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Summary Act IV


Speaking with Gertrude, Claudius discovers the extent of Hamlet’s deeds. He immediately commissions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet, to be gentle with him, and to recover Polonius’ corpse. Claudius assures Gertrude that the matter will be handled delicately and with tact, sparing the royal house of any slander that may come its way.


Having found Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern demand the whereabouts of Polonius’ dead body. Hamlet is offended that he, the son of a king, the next in line to Denmark’s throne, must answer to the king’s servants whose groveling ways he cannot abide. Needless to say, their demand is denied. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern persist, however, informing the prince that the king requires his immediate presence. Hamlet is happy to oblige.


Hamlet is brought before the king and is directly questioned as to the whereabouts of Polonius’ corpse. Hamlet replies with a riddle and as the riddle is elaborated and embellished upon it yields the location of the corpse. Not finding any of this funny, the king informs Hamlet that he is to leave for England--and at once. Hamlet complies and they part, suspecting the worst of one another.


Additional character(s): Fortinbras--nephew to the king of Norway; Captain--an officer of the Fortinbras-led Norwegian army

Fortinbras is leading his Norwegian army to Poland via Denmark. He dispatches a captain to apprise the Danes of his presence and to secure free passage through Denmark as previously agreed upon. Meanwhile, Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are presumably on their way to the board a ship on the Danish coast, espy the Norwegian army in the distant. Moreover, they encounter the captain to whom Hamlet directs an inquiry as to the purpose of the Norwegian army. The captain’s reply is tinged with chagrin as he explains the foolishness of the enterprise that the army, of which he is a part, is engaged in. They part amicably and Hamlet is left to wonder, ‘How is it that I--whose cause is great--fail to act, while an entire army would willingly go to its death for a trifle and an illusion?’


At Horatio’s entreaty, Ophelia is permitted to appear before the queen. As Horatio had reported, with great concern, Ophelia’s mind is in a state of wild flux. The king and queen conclude that, overcome by grief at her father’s death, Ophelia has succumbed to madness. As she leaves, closely attended by Horatio, the royal couple reflect on the sadness of it all when there is a great uproar. Laertes storms into the castle and demands retribution. Laertes vows that his father’s ignoble death will be avenged one way or the other. Claudius confronts Laertes and tries to reason with him when Ophelia reappears. Her madness devastates Laertes, rendering him pliable to Claudius’ machinations.


Additional character(s): 1st Sailor--one of the sailors commisioned by Hamlet to fetch Horatio

Sailors arrive to deliver Horatio a letter. The letter is from Hamlet. As per the letter, Horatio is to take the sailors to the king to whom they will deliver letters from Hamlet. Apparently, while at sea, Hamlet had been taken captive by pirates for whom Hamlet is to do a good turn. (The pirates have spared Hamlet's life.) The letters delivered, as fast as he can, with the sailors as his guide, Horatio is to rendezvous with Hamlet.


Claudius has swayed Laertes to believe that Hamlet is their mutual enemy when a letter arrives. The letter is from Hamlet who writes that he has returned to Denmark all alone the inexplicability of which he will explain when face to face. Claudius is flummoxed but Laertes is grimly pleased as he would like nothing better than to personally see to Hamlet’s reckoning. Gathering himself, Claudius cooks up a scheme whereby his nephew’s murder will be accounted an accident. Laertes is more than happy to do his part. They have all but sealed their villainy with a notarized contract when Gertrude appears. She has bad news. The bough of a willow tree upon which Ophelia had clambered on had given way, plunging Ophelia to the brook below where, though for a time it seemed as if Ophelia were in her natural element, the water overwhelmed her, dragging her to the depths. Ophelia is dead. She has drowned.

William Shakespeare