Hamlet in Act IV

Act IV of Hamlet, continues with Young Hamlet’s ruse to make others believe him insane.  He has very cunningly pulled this off throughout the play since he made the first decision to act insane.  In Act 4, Scene 2 and Act 4, Scene 3 Hamlet uses riddles in an attempt to both keep up his insane appearance as well as say what he is thinking freely.

In Act 4, Scene 2, when Hamlet is being questioned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the whereabouts of Polonius’s body Hamlet says “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the / body,” (4.2.25-26).  Hamlet is making an allusion to the death of his father by noting that, like Hamlet I, Polonius is now dead as well and is therefore with the (late) King.  Ironically, the current King is not with Polonius though.  Hamlet here, is able to avoid lying to people by using his intelligence.  It’s stated in the play that Hamlet is a scholar, as he goes to school with both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and it is in the scenes where he is acting insane that he true wit is shown. 

Similarly, in Act 4, Scene 3, when Claudius is questioning Hamlet on Polonius’s body, Hamlet replies by saying that he is at supper and responds further with, “Not where he eats, but where a is eaten.  A certain / convocation of politic worms are e’en at him.  Your worm is / your only emperor for diet.”  Hamlet first confuses Claudius by stating that Polonius is “at supper” and then with a touch of genius adds that he is the supper to the worms.  Once again, Hamlet is able to tell the truth, while avoiding answering one’s question head on.  He even insults Claudius in a way, by saying that “your worm is / your only emperor for diet;” essentially that worms eat better than King Claudius because they will eat him once he dies.  Furthermore, it insinuates that Claudius is lower than a worm. 

I firmly believe that Hamlet, as he stated earlier in the play, is still putting on an act.  And it’s through these examples that the reader can recognize this because if Hamlet were truly insane, he’d be less focused and unable to trick those around him so much.  He avoids lying by constantly playing on the events and using puns in his answers.


2 thoughts on “Hamlet in Act IV

  1. karissakeir

    I think you make a good case in your post for Hamlet’s sanity. One of the “problems,” if you want to call it that, with Shakespeare is that everything is told in dialogue, and everything is told from the characters’ points of view. This leaves a lot open to interpretation—which is also one of the best parts of Shakespeare, because it allows people such as actors, directors, and readers to be creative and view things in different ways. However, as an English major, I have to believe that there are certain things contained within the text that give us clues, and I think you did a good job arguing the case for Hamlet’s sanity based on an analysis of his speech. I remember one of the things we discussed in class that seemed to suggest Othello wasn’t mentally stable was the way his speech broke down and both his sentence formation and the logic of those sentences deteriorated. However, despite appearing illogical, Hamlet’s answers are actually so elaborately logical that their meaning is disguised—just as he intended. We could echo, along with Ophelia in 3.2.227, “You are keen, my lord, you are keen.”

  2. jamesfrauenberger

    I thought this was a very good examination of the question of Hamlet’s sanity in Act IV. Like Feste in Twelfth Night, Hamlet disguises the depth of his knowledge and hides his motives through deliberately “insane” language. One major reason why Hamlet is believed insane is because no character in the play can truly understand his wordplay. If Feste, Lear’s fool, or Iago were present in this play, they would presumably understand Hamlet’s act. Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are hardly fit to decode Hamlet’s speeches.


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