about the crime beforehand or if she participated in the plot to take the throne remains unclear. Gertrude's protectiveness toward Hamlet is dubious. She never attempts to shield her son in any meaningful way and describes in inflammatory detail how he killed "the unseen good old man." Even knowing what Hamlet believes about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does not cause her to entreat the King to find an alternative to sending her son to England with the pair.

Claudius is clearly aware of all the ramifications that attend his reactions to the report. He inquires after Hamlet's health but clearly remains primarily concerned with his own well being. "My soul is full of discord and dismay," he says. He will act quickly on the news, but he is clearly fearful. "His [Hamlet's] liberty is full of threats to all." He hides his fears behind the apparent concern of an uncle, who has been protecting Hamlet out of love but who will protect Hamlet no longer. He will send him to England, and they will tell the people that he is mad. Hamlet's having murdered Polonius will ultimately work to Claudius' advantage. Hamlet must receive punishment, and, although all in Denmark love him as their rightful crown prince in whom rests all hope, the King may now exile the Prince with impunity and without upsetting Gertrude, as even she sees the need to get Hamlet away.


brainish apprehension mad notion (that he heard a rat).

out of haunt away from others.

pith marrow.

blank the center spot of a target; bull's-eye.

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