When we last took a look at the Hamlet plot summary, Hamlet had found Claudius seemingly at prayer. Hamlet had the proof he needed to avenge his father’s murder, but as killing a man at prayer would send him to heaven, Hamlet decides against it. Ironically, Claudius couldn’t bring himself to pray.
As Act Three, Scene Four begins, Polonius directs Gertrude to “be round” (III.iv.5) with Hamlet when he arrives to talk with her. She agrees and tells the old man to hide since she can “hear (Hamlet) coming” (III.iv.6). When he arrives, he asks,
Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Mother, you have my father much offended.
Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
It seems that his verbal attack turns at least somewhat physical (“You shall not budge. // You go not…” [III.iv.18-9]), and when she calls for help, Polonius also cries out for help from behind the curtain. Thinking (or at least hoping) it is the king, Hamlet “thrusts through the arras and kills Polonius” (III.iv.24 stage direction). She proclaims this a bloody deed, but Hamlet is too focused on his mother: “A bloody deed—almost as bad, good mother, // As kill a king and marry with his brother” (III.iv.34-5). Interesting, that he makes it sound that she is responsible for the death of his father, as he links the killing with marrying the brother.
After Hamlet sees the body of Polonius, he turns his attention to showing Gertrude her mistake of trading old Hamlet for Claudius, comparing the “Hyperion… Jove…Mars (and) Mercury” (III.iv.56, 56, 57, 58, respectively) that was Hamlet to the “mildewed ear” (III.iv.64) that is Claudius. When he goes on to describe her as
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!
she can only beg for him to stop since “these words are like daggers … in (her) ears” (III.iv.95).
He continues to rail on her when the Ghost appears, catching Hamlet’s attention. Gertrude can only comment then, “Alas, he’s mad” (III.iv.105). Completely understandable since by talking with the Ghost, it appears to Gertrude that Hamlet does “bend (his) eye on vacancy, // And with th’ incorporal air do hold discourse” (III.iv.117-8). He tries to show her the Ghost, but unlike in the first act when others could see the apparition, she sees “nothing at all” (III.iv.132). And soon enough, so do we as the Ghost exits.
He begs for her to “go not to (his) uncle’s bed” (III.iv.159) and to not allow Claudius to tempt her to reveal what he has now told her: “that (he) essentially (is) not in madness, // But mad in craft” (III.iv.187-8). He knows that he is to be sent to England, and will trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “as (he) will (trust) adders fanged” (III.iv.203). Then he “lug(s) the guts” (III.iv.212) of Polonius out of his mother’s closet to close out the scene.
Act Four, Scene One finds Claudius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern finding Gertrude and her “sighs… (and) profound heaves” (IV.i.1). After the king and queen send the two courtiers away, she delivers the news of Hamlet killing Polonius. Claudius immediately understands the implications:
His liberty is full of threats to all—
To you yourself, to us, to everyone.
He calls for the two courtiers to search out and apprehend Hamlet, while Claudius also calls upon Gertrude to help him begin the public and political spin on the events, in hopes that the “whisper o’er the world’s diameter…may miss our name” (IV.i.41,43).
In Act Four, Scene Two, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet, who continues to confound them with his wild and whirling words.
Act Four, Scene Three begins with Claudius discussing the “dangerous” (IV.iii.2) political ramifications of an unapprehended Hamlet:
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes;
And, where ’tis so, th’ offender’s scourge is weighed,
But never the offense.
Until Hamlet is captured, Claudius’ government is not safe.
Lucky for him, Hamlet is brought in. Unlucky for him, Hamlet is not immediately helpful in informing them of where he has put Polonius’ body. Hamlet tells Claudius Polonius is in “in heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself” (IV.iii.32-4). The message cannot be mistaken by Claudius: Hamlet knows the king’s sins.
Claudius tells Hamlet that he is being sent to England. Hamlet says this is good, and Claudius ominously responds, “So it is, if thou knew’st our purposes” (IV.iii.46). Hamlet’s no fool, and he’s more than willing to let his uncle know that he knows a hawk from a handsaw: “I see a cherub that sees (your purposes)” (IV.iii.47).
After Hamlet is taken away, just in case we as an audience are fools, Claudius reveals in soliloquy that his plan involves “the present death of Hamlet” (IV.iii.64).
Act Four, Scene Four, takes us to Fortinbras as he begins to march his army across Denmark to war against Poland. As Hamlet watches the army move, he ponders how Fortinbras’ and his own motives differ, and the scale of the effects of those motives:
How stand I, then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!
And thus ends Act Four, Scene Four.