Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4

Page Index:
  • Enter Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus.
  • Enter Ghost.

Enter Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus:
A little past midnight, in the cold and dark, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus wait for the Ghost. They are on the platform where soldiers keep watch, and below them they can hear the trumpets and cannon at the King's drinking party. Horatio asks if it is "a custom" to drink so much and make so much noise. Hamlet replies that it is, but one that he wishes the Danes would drop. It makes "other nations" call the Danes drunkards.

Hamlet then goes on to compare the effects of the custom to similar effects on individuals. An individual, he says, may have "virtues . . . pure as grace," and just "one defect," but that defect may be all that anyone sees or pays attention to. Thus the "dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance often dout [i.e., do out, extinguish]" (1.4.36-37). Thematically, Hamlet's philosophizing fits with the business of waiting for the Ghost. Hamlet has just said that even a very little evil, a "dram" that is almost invisible, can work its way from inside to outside, and ruin a person or nation. The Ghost, almost invisible, will deliver a secret about a poison that worked its way out and killed Old Hamlet. And the secret itself will eventually work its way out and kill eight people, including Hamlet.

Enter Ghost:
Dramatically, Hamlet's philosophizing provides a distraction. We almost forget that we're about to see a ghost, and then he's here!

Hamlet knows that the Ghost can be either "a spirit of health, or goblin damn'd" (1.4.40), but it looks like his father, so he is determined to speak with it. He says, "I'll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane," and he asks, "why is this? wherefore? what should we do? (1.4.57).

The Ghost does not answer, but "beckons" Hamlet to go away with it. Both Horatio and Marcellus are frightened and tell Hamlet that he should not go. Horatio thinks that the Ghost could be evil, so evil that it could change into a "horrible form" which would drive Hamlet mad, and make him jump over a cliff to his death. But Hamlet says that he doesn't care a pin about his life, and that his "fate cries out." His friends lay hands on him to try to stop him, but after a brief struggle he breaks free and follows the Ghost.

After Hamlet is gone, Horatio and Marcellus seem to have very different attitudes about what to do next. Marcellus says, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.90), and he wants to follow Hamlet, presumably to protect him. Horatio is more reluctant, and says, "Heaven will direct it" (1.4.91), meaning that God will take care of whatever is wrong with Denmark. But Marcellus goes, and Horatio follows.