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Literature Study GuidesHamletAct 1 Scene 4 Summary

Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 4

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains Act 1, Scene 4 in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



Hamlet and Horatio accompany Marcellus on his watch. Near midnight they hear much revelry from within the castle, and Hamlet remarks that the king is drinking and partying again. He talks at length about how such wild behavior has given Denmark a riotous reputation, taking away from the country's strengths and positive qualities.

Hamlet carries the thought further, talking about how one's faults can overwhelm all the positive attributes one has. Hamlet is then stunned by the ghost's appearance and that it indeed appears to be his father. He begs the ghost to speak to him and to tell him why he has come.

In response, the ghost beckons Hamlet to come away with him, which Hamlet is eager to do. Horatio cautions Hamlet not to follow the spirit, fearing it is dangerous. Both Horatio and Marcellus try to stop Hamlet from following, but the prince is determined. He breaks free and follows the ghost. Horatio and Marcellus, in turn, follow Hamlet.


This short, powerful scene at last confronts Hamlet with the ghost. As the scene opens, Hamlet sits in watch with Horatio and Marcellus, listening to boisterous revelry from within the castle that further taints Claudius's character: he is more interested in raucous celebration than in honoring the memory of his dead brother.

Hamlet remarks that this kind of behavior damages Denmark's image with other countries and although Claudius is not the first ruler to indulge in such revelry, he seems to believe that Claudius takes part in it excessively. If nothing else, this sidebar tells us about Claudius and Hamlet's view of his uncle/stepfather.

The scene shifts sharply with the appearance of the ghost. It sets a stark contrast between Hamlet's relationship with his uncle versus his father. He is distant and has a negative view of his uncle, while he is so aligned with his father he will follow him, even in death.

Shakespeare uses this exciting, tension-filled moment to introduce a few important ideas. The first is the depth of Hamlet's sadness. When Horatio cautions him about following the ghost, Hamlet scoffs: "I do not set my life at a pin's fee." This notion of "to be or not to be" will grow louder with each scene, although whether or not Hamlet has the fortitude for action also becomes a point of contention.

The theme of madness is also introduced when Horatio—trying to dissuade Hamlet from following the ghost—suggests it might "deprive your sovereignty of reason [and] draw you into madness." Whether real or feigned, madness becomes central to the play—particularly around Hamlet—and particularly because much of what transpires between the ghost and Hamlet takes place out of sight and earshot of others.

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