Hamlet Act 1 Scene 4

Hamlet Act 1 Scene 4

From Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet by Kenneth Chan

Scene 4 brings us back to the battlements of the castle wall in the dark of night. Hamlet now awaits the appearance of the ghost, and we are once again immersed in an aura of mystery, awaiting an encounter with the beyond. It is around midnight. 

Hamlet            The air bites shrewdly, it is very cold. 

Horatio           It is a nipping and an eager1 air. 

Hamlet            What hour now? 

Horatio           I think it lacks of twelve. 

Marcellus       No, it is struck.

Horatio           Indeed? I heard it not. 
                        It then draws near the season 
                        Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk. 

The suspense builds. In the distance, a flourish of trumpets and the sound of two pieces of ordnance firing prompt Horatio’s question: 

Horatio           What does this mean, my lord? 

Hamlet            The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,2 
                        Keeps wassail,3 and the swagg’ring upspring4 reels; 
                        And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish5 down, 
                        The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out 
                        The triumph of his pledge.6

The sound of celebrations in the distance intensifies the isolation at the castle wall. We are now truly on the outside, beyond the coziness of mundane distractions, with the night skies stretching the horizons before us. Now we are on the cutting edge between the known and the vast beyond. 

The sound of the King celebrating also brings into sharp contrast the characters of Hamlet and Claudius. One is preparing to face the profound, while the other is attempting to drown out any hint of it in wanton revelry. 

Horatio enquires of Hamlet whether drinking and revelry of this kind is customary. Hamlet responds by criticizing this drunkenness as a tradition that damages the nation’s reputation and belittles its achievements. He then generalizes this effect to include any vice and explains how a single defect can overwhelm all of one’s virtues: 

Hamlet            So, oft it chances in particular men 
                        That for some vicious mole7 of nature in them, 
                        As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty 
                        (Since nature cannot choose his origin), 
                        By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,8 
                        Oft breaking down the pales9 and forts of reason, 
                        Or by some habit, that too much o’erleavens10 
                        The form of plausive11 manners – that these men, 
                        Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, 
                        Being Nature’s livery or Fortune’s star, 
                        His virtues else, be they as pure as grace, 
                        As infinite as man may undergo, 
                        Shall in the general censure take corruption 
                        From that particular fault. The dram12 of evil 
                        Doth all the noble substance often dout 
                        To his own scandal. 

The actual wording of the last sentence is problematic because of a corruption in the published text, but the sense is clear: A small amount of something bad ruins all the noble substance. 

Shakespeare has Hamlet say these words just before the ghost appears before him for a reason. The words ironically indicate exactly what will happen to Hamlet himself because of the ghost. Hamlet is intelligent, courageous, and sensitive, with all the makings of a true philosopher king. Yet something goes very amiss with him, and it is exactly at this point that he encounters the poison that practically destroys him. 

The ghost now appears. 

Horatio           Look, my lord, it comes. 

Hamlet            Angels and ministers of grace defend us! 
                        Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, 
                        Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, 
                        Be thy intents wicked or charitable, 
                        Thou comest in such a questionable shape 
                        That I will speak to thee. 

Like Horatio in Scene 1, Hamlet questions the nature of the ghost, particularly whether it brings good or evil. Nevertheless, Hamlet feels compelled to proceed, compelled to seek the unknown, and he does so without flinching: 

Hamlet            I’ll call thee Hamlet, 
                        King, father, royal Dane. Oh answer me! 
                        Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell 
                        Why thy canonized13 bones, hearsed in death, 
                        Have burst their cerements;14 why the sepulcher 
                        Wherein we saw thee quietly inurned 
                        Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws 
                        To cast thee up again. What may this mean, 
                        That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel 
                        Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon, 
                        Making night hideous and we fools of nature 
                        So horridly to shake our disposition 
                        With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls? 
                        Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do? 

The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow; Horatio and Marcellus fear for his safety, but Hamlet is determined to learn from the ghost. 

Horatio           It beckons you to go away with it, 
                        As if it some impartment15 did desire 
                        To you alone. 

Marcellus       Look with what courteous action 
                        It waves you to a more removed ground. 
                        But do not go with it. 

Horatio           No, by no means. 

Hamlet            It will not speak. Then I will follow it. 

Horatio           Do not, my lord. 

Hamlet            Why, what should be the fear? 
                        I do not set my life at a pin’s fee, 
                        And for my soul, what can it do to that, 
                        Being a thing immortal as itself? 
                        It waves me forth again. I’ll follow it. 

Hamlet clearly demonstrates his courage and ability to face the profound. He barely pauses to consider the danger and rushes boldly to confront the unknown. He certainly does not appear to be a man prone to delaying his actions from fear or lack of will. 

Now, through the words of Horatio, Shakespeare presents us with a brilliant image of what the ghost is about to do to Hamlet, a sensitive man with the courage to confront the profound: 

Horatio           What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, 
                        Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff 
                        That beetles16 o’er his base into the sea, 
                        And there assume some other horrible form 
                        Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason17 
                        And draw you into madness? Think of it: 
                        The very place puts toys18 of desperation, 
                        Without more motive, into every brain 
                        That looks so many fathoms to the sea 
                        And hears it roar beneath. 

A confrontation with the profound is like standing fully exposed on the edge of a great abyss, a stark encounter with the vast reality beyond, and we must be prepared for it. We must face it with the qualities of universal love and compassion – otherwise it may well put “toys of desperation” into our brain. This, then, is the problem for Hamlet. He is confronting the profound, but instead of meeting it with the spiritual qualities of love and compassion, he tragically accepts the burden of a dangerous poison – the poison of revenge. The will to vengeance together with a mind that fully accepts the truth of our mortal state is a terrifying combination, leading to a fatalistic view of utter desolation. This, then, becomes the tragic consequence of the ghost’s dreadful injunction to Hamlet. 

The scene continues with a dramatic depiction of Hamlet’s courage in facing the unknown. He shakes off the restraints of his two friends and plunges on imperiously. He is compelled to go. 

Hamlet            It waves me still. 
                        Go on, I’ll follow thee. 

Marcellus       You shall not go, my lord. 

Hamlet            Hold off your hands. 

Horatio           Be ruled; you shall not go. 

Hamlet            My fate cries out 
                        And makes each petty artery in this body 
                        As hardy as the Nemean lion’s19 nerve. 
                        Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen. 
                        By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets20 me. 
                        I say away! Go on, I’ll follow thee. 

The ghost leaves with Hamlet, and the scene ends with Horatio and Marcellus resolving to follow them. 


eager  sharp 
takes his rouse  carouses 
wassail  carousal 
upspring  a dance 
Rhenish  Rhine wine 
pledge  toast 
mole blemish  
complexion natural tendency 
pales palisades, fences 
10 o’erleavens  mixes with thoroughly (as leaven works on the entire dough) 
11 plausive pleasing 
12 dram minute amount 
13 canonized consecrated 
14 cerements grave-clothes 
15 impartment communication 
16 beetles projects out, overhangs 
17 deprive your sovereignity of reason remove the supremacy of your reason 
18 toys whims, fancies 
19 Nemean lion mythical lion slain by Hercules 
20 lets  hinders