Hamlet: Act IV

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13354

In Act 4, Hamlet isn't the only character who appears to be going mad. Another meets their end as the play builds toward the final act! Explore "Hamlet" from another perspective as all actors must!


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Before you read Act 4 of Hamlet, can you guess who doesn't make it out of this act alive?

Complete this statement in your notes:

In the fourth act, __________ is killed by __________.

Now, read Act 4 to find out if you're correct!

You should have already completed the first Related Lessons in this series on Hamlet, found in the right-hand sidebar.

You should also still have your copy of the play, or continue using William Shakespeare's Hamlet courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library.

Act 4 is largely about the build-up to the final act, and there's a lot of scheming between characters that gives us clues as to how the play will end.

Remember that Act 3 ended with Hamlet's murder of Polonius, so we will also see the fallout from that deed in this act.

Act 4, Scene 1

Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius' murder, and he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet and the corpse.

  • In this scene, Claudius largely voices concern for himself. What does he worry will happen because of the murder?

Act 4, Scene 2

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet, who has just hidden the body of Polonius, and they command him to come with them to the king. Even though he is in serious trouble, Hamlet continues to banter with the two men in the same way he has for the rest of the play.

  • Why does Hamlet call Rosencrantz a sponge?

Act 4, Scene 3

Hamlet is brought before Claudius, who demands to know where Polonius' body is hidden. Hamlet answers him with the same teasing wit he used on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he disrespectfully refers to Polonius as a worm's supper.

This exchange follows:

"HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat
of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that

CLAUDIUS: What dost you mean by this?

HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar." (4.3.30-35)

  • How is this exchange an insult to Polonius? How is it a threat?

After discovering the location of Polonius' body, Claudius sends Hamlet away to England commanding that he depart that night. Left alone, Claudius gives a short soliloquy that reveals his plan to deal with Hamlet.

  • What has Claudius asked the King of England to do?

Act 4, Scene 4

For the first time, we encounter Fortinbras, who is moving his army across Denmark on the way to a small piece of land in Poland over which he is about to fight a battle. Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern have a conversation with one of Fortinbras' captains.

  • What is the captain's opinion of the battle he's about to fight?

After the conversation with the captain, when everyone else has left, Hamlet has yet another soliloquy. This time, he compares himself to Fortinbras.

As far as their positions in life and in their royal households go, the two are very similar. Both are princes whose fathers were slain, and now both of their uncles are kings of their respective countries.

  • In this soliloquy, how does Hamlet compare himself to Fortinbras?
  • Who does he seem to think is the better man?

Act 4, Scene 5

In this scene, Ophelia is brought in to see Queen Gertrude. Ophelia has gone mad since her father's death, made worse for her because it was at the hands of the man she loves.

  • Why is Gertrude hesitant to see Ophelia?

Ophelia comes in singing a song, and while she knows who Gertrude is, she is clearly disturbed. She begins by singing verses that seem to be about her father's death, but then the song shifts to another topic when Claudius enters.

  • Given the last two large sections of verse, what else might have happened that could be contributing to Ophelia's distress?

When Ophelia leaves, Claudius informs Gertrude that Laertes has returned from Paris at the news of his father's death. Shouting is heard outside, and a messenger comes in to confirm Claudius' fears.

  • What has Laertes been doing since his return, and what is the reason for the shouting outside?

Laertes and his followers break down the door, and Laertes storms in to the throne room. While Claudius tries to convince Laertes that he is innocent of Polonius' murder, Ophelia enters, and her brother sees her madness for the first time.

  • Look up the significance of the flowers Ophelia bestows on each person. What do each of them mean, and what do they say about her opinion of each person?

When Ophelia leaves, Claudius proposes an impromptu trial where Laertes' closest friends will listen to Claudius and decide if he is innocent of Polonius' murder and who the guilty party is.

Act 4, Scene 6

In this scene, Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet, who has been at sea on his way to England. Hamlet has found himself on a pirate ship that attacked his Danish ship at sea.

While the pirates are treating him well, they've asked for a favor that Hamlet apparently needs Horatio's help with. He asks that some letters he sent be delivered to the king and that Horatio go with the messenger to meet Hamlet.

Act 4, Scene 7

Laertes has heard Claudius' defense and agrees that Hamlet is the one guilty of Polonius' murder, but he questions Claudius' decision not to punish Hamlet for it.

  • What two reasons does Claudius give for not publicly punishing Hamlet?

As Claudius is speaking to Laertes, a messenger comes in with the letters sent by Hamlet. Claudius reads that his plan to have Hamlet killed in England has failed, and he and Laertes craft another plan that allows Laertes to directly kill his father's murderer.

  • What is plan A for Hamlet's death?
  • What is Claudius' backup plan?

Just as the plan for Hamlet's death is made, Gertrude enters with bad news for Laertes. His sister, Ophelia, has died suddenly.

  • How did Ophelia die?
  • Was your guess correct? If so, how did you suspect Ophelia would be the next to die?

When you've read Act 4 and answered the questions above, move on to the Got It? section to explore another soliloquy and test your comprehension of the act!

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