Act I, Scene iv

Synopsis of Hamlet Act I scene iv

Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are waiting in the cold midnight air to see if the Ghost will appear again.

They hear drums, trumpets and the sound of a cannon, which signal that the King is drinking celebratory toasts, as he announced he would at the end of Act I scene ii. Hamlet comments at length upon the poorHamlet sees the ghost of his fatherreputation that Danes have abroad because of their excessive drinking, which undermines any good qualities they might otherwise be known for.

Suddenly the ghost of Hamlet's father appears. Hamlet is not sure whether it is a good spirit or a demon sent to tempt him, but as it looks so like his father that he determines to speak with it. The Ghost wants Hamlet to follow it; the others try to stop Hamlet, as they fear he is in danger, but he throws them off and goes with the Ghost.

Commentary on Hamlet Act I scene iv

A custom /More honoured in the breach than the observance - Hamlet feels that there are some habits which are dishonourable, and we are better for giving them up (c.f. Act III scene iv where Hamlet berates his mother about her ‘custom' of sleeping with Claudius).

In the general censure take corruption - Hamlet means that such a flaw will ruin the man's public reputation. The reference here to ‘corruption' links with the recurrent image in the play of decay and corruption, both spiritual and physical. (See Imagery and symbolism: Corruption and disease).

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!Angels are heavenly beings, messengers of God. As such they bring (or ‘minister') to people the grace of God. (See Themes and significant ideas: Grace).

More on the Christian universe: As so often in the play, references to the Christian universe in which Hamlet is set form an essential background to the debate about revenge which runs through the play. (See Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell, and judgement; Mercy and forgiveness).

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell - Hamlet is not certain whether this is a good or evil spirit. He continues to have his doubts until the play ‘The Mousetrap' (in Act III scene ii) apparently convinces him. However, immediately after that play Hamlet kills Polonius, and then sees the Ghost again. The audience must continue to question the nature of the Ghost's commands to Hamlet. (See Critical analysis: A worked example).

More on attitudes to ghosts: There has been much discussion about the theological background to the nature of the ghost and the possible attitudes of late sixteenth- / early seventeenth-century audiences. Catholics could readily believe in ghosts as spirits of the dead from purgatory (see Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement) whereas Protestants, who did not believe in purgatory, saw them as devils.

Hamlet was written for a Protestant audience, but since many of them would still have Catholic beliefs, they would have appreciated Hamlet's dilemma.

For a fuller discussion of the religious background, and the divisions between Catholics and Protestants in sixteenth-century England, see Religious/philosophical context: The Reformation.

For my soul, what can it do to that, /Being a thing immortal - the belief that each human being possesses an immortal soul which continues to exist after death is a central teaching of Christianity.

More on the Christian universe ii): By setting this play in a Christian universe, Shakespeare ensures that the audience, as well as the characters within the drama, have to consider the effects of actions in this life, such as murder, not just in the context of human justice, but in the context of God's judgement and the salvation or damnation of the soul. It is this thought which so exercises Claudius when he tries to pray in Act III scene iii.

Deprive your sovereignty of reason - i.e. make you mad. The head, as the seat of reason, was compared to the sovereign, or ruler, who is head of the ‘body politic' — see Act I scene iii: Going deeper.

The idea that the Ghost might send Hamlet mad raises one of the crucial questions of the play: does Hamlet really go mad later, or is it pretence? (See Characterisation: Hamlet and Critical analysis: A worked example).

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - Marcellus senses that Denmark is corrupt. Given that ‘Denmark' can mean ‘the King' as well as the country, this is a particularly prophetic comment. Horatio's conviction that ‘heaven will direct it' is yet another reminder that the play is set in a universe where God's judgement and grace have a bearing on events.

Investigating Hamlet Act I scene iv
  • Compare Hamlet's speeches in this scene. In his discussions with Horatio he appears to have a thoughtful and philosophical nature.
    • How does his language change when the Ghost appears?
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