Act Four, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Realizing the danger he is in, Claudius hurriedly sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but secretly arranges for him to be killed on arrival. Ophelia, in the meanwhile, has been driven made by her father’s death, and Laertes has rushed back from Paris; when news arrives at court that Hamlet has escaped his companions and is on his way back to Denmark. Claudius promises to help Laertes kill the Prince. Laertes’ anger increases when Ophelia drowns herself.
(And a head’s up – Act Four is fairly short, so I’m guessing…three posts only for this one, then on to the EPIC Act Five!)
I’d like to suggest that, if Hamlet is continually searching for his part (which I think he is), Shakespeare is careful to fill the play with characters who echo or reflect aspects OF our hero. The Prince’s way with “words” is comically counterbalanced by the interminably excruciating verbal journeys of the royal advisor Polonius, whose reluctance to be “brief” becomes one of Hamlet’s verbal tics. (And of course, ironically, it was Polonius’s inability to keep his mouth shut while hidden away in Gertrude’s bedchamber, that led to his death.) Also possessed of too much art in speaking (as we will see) is the foppish (to say the least) courtier Osric, who will appear only in the play’s closing minutes – it is he who will carry the news of Laertes’ challenge to Hamlet – but even so manages to detain and delay the action by his completely nonsensical and utterly affected speech. Though both Polonius and Osric are, essentially, harmless, even so, they are functionaries of a regime that rests on a bed of lies and deceit. Also appearing as servants at the slippery world of court are our “beloved” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two men who only appear on stage in each other’s company and are sometimes even mistaken for one another. (And of course, Shakespeare, to great comic effect, does nothing to differentiate between the two.) But along with being Hamlet’s “dear friends,” their situation also, in ways, mirrors that of the Prince, the obvious difference being that they are entirely happy to do whatever they are told without asking questions – a model of dutiful service Hamlet would like to emulate but is also right to despise. Hamlet’s closest (or really only) companion, Horatio, is another of the Prince’s doubles – stoic and loyal – and as brief in words as his friend is verbally expansive. And unlike Hamlet, Horatio seems innately tuned into the savage politics of Elsinore (politics as dangerous as those in the play’s Norse saga origins). “You will lose this wager, my lord,” he will tell Hamlet when news of the duel arrives, and his instinct, as usual, is fatally accurate.
But Hamlet’s closet living doppelganger is the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, who although he has yet to appear on stage is always on our mind. He’s always there, as Shakespeare drops in rumors about his conquest in Poland, his marching through Denmark, his gung-ho bravery in battle. Hamlet is only too well aware of the difference between the man he calls a “delicate and tender prince” (a description which seems to be more Hamlet than Fortinbras), and himself, a “rogue and peasant slave,” and is tortured by what he sees as his own limitations in contrast. And Fortinbras does well from the comparison, in the last moments of the play it is he to whom Hamlet gives his “dying voice” as the next King of Denmark, a prince far more warlike – and far more like old Hamlet – than the rightful candidate, young Hamlet himself.
From Harold Bloom, on Claudius:
“Hamlet, having sent Guildenstern and Rosencrantz off to an English beheading, shrugs off his culpability:
‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.
If Shakespeare really intended the shuffling Claudius as Hamlet’s ‘mighty opposite,’ then he blundered, since the typical exchange between uncle and nephew tends to turn the exasperated usurper into a hysteric. I give a long but marvelous instance:
King: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
Hamlet: At supper.
King: At supper? Where?
Hamlet: Not where he eats, but where a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
King: Alas, alas.
Hamlet: A king may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
King: What does thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
King: Where is Polonius?
Hamlet: In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’th’ other place yourself. But if indeed you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.
King: [To some attendants] Go seek him there.
Hamlet: A will stay till you come. [Exeunt attendants.]
King: Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety –
Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done – must send thee hence
With fiery quickness. Therefore prepare thyself.
The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
Th’associates tend, and everything is bent
Hamlet: For England?
King: Ay, Hamlet.
King: So is it, if thou knew’st our purposes.
Hamlet: I see a cherub that sees them. But come, for England. Farewell, dear mother.
King: Thy loving father, Hamlet.
Hamlet: My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh; so my mother. Come, for England.
It is palpable that Claudius is a minor-league rhetorician confronting an all-time all-star, and that Shakespeare realizes he has only a puny opposite for the prince. Claudius’s absurd slip, ‘So is it, if thou knew’st our purposes’ invites the crusher, ‘I see a cherub that sees them.’ Until that, we have high hilarity, with the bewildered Claudius as the butt. Hamlet is so deliciously outrageous that we forgive his slaughter of Polonius, a politic worm now the center of a convocation of his peers. Claudius, always off balance, attempts to recoup with the set up of Laertes and the poisoned chalice as backup. If Claudius is only a minor-league Machiavel, Laertes isn’t even that, but just an amateur assassin. Their plot, absurd and messy, would fool no one except that the Hamlet of Act V wishes to make an end, and will accept any Claudian wager, whatever the odds.
But why should Shakespeare have burdened us with mere Claudius as Hamlet’s foeman? A.C. Bradley gives us the clue when he fantasizes an encounter between Hamlet and Iago, in which the prince would see through Iago in a moment and then drive the Satanic villain to suicide by incessant satire and ironic mockery. Edmund of King Lear would do no better, nor would any other Shakespearean negation. Hamlet is the most formidable ironist ever to walk upon a stage, and Shakespeare is well aware of this. When the prince speaks of ‘mighty opposites,’ he is only being wistful.”
I think this is a pretty spectacular reading of Hamlet:
G. Wilson Knight: The Embassy of Death
From “The Embassy of Death,” in The Wheel of Fire (London: Methuen ~r Co.,
Ltd., 1930, rev. ed. 1954), pp. 38-39. Copyright ‘© 1954 by Methuen & Co., Ltd. Re.
printed by permission of the publisher.
Hamlet is inhuman. He has seen through humanity. And this inhuman cynicism, however justifiable in this case, on the plane of causality and individual responsibility, is a deadly and venomous thing. Instinctively the creatures of earth—Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, league themselves with Claudius: they are of his kind. They sever themselves from Hamlet. Laertes sternly warns Ophelia against her intimacy with Hamlet, so does Polonius. They are, in fact, all leagued against him, they are puzzled by him or fear him: he has no friend except Horatio, and Horatio, after the ghost scenes, becomes a queer shadowy character who rarely gets beyond “E’en so, my lord,” “My lord—,” and suchlike phrases. The other persons are firmly drawn, in the round, creatures of flesh and blood. But Hamlet is not of flesh and blood, he is a spirit of penetrating intellect and cynicism and misery, without faith in himself or anyone else, murdering his love of Ophelia, on the brink of insanity, taking delight in cruelty, torturing Claudius, wringing his mother’s heart, a poison in the midst of the healthy bustle of the court. He is a superman among men. And he is a superman because he has walked and held converse with Death, and his consciousness works in terms of Death and the Negation of Cynicism. He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal. They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are strong with the strength of health —but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in their midst, meditating in graveyards, at home with Death. Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil
It was the devil of the knowledge of death, which possesses Hamlet and drives him from misery and pain to increasing bitterness, cynicism, murder, and madness. He has indeed bought converse with his father’s spirit at the price of enduring and spreading hell on Earth. But however much we may sympathize with Ophelia, with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, the Queen, and Claudius, there is one reservation to be made. It is Hamlet who is right. What he says and thinks of them is true, and there is no fault in his logic. His own mother is indeed faithless, and the prettiness of Ophelia does in truth enclose a spirit as fragile and untrustworthy as her earthly beauty; Polonius is “a foolish prating knave”; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are timeservers and flatterers; Claudius, whose benevolence hides the guilt of murder, is, by virtue of that fact, “a damned smiling villain.” In the same way the demon of cynicism which is in the mind of the poet and expresses itself in the figures of this play, has always this characteristic: it is right. One cannot argue with the cynic. It is unwise to offer him battle. For in the warfare of logic it will be found that he has all the guns.
And before a longish excerpt from Bradley, I’d like to let you know that PBS has begun running a series “Shakespeare Uncovered” – Ethan Hawke on Macbeth, Derek Jacobi on Richard II, Jeremy Irons on Henry IV and Henry V, Hamlet with David Tennant, The Tempest with Trevor Nunn, The Comedies with Joely Richardson…looks very promising.
From A.C. Bradley:
Evening comes. The approach of the play-scene raises Hamlet’s spirits. He is in his element. He feels that he is doing something towards his end, striking a stroke, but a stroke of intellect. In his instructions to the actor on the delivery of the inserted speech, and again in his conversation with Horatio just before the entry of the Court, we see the true Hamlet, the Hamlet of the days before his father’s death. But how characteristic it is that he appears quite as anxious that his speech should not be ranted as that Horatio should observe its effect upon the King! This trait appears again even at that thrilling moment when the actor is just going to deliver the speech. Hamlet sees him beginning to frown and glare like the conventional stage-murderer, and calls to him impatiently, ‘Leave thy damnable faces and begin!’
Hamlet’s device proves a triumph far more complete than he had dared to expect. He had thought the King might ‘blench,’ but he does much more. When only six of the ‘dozen or sixteen lines’ have been spoken he starts to his feet and rushes from the hall, followed by the whole dismayed Court. In the elation of success – an elation at first almost hysterical – Hamlet treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are sent to him, with undisguised contempt. Left to himself, he declares that now he could
drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
He has been sent for by his mother, and is going to her chamber; and so vehement and revengeful is his mood that he actually fancies himself in danger of using daggers to her as well as speaking them.
In this mood, on his way to his mother’s chamber, he comes upon the King, alone, kneeling, conscience-stricken and attempting to pray. His enemy is delivered into his hands.
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying:
And now I’ll do it: and so he goes to heaven:
And so am I revenged.That would be scanned.
He scans it; and the sword that he drew at the words, ‘And now I’ll do it,’ is thrust back into its sheath. If he killed the villain now he would send his soul to heaven; and he would fain kill soul as well as body.
That this again is an unconscious excuse for delay is now pretty generally agreed, and it is needless to describe again the state of mind which, on the view explained in our last lecture, is the real cause of Hamlet’s failure here. The first five words he utters, ‘Now might I do it,’ show that he has no effective desire to ‘do it’; and in the little sentences that follow, and the long pauses between them, the endeavour at a resolution, and the sickening return of melancholic paralysis, however difficult a task they set to the actor, are plain enough to a reader. And any reader who may retain a doubt should observe the fact that, when the Ghost reappears, Hamlet does not think of justifying his delay by the plea that he was waiting for a more perfect vengeance. But in one point the great majority of critics, I think, go astray. The feeling of intense hatred which Hamlet expresses is not the cause of his sparing the King, and in his heart he knows this; but it does not at all follow that this feeling is unreal. All the evidence afforded by the play goes to show that it is perfectly genuine, and I see no reason whatever to doubt that Hamlet would have been very sorry to send his father’s murderer to heaven, nor much to doubt that he would have been glad to send him to perdition. The reason for refusing to accept his own version of his motive in sparing Claudius is not that his sentiments are horrible, but that elsewhere, and also in the opening of his speech here, we can see that his reluctance to act is due to other causes.
The incident of the sparing of the King is contrived with extraordinary dramatic insight. On the one side we feel that the opportunity was perfect. Hamlet could not possibly any longer tell himself that he had no certainty as to his uncle’s guilt. And the external conditions were most favourable; for the King’s remarkable behaviour at the play-scene would have supplied a damning confirmation of the story Hamlet had to tell about the Ghost. Even now, probably, in a Court so corrupt as that of Elsinore, he could not with perfect security have begun by charging the King with the murder; but he could quite safely have killed him first and given his justification afterwards, especially as he would certainly have had on his side the people, who loved him and despised Claudius. On the other hand, Shakespeare has taken care to give this perfect opportunity so repulsive a character that we can hardly bring ourselves to wish that the hero should accept it. One of his minor difficulties, we have seen, probably was that he seemed to be required to attack a defenceless man; and here this difficulty is at its maximum.
This incident is, again, the turning-point of the tragedy. So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself. This central significance of the passage is dramatically indicated in the following scene by the reappearance of the Ghost and the repetition of its charge.
Polonius is the first to fall. The old courtier, whose vanity would not allow him to confess that his diagnosis of Hamlet’s lunacy was mistaken, had suggested that, after the theatricals, the Queen should endeavour in a private interview with her son to penetrate the mystery, while he himself would repeat his favourite part of eaves-dropper (III. i. 184 ff.). It has now become quite imperative that the Prince should be brought to disclose his secret; for his choice of the ‘Murder of Gonzago,’ and perhaps his conduct during the performance, have shown a spirit of exaggerated hostility against the King which has excited general alarm. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discourse to Claudius on the extreme importance of his preserving his invaluable life, as though Hamlet’s insanity had now clearly shown itself to be homicidal. When, then, at the opening of the interview between Hamlet and his mother, the son, instead of listening to her remonstrances, roughly assumes the offensive, she becomes alarmed; and when, on her attempting to leave the room, he takes her by the arm and forces her to sit down, she is terrified, cries out, ‘Thou wilt not murder me?’ and screams for help. Polonius, behind the arras, echoes her call; and in a moment Hamlet, hoping the concealed person is the King, runs the old man through the body.
Evidently this act is intended to stand in sharp contrast with Hamlet’s sparing of his enemy. The King would have been just as defenceless behind the arras as he had been on his knees; but here Hamlet is already excited and in action, and the chance comes to him so suddenly that he has no time to ‘scan’ it. It is a minor consideration, but still for the dramatist not unimportant, that the audience would wholly sympathise with Hamlet’s attempt here, as directed against an enemy who is lurking to entrap him, instead of being engaged in a business which perhaps to the bulk of the audience then, as now, seemed to have a ‘relish of salvation in’t.’
We notice in Hamlet, at the opening of this interview, something of the excited levity which followed the dénouement of the play-scene. The death of Polonius sobers him; and in the remainder of the interview he shows, together with some traces of his morbid state, the peculiar beauty and nobility of his nature. His chief desire is not by any means to ensure his mother’s silent acquiescence in his design of revenge; it is to save her soul. And while the rough work of vengeance is repugnant to him, he is at home in this higher work. Here that fatal feeling, ‘it is no matter,’ never shows itself. No father-confessor could be more selflessly set upon his end of redeeming a fellow-creature from degradation, more stern or pitiless in denouncing the sin, or more eager to welcome the first token of repentance. There is something infinitely beautiful in that sudden sunshine of faith and love which breaks out when, at the Queen’s surrender,
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain,
O throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
The truth is that, though Hamlet hates his uncle and acknowledges the duty of vengeance, his whole heart is never in this feeling or this task; but his whole heart is in his horror at his mother’s fall and in his longing to raise her. The former of these feelings was the inspiration of his first soliloquy; it combines with the second to form the inspiration of his eloquence here. And Shakespeare never wrote more eloquently than here.
I have already alluded to the significance of the reappearance of the Ghost in this scene; but why does Shakespeare choose for the particular moment of its reappearance the middle of a speech in which Hamlet is raving against his uncle? There seems to be more than one reason. In the first place, Hamlet has already attained his object of stirring shame and contrition in his mother’s breast, and is now yielding to the old temptation of unpacking his heart with words, and exhausting in useless emotion the force which should be stored up in his will. And, next, in doing this he is agonising his mother to no purpose, and in despite of her piteous and repeated appeals for mercy. But the Ghost, when it gave him his charge, had expressly warned him to spare her; and here again the dead husband shows the same tender regard for his weak unfaithful wife. The object of his return is to repeat his charge:
Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose;
but, having uttered this reminder, he immediately bids the son to help the mother and ‘step between her and her fighting soul.’
And, whether intentionally or not, another purpose is served by Shakespeare’s choice of this particular moment. It is a moment when the state of Hamlet’s mind is such that we cannot suppose the Ghost to be meant for an hallucination; and it is of great importance here that the spectator or reader should not suppose any such thing. He is further guarded by the fact that the Ghost proves, so to speak, his identity by showing the same traits as were visible on his first appearance – the same insistence on the duty of remembering, and the same concern for the Queen. And the result is that we construe the Ghost’s interpretation of Hamlet’s delay (‘almost blunted purpose’) as the truth, the dramatist’s own interpretation. Let me add that probably no one in Shakespeare’s audience had any doubt of his meaning here. The idea of later critics and readers that the Ghost is an hallucination is due partly to failure to follow the indications just noticed, but partly also to two mistakes, the substitution of our present intellectual atmosphere for the Elizabethan, and the notion that, because the Queen does not see and hear the Ghost, it is meant to be unreal. But a ghost, in Shakespeare’s day, was able for any sufficient reason to confine its manifestation to a single person in a company; and here the sufficient reason, that of sparing the Queen, is obvious.
At the close of this scene it appears that Hamlet has somehow learned of the King’s design of sending him to England in charge of his two ‘school-fellows.’ He has no doubt that this design covers some villainous plot against himself, but neither does he doubt that he will succeed in defeating it; and, as we saw, he looks forward with pleasure to this conflict of wits. The idea of refusing to go appears not to occur to him. Perhaps (for here we are left to conjecture) he feels that he could not refuse unless at the same time he openly accused the King of his father’s murder (a course which he seems at no time to contemplate); for by the slaughter of Polonius he has supplied his enemy with the best possible excuse for getting him out of the country. Besides, he has so effectually warned this enemy that, after the death of Polonius is discovered, he is kept under guard (IV. iii. 14). He consents, then, to go. But on his way to the shore he meets the army of Fortinbras on its march to Poland; and the sight of these men going cheerfully to risk death ‘for an egg-shell,’ and ‘making mouths at the invisible event,’ strikes him with shame as he remembers how he, with so much greater cause for action, ‘lets all sleep;’ and he breaks out into the soliloquy, ‘How all occasions do inform against me!’
This great speech, in itself not inferior to the famous ‘To be or not to be,’ is absent not only from the First Quarto but from the Folio. It is therefore probable that, at any rate by the time when the Folio appeared (1623), it had become customary to omit it in theatrical representation; and this is still the custom. But, while no doubt it is dramatically the least indispensable of the soliloquies, it has a direct dramatic value, and a great value for the interpretation of Hamlet’s character. It shows that Hamlet, though he is leaving Denmark, has not relinquished the idea of obeying the Ghost. It exhibits very strikingly his inability to understand why he has delayed so long. It contains that assertion which so many critics forget, that he has ’cause and will and strength and means to do it.’ On the other hand – and this was perhaps the principal purpose of the speech – it convinces us that he has learnt little or nothing from his delay, or from his failure to seize the opportunity presented to him after the play-scene. For, we find, both the motive and the gist of the speech are precisely the same as those of the soliloquy at the end of the Second Act (‘O what a rogue’). There too he was stirred to shame when he saw a passionate emotion awakened by a cause which, compared with his, was a mere egg-shell. There too he stood bewildered at the sight of his own dulness, and was almost ready to believe – what was justly incredible to him – that it was the mask of mere cowardice. There too he determined to delay no longer: if the King should but blench, he knew his course. Yet this determination led to nothing then; and why, we ask ourselves in despair, should the bloody thoughts he now resolves to cherish ever pass beyond the realm of thought?
Between this scene (IV. iv.) and the remainder of the play we must again suppose an interval, though not a very long one. When the action recommences, the death of Polonius has led to the insanity of Ophelia and the secret return of Laertes from France. The young man comes back breathing slaughter. For the King, afraid to put Hamlet on his trial (a course likely to raise the question of his own behaviour at the play, and perhaps to provoke an open accusation), has attempted to hush up the circumstances of Polonius’s death, and has given him a hurried and inglorious burial. The fury of Laertes, therefore, is directed in the first instance against the King: and the ease with which he raises the people, like the King’s fear of a judicial enquiry, shows us how purely internal were the obstacles which the hero had to overcome. This impression is intensified by the broad contrast between Hamlet and Laertes, who rushes headlong to his revenge, and is determined to have it though allegiance, conscience, grace and damnation stand in his way (IV. v. 130). But the King, though he has been hard put to it, is now in his element and feels safe. Knowing that he will very soon hear of Hamlet’s execution in England, he tells Laertes that his father died by Hamlet’s hand, and expresses his willingness to let the friends of Laertes judge whether he himself has any responsibility for the deed. And when, to his astonishment and dismay, news comes that Hamlet has returned to Denmark, he acts with admirable promptitude and address, turns Laertes round his finger, and arranges with him for the murder of their common enemy. If there were any risk of the young man’s resolution faltering, it is removed by the death of Ophelia. And now the King has but one anxiety, – to prevent the young men from meeting before the fencing-match. For who can tell what Hamlet might say in his defence, or how enchanting his tongue might prove?
Hamlet’s return to Denmark is due partly to his own action, partly to accident. On the voyage he secretly possesses himself of the royal commission, and substitutes for it another, which he himself writes and seals, and in which the King of England is ordered to put to death, not Hamlet, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then the ship is attacked by a pirate, which, apparently, finds its intended prize too strong for it, and makes off. But as Hamlet ‘in the grapple,’ eager for fighting, has boarded the assailant, he is carried off in it, and by promises induces the pirates to put him ashore in Denmark.”