Hamlet Act 4, Scene 4 Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

In this lesson, you will find a summary of Act 4, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's tragedy 'Hamlet', as well as an analysis of the scene's most significant quotes.

Fortinbras Wages War

At the beginning of Act 4, Scene 4, the prince of Norway, Fortinbras, a captain, and several other soldiers are travelling across a plain, on their way to wage a war in Poland. Fortinbras instructs the captain and some members of his group to go the castle to ask Claudius permission to travel through Denmark. The captain remains in the scene while Fortinbras and the other men exit.

Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter the scene and cross paths with the captain on their way to their ship to England. Hamlet asks where the men are from and what they are doing there. The captain replies that they are from Fortinbras's army and they are on their way to start a war in Poland over ''a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.'' In other words, Fortinbras plans to send soldiers to Poland to fight over a small piece of land that no one really cares about.

Hamlet Ponders his Lack of Action

The captain leaves and Hamlet, alone, thinks out loud to himself. He delivers a monologue, or speech given by one person, about how all of his encounters keep reminding him that he has not followed through on his mission to avenge his father's death by killing Claudius. Hamlet marvels at how men waste their lives just barely surviving like animals: ''What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?''

Hamlet then bemoans people who waste their lives, unfulfilling the purpose that God bestowed on them: ''Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.'' Hamlet knows that he himself is guilty of this and calls himself a coward for spending all of his time thinking about Claudius but doing nothing.

Hamlet knows that the war that Fortinbras is starting will probably involve thousands of people risking their lives for no reason and for little gain, which is morally questionable. And yet it still impresses Hamlet that Fortinbras is able to mobilize so many people for such a meaningless cause. Hamlet compares this to his own situation, where seeking revenge on Claudius does involve greater gain for him, and yet he still has not taken action.

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