Act 4 scene 1
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet, he tells them he keeps his ‘own counsel’ and will not listen to them. He tells them that Claudius is using them like a ‘sponge’ and ‘when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again’. He refuses to tell them where the body is, answering their questions in riddles.
- Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
- Hamlet has taken away the body of Polonius and will not tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where it is hidden.
Act 4 scene 2
Claudius worries that he cannot punish Hamlet too much because the people of Denmark love him. When Claudius questions Hamlet over the whereabouts of Polonius’ body, he answers in riddles again before saying that he will smell the corpse ‘as you go up the stairs into the lobby’. Claudius informs Hamlet that he must travel to England for his own ‘especial safety’. Alone, Claudius reveals that he has sent letters to England ordering the ‘present death’ of Hamlet and is pleased that he will be out of the way.
- Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
- Claudius has planted sealed letters requesting that the English authorities kill Hamlet.
Act 4 scene 3
Fortinbras talks to a captain in his army and orders him to go and see the Danish king and claim their right to march across Denmark.
- Fortinbras’ army is passing through Denmark on its way to claim land from Poland.
Act 4 scene 4
Ophelia visits the queen, who does not want to see her but eventually she agrees. Ophelia sings songs and when Claudius comes in he and Gertrude agree that Ophelia is sick and he says that ‘this is the poison of deep grief: it springs / All from her father’s death’. Messengers then report that Laertes has returned and that the Danish people want him to be their king. When Laertes enters he is in a rage, demanding to know what happened to his father. He then sees the state of his sister Ophelia, exclaiming ‘O heavens, is’t possible a young maid’s wits / Should be as mortal as an old man’s life?’ Hearing news that Hamlet is responsible for both tragedies, he declares that Hamlet will have an ‘obscure burial -- / No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones’.
- Ophelia’s mental state is growing worse.
- Laertes has returned and the people have called for him to be king.
- Laertes declares that he wants revenge on Hamlet for his father and his sister.
Act 4 scene 5
Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet saying that he has been kidnapped by pirates but they've taken mercy on him. Meanwhile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have gone to England. Hamlet demands that Horatio meet him at once so that he can impart some shocking news to him.
- Hamlet wants Horatio to meet him.
- Hamlet’s letter claims Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continued to England without him.
Act 4 scene 6
Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet left Denmark without being punished for Polonius’ murder because the Danish people love him. News reaches Claudius that Hamlet is now back in Denmark and he plots with Laertes to set up a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes says ‘I’ll anoint my sword’ and plans to dip his blade in deadly poison before the fight. Claudius doesn't want to take any risks so he says he will also prepare a 'chalice' of poison for Hamlet to drink in case he ‘by chance escape your venom’d stuck’. Gertrude then enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned herself. Laertes is too devastated to cry and says 'Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, / And therefore I forbid my tears'.
- Hamlet is back in Denmark.
- Claudius and Laertes plan to poison Hamlet, either with a sword or a drink.
- Ophelia has drowned.
Things to notice in Act 4
Notice how each of the characters reacts to Polonius’ murder. How do Gertrude and Claudius each feel and how do they act in the scenes that follow? Why do you think Hamlet takes the body of Polonius away with him after Act 3 and hides it? Do you think others characters would have reacted differently if he had left the body?
Look closely at the structure of this act. Act 4 has six scenes; what effect does this have on the drama? How might this affect the pace of the story and why would Shakespeare want to create that pace?
Take note of Ophelia’s behaviour when she talks to Gertrude and Claudius. What do her songs reveal? Do you think this is grief or madness? Would Ophelia have killed herself if Polonius had been killed by someone other than Hamlet? How responsible is Hamlet for Ophelia’s death?
Act 4 is important because we see the responses to Hamlet’s actions in Act 3 – Gertrude and Claudius react very differently, Ophelia commits suicide and Laertes returns and plans his revenge with the king. What does their plan tell you about Claudius and Laertes? Who is the driving force behind their plot and why would they chose this method of murder?