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Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4 Summary & Quotes

Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4 Summary & Quotes
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  • 0:00 ''Hamlet'' Act 1,…
  • 1:11 Summary of Act 1, Scene 4
  • 2:34 Quotes from Act 1, Scene 4
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Act 1, Scene 4 is a pivotal scene in Hamlet, and one of its most famous. The guards who have seen the old king's ghost take Hamlet and his friend Horatio to watch for it, with dramatic results.

Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4 in Context

Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost
1789, later engraving

Act 1, Scene 4 of Hamlet is iconically creepy. Charles Dickens referenced it in the opening of A Christmas Carol. It's been often parodied, and interpreted in countless ways. Four men gather on the battlements of a castle at midnight, waiting to see a king's ghost. As everyone in Shakespeare's audience would have known, such supernatural events could reveal the past, comment on the present, and influence the future. In Hamlet, the restlessness of the king's ghost signifies the unrest in Denmark in the aftermath of his death.

The audience has learned in Act 1, Scene 2 that Hamlet is still obsessively grieving his father's recent death. Horatio, his closest friend, has come from Germany to see how he's doing. He shows his love and concern for Hamlet in this scene. Marcellus is a sentinel whose role in this scene is mostly to offer commentary.

Summary of Act 1, Scene 4

At the hour of midnight, traditionally associated with supernatural events, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are on the battlements of Elsinore Castle. It's freezing. Below them, the new king, Claudius, is holding a rowdy party, to the surprise of Horatio and disgust of Hamlet. Hamlet compares the king's unseemly habits to a character flaw that damages a person's whole nature. This speech contains the first of the scene's many references to madness, a central theme in the play.

Delacroix depicts a romantic vision of Hamlet in Scene 1, Act 4
Delacroix

The ghost appears suddenly and dramatically. Notably, everyone sees it; it's clear that the ghost is not only in Hamlet's mind. The prince is determined to speak to his father's ghost and is certain that its appearance is a sign of something bad. He wants to follow it, but Horatio thinks this is a terrible idea. What if the ghost tempts the prince into madness? Horatio states this fear in many different ways. We get the hint, Shakespeare! Hamlet violently throws off the restraint of Horatio and Marcellus and follows the ghost off-stage. The other men are left worried, but determined to follow him.

Quotes from Act 1, Scene 4

The opening exchange of this scene is infinitely quotable: ''The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold. / It is a nipping and an eager air.'' The scene also contains some of Shakespeare's most beautiful - and most famous - lines, significant both in the play and beyond it.

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