Hamlet Act 4 Analysis

Main events of the act 4:

  • Gertrude tells the king that Hamlet killed Polonius;
  • Claudius sends Hamlet to England with a letter requesting the King of England to kill the young prince;
  • Ophelia has gone mad and drowns in a river;
  • Laertes is back to Denmark and wants revenge;
  • Hamlet escaped and writes a letter to Horatio and Claudius that he is in Denmark;
  • Claudius and Laertes plan to kill Hamlet with a sharp poisoned sword during a fencing tournament;


Scene 1

Scene 2

Scene 3

Scene 4

Scene 5

Scene 6

Scene 7



Act 4 Scene 1

People present in the scene:

  • Gertrude – the Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet;
  • Claudius – a new King of Denmark;
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – school friends of Hamlet;

Place and time of the scene: Royal castle.

Main events of the scene:

  • Gertrude informs the king about Polonius death;
  • Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet;

Short Summary:

The king notices that Gertrude is stressed and asks her why. The queen asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to leave and tells the king about her night’s adventure. The king is disturbed that it could have been him getting stabbed behind that carpet.

The king thinks that Hamlet is dangerous for everybody; he is worried that the country will blame him for not protecting them from Hamlet. Gertrude, however, told Claudius that Hamlet is insane (she promised her son to keep quiet about the fact that he is faking).

The king calls for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells them to find Hamlet and Polonius body.


Act 4 Scene 2

People present in the scene:

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – school friends of Hamlet;
  • Hamlet – young prince ready to avenge his father’s death.

Place and time of the scene: Another room in the royal castle.

Main events of the scene:

  • Hamlet didn’t tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where is Polonius body;

Short Summary:

Hamlet has hidden Polonius body. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find him and ask where is the body. They want to take the body to the chapel. Hamlet is not willing to cooperate: he calls Rosencrantz a sponge that soaks up king’s orders and rewards. He also warns them that Claudius will squeeze everything he can out of them and then throw them away.

He then makes a couple of metaphors to demonstrate how low his friends have fallen. They don't understand his confusing language.

When the two friends force Hamlet to tell where the body is, he talks in riddles, saying: “The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body”.


Act 4 Scene 3

People present in the scene:

  • Claudius – a new King of Denmark;
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – school friends of Hamlet
  • Hamlet – young prince of Denmark.

Place and time of the scene: Royal castle.

Main events of the scene:

  • Hamlet tells that Polonius body is hidden under the stairs in the castle;
  • Hamlet annoys the king with his philosophical talks;
  • King orders Hamlet to leave for England that very night;
  • Claudius sends a letter to English king with a request to kill Hamlet.

Short Summary:

The king is talking to his entourage, saying that Hamlet should be punished for what he did to Polonius. At the same time, he is loved by people and that means that Danes might not want to see him punished. He says that young king is sick and should be treated immediately.

Guildenstern brings Hamlet. At first, Hamlet evades king’s questions about the location of Polonius body. He says that Polonius is supper (meaning he is being eaten by the worms). He starts talking about how worms can eat a king, then fish will eat a worm and a man can eat this fish. Which means a person can eat a king without knowing it.

Finally, Hamlet says that if they won’t find Polonius body in a month, they will find it by the bad smell coming from under the lobby stairs. Claudius sends attendants to check there.

The king informs Hamlet that he has to leave for England, because Claudius is worried for his safety. Hamlet agrees and leaves the room.

Claudius gives orders to prepare the ship to leave that night. He gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a letter to take with them. When everybody leaves, the king reveals to the audience that in that letter he asked the King of England to kill Hamlet.


Act 4 Scene 4

People present in the scene:

  • Fortinbras – the Prince of Norway, and his army;
  • Captain of the Norwegian army (unnamed);
  • Hamlet – the Prince of Denmark;
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – school friends of Hamlet.

Place and time of the scene: Somewhere in a middle of Denmark.

Main events of the scene:

  • Seeing how Fortinbras mobilized a whole army for an unnecessary piece of land, Hamlet is reassured in his intent to kill Claudius.

Short Summary:

Fortinbras asks his captain to inform the King of Denmark that their army is requesting permission to pass by Denmark land on their way to Polish borders. The Norwegian army starts moving.

Hamlet and his two followers (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) meet the army. When Hamlet asks the captain of the army whether they are going into Poland lands or just to its borders, the captain says that they are after a very unimportant piece of land that bears no real value, other than pride.

After this encounter, Hamlet is overwhelmed with remorse. Fortinbras has gathered a numerous army that is willing to die for such a trivial cause. And Hamlet hasn’t yet fulfilled his much more important cause. He again promises himself to perform the act of revenge.


Act 4 Scene 5

People present in the scene:

  • An unknown nobleman;
  • Gertrude – the Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet;
  • Horatio – loyal friend of Hamlet;
  • Claudius – new husband of Gertrude who killed the King of Denmark;
  • Ophelia – daughter of Polonius;
  • Laertes – son of Polonius.

Place and time of the scene: Royal castle.

Main events of the scene:

  • Ophelia has gone mad due to her father’s death;
  • Claudius says that Polonius was buried in secrecy, but people suspect something;
  • Laertes has secretly arrived back to Denmark and demands to be made king;
  • Claudius promises to tell Laertes the truth about his father’s murderer.

Short Summary:

A nobleman, whose name or concrete title isn’t mentioned, wants Gertrude to talk to Ophelia. Gertrude doesn't want to. But Horatio says that she should because Ophelia’s behavior might produce unnecessary rumors around the castle.

Ophelia enters and starts singing old songs that make no sense. The words of the songs are about death, flowers and betrayed love. She sings about a girl losing her virginity. And the man who promised to marry her didn’t hold up his promise.

The king gives Horatio orders to follow Ophelia when she leaves. He thinks that the girl is deeply shaken and dwells in her sorrows. From the conversation of Claudius and his wife the audience finds out that it wasn’t made public that Polonius was killed by Hamlet. He was buried secretly.

Claudius also informs his wife that Laertes is back from France and that people are telling him different rumors about the death of his father. The king is worried that he will be the one to blame for Polonius death.

All of the sudden Laertes breaks into the caste with a group of followers. They are armed and aggressive, they demand Laertes to be made king. Laertes finally enters, asks his followers to wait outside and watch the door. Laertes wants Claudius to bring his father back to life. He intends to avenge the death of his father. The king asks whether Laertes wants to know who is the real enemy here.

Ophelia enters the room. She sings the song about how her father was buried. She starts to hand out different flowers and plants. Seeing his sister in such condition only makes Laertes more aggressive.

The king promises to tell Laertes the whole truth about his father’s death. He is even willing to give up his crown if Laertes and his crowd don’t believe him.


Act 4 Scene 6

People present in the scene:

  • Horatio – a loyal friend of Hamlet;
  • Servant (unnamed);
  • Sailor (unnamed).

Place and time of the scene: Royal castle.

Main events of the scene:

  • Hamlet send Horatio a letter saying he escaped from the ship traveling to England and wants to meet;
  • Horatio is also asked to deliver some letters to the king.

Short Summary:

The servant informs Horatio that there is a sailor that wants to speak to him. The sailor hands Horatio a letter that was supposed to make it to England. In the letter, Hamlet tells Horatio that their ship was attacked by pirates. Hamlet was the only one taken hostage. However, he was treated well and in exchange for some favors got to return to Denmark.

He asks Horatio to make sure that some letters are passed to the king and then follow the sailor that would bring Horatio to Hamlet.



Act 4 Scene 7

People present in the scene:

  • Claudius – new husband of Gertrude who killed the King of Denmark;
  • Laertes – son of Polonius.
  • Gertrude – the Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet;
  • Servant, who brought the letters.

Place and time of the scene: Royal castle.

Main events of the scene:

  • Claudius tells Laertes that it was Hamlet who killed his father;
  • They plan to “accidentally” kill Hamlet in a fencing tournament;
  • Ophelia drowns in a river.

Short Summary:

The king tells Laertes that he is blaming him in vain because the murderer of Polonius actually wanted to kill Claudius. Laertes asks why Claudius then didn't punish the murderer according to the most stringent law. Claudius says that it’s because the queen loves her son and he loves the queen. Also, going to court wasn’t an option because people in Denmark love Hamlet.

Now Laertes knows that is was Hamlet who took the life of his father away. At this time the king receives the letters that Hamlet asked Horatio to send to him. In the letter addressed to the king, Hamlet informs him that he is in Denmark and will come to the castle the next day.

Laertes is happy that he will get to blame Hamlet for his actions in person. Claudius plants the thoughts into Laertes mind, that he should hold Hamlet responsible, here and now, while the pain in Laertes chest hasn't subsided. Laertes then goes on saying that he would cut Hamlet’s throat in the church. But the king offers him to get people around the castle to challenge Hamlet for a duel with Laertes by praising what a great fencer Laertes is.

They plan that Laertes will have a much sharper sword. Moreover, Laertes will dip his sword into a deathly poison. As a backup, Claudius offers to give Hamlet a poisoned cup of water.

The queen interrupts saying that Ophelia has drowned. She wanted to put flowers on a tree and fell into the water. Her clothes were heavy and she drowned. Laertes leaves in tears. Claudius says to his wife that he is worried that this news will only make Laertes more aggressive, and he will be demanding revenge.


Act 4: Analysis and Interpretation

Act four starts with Gertrude telling Claudius that Hamlet killed Polonius. The audience can’t help but feel torn – how could she betray her son like that? But then could she have been silent? After all, it isn’t easy to hide a dead body in a castle where spreading rumors is everybody’s business.

Act four further proves that for Shakespeare theatre decorations weren’t necessary. Elizabeth plays were performed with minimal external effects. Their feature was striking the audience with words and evoking the deepest feelings through monologues of the protagonists.

Laertes tries to create a revolt in the castle – this used to be a major worry for people in the 16th - 17th century. English monarchs constantly had to protect their crown and rebellions were a very real threat to them. Monarchs were never safe. At first, Claudius refers to it in act one where he says that everybody dies and Hamlet shouldn’t go into mourning for too long. It was true that treason and betrayal were a regular thing at that time.

Act four is quick in the development of the events and it also brings a very important understanding to a reader – there is a crisis not only in Hamlet’s mind, but also in the political leadership of the state of Denmark. Claudius clearly doesn’t have the skills to run this country (not even his family). He swiped under the rug the death of his advisor Polonius - whose position used to be one of the most important in the castle. Naturally, people start to suspect that something is wrong.

To top this suspicious atmosphere, Laertes is back and he calls for blood. Ophelia can’t handle the pressure and loses her mind. Seeing her sister only makes Laertes more furious. He is a real threat to Claudius and the king doesn't hold a strong enough position to be able to repel more attacks on himself.

Contrary to the passions happening in the castle, Hamlet gets some quiet time during act four. Having told his mother everything he knows, Hamlet gets to concentrate on his thoughts in act four.

Hamlet is a very fine person, who is better at thinking that doing. During the whole play he was trying to pull himself together: first from grief, then from rage. In act three he was desperately trying to bring himself to murdering his uncle, but some things kept stopping him. At first, he doubted the words of the ghost (just like any Christian, Hamlet understands that it could be devil seducing him), then doubts that if he kills Claudius while he is praying, then he would go to heaven and this is not the kind of revenge Hamlet wants to get.

At the end of act four the audience is left wondering whether Hamlet will actually perform what he intends to perform and at what price the revenge will come for Laertes.