Philip Weller caricature
Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 4:

Page Index:
  • Enter Fortinbras, Captain, and army. Then exit Fortinbras, army. Enter Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Exeunt all but Hamlet.

Enter Fortinbras, Captain, and army:
Fortinbras, on the march to Poland, pauses for a moment to order one of his captains to go speak with the Danish King. Fortinbras already has permission to cross Danish territory, and all he needs now is a Danish "conveyance," that is, an escort. After delivering his command, Fortinbras marches on.

As Fortinbras and his army exit the stage, in comes Hamlet with his escort--Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and some others. Hamlet stops the Norwegian Captain and questions him. He learns that Fortinbras is marching against Poland, but not the "main of Poland." They go only "to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name" (4.4.18-19). The Norwegian Captain bitterly remarks that it isn't worth five ducats, and Hamlet guesses that the battle will cost twenty thousand ducats and two thousand men. Hamlet then remarks, "This is the imposthume [abscess] of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies" (4.4.27-29). In short, the battle is absolutely meaningless.

Exeunt all but Hamlet:
As the Norwegian Captain leaves, going to face death for nothing, Hamlet seems lost in thought, and Rosencrantz asks if he's ready to go. Hamlet, who is not technically a prisoner, tells the rest to go on ahead, and speaks his fourth soliloquy. He exclaims, "How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!" (4.4.32-33). To "inform" is to denounce or accuse. So Hamlet feels guilty that he hasn't carried out his revenge. He feels that he's not really a man, but only a beast, because all he does is eat and sleep. He should use the reason that God gave him, and act, but he hasn't. And he doesn't know why, perhaps it's "Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on the event" (4.4.40-41). He has "cause and will and strength and means / To do't" (4.4.45-46), but he hasn't.

From this point on, Hamlet's basic thought is that if Fortinbras can do what he's doing, Hamlet should be able to do what he's supposed to do. But Hamlet undercuts his own argument at every step, because he views Fortinbras as a damn fool. Fortinbras will expose himself "To all that fortune, death and danger dare, / Even for an egg-shell" (4.4.52-53). To Hamlet's shame, Fortinbras is marching off to war, but only to gain a piece of ground "Which is not tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain" (4.4.64-65). In other words, the piece of ground is not large enough to serve as a graveyard for the soldiers who will die in the battle. This seems to be war's ultimate absurdity, and this idea gives a hollow ring to Hamlet's final words of the scene, "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (4.4.65-66). Then Hamlet walks off--not to kill the King, but to continue his journey to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.