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Act Four Questions

[Text] [Questions] [Answers] [Course Contents]

The Plot (Delete as applicable)

Gertrude lies to the king by telling him that Hamlet killed Polonius in a mad rage which he now regrets and Claudius lies to her by saying that his love for Hamlet prevented him from restraining the Prince/horses/guards. Emotionally (perhaps), Claudius calls his loyal servants, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to search for Hamlet and worries about how he can avoid being blamed for the murder.

Hamlet is found by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He explains why the former is like a rabbit/sheep/sponge and runs away again.

Claudius will not prosecute Hamlet because of his popularity. He interrogates Hamlet and is eventually told where Hamlet has hidden the dead body. The conversation between the two protagonists is filled with scarcely veiled threats. After Hamlet and the others leave, Claudius reveals his plan to have Hamlet killed by the Norwegian/English/Danish king.

On his way to England, Hamlet encounters Fortinbras and his army on their way to Hawaii/Poland/France to fight over a small patch of land. In his final soliloquy, Hamlet ponders (a) the difference between men and beasts, (b) the reasons for which he has delayed his revenge, (c) the way in which Fortinbras, despite being despicable in terms of his ambition, provides Hamlet with an example to follow, and (d) the nature of greatness. He resolves to think only beautiful/mellow/warlike thoughts from now on.

Gertrude is persuaded to speak to Ophelia on the grounds that her mad speech will allow suspicious people to create their own suspicious interpretations. Ophelia enters and sings songs which concern faithless love and the death of an old man. Claudius interprets her madness as mourning for the death of her father/mother/brother. He then bewails the catalogue of woes that his rule has recently encountered. He finishes with the news that Laertes has arrived secretly from France and is listening to rumours of the King's involvement in Polonius' murder. At this moment, Laertes enters, at the head of a riotous rabble, who want him to be king. He wants to kill Claudius but the Queen holds him back. Laertes is determined to have his revenge, and is made considerably more angry by the arrival of the mad Ophelia who gives everyone cryptic flower messages. Laertes interprets this as her wish to have him take revenge. Claudius manages to talk Laertes out of killing him, first by calling his bluff regarding the blasphemous idea of killing a king and, second, by telling Laertes that another person is to blame. He takes Laertes out of Gertrude's hearing in order to tell him about this other person.

Horatio receives letters from Hamlet (via athletes/seamen/merchants) who has done a deal with some pirates who captured Hamlet while he was defending the ship.

Claudius and Laertes plot against Hamlet. Claudius will not take overt action against Hamlet because of the peoples' and Gertrude's love for him. The two plot to engage Hamlet in a fencing match involving an unblunted rapier which is also poisoned and, as a backup, a poisoned drink/cake/pearl. The Queen enters with the sad news that Ophelia has accidentally drowned. Claudius finishes the act by lying to Gertrude again that he has been trying to calm Laertes' rage.

What? Why? How?

1. Claudius begins and ends the act by lying to Gertrude. Name FOUR other aspects of his character that are provable on the basis of what he says and does in this act. Is he still wracked with guilt, do you think?

2. Has Gertrude reformed after her confrontation with Hamlet in III.iv.?

3. In what ways does Hamlet appear to change during this act?

4. When Laertes speaks in this act, he often uses hyperbolic (over-exaggerated) expressions. What might this imply about him?

5. Why has Ophelia gone mad? How might this be proven?

6. What does the Queen's speech about Ophelia's drowning suggest about her madness and the reasons for her death?


1. A past exam question reads: 'The action of the play begins to break down after act three'. Discuss. Why might you agree on the basis of act four?

Themes and Imagery

1. Where is disease imagery used in this act? Find FOUR examples. How is the meaning of this imagery made explicit?

2. What do scenes five and seven suggest about what commitment to taking revenge does to people?

3. Nonetheless, in what ways might Hamlet appear to be (morally) better than (a) Fortinbras and (b) Laertes?

Ian Delaney.
Copyright © 1997-99
Shakespearean Education
Last Modified: March 16th 1999
email: ian@hamlet.hypermart.net