The purpose of this paper is to explicate a soliloquy spoken by Hamlet in Act IV, scene IV, lines 32-66 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. This soliloquy illustrates a significant change in Hamlet’s personality. Up until this point, Hamlet maintains his act of madness and insults everyone he meets. He is very indecisive and submissive. For example, in Act II, Hamlet resolves that “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II. ii. 58-59).
However, following the play-within-the-play and Claudius’s obvious admission to guilt, Hamlet is still very ambivalent and cannot decide what action to take against Claudius. When Hamlet stumbles onto Claudius praying, he does not kill Claudius because he “scans,” or analyzes, his plot for revenge and then decides to postpone it until a more opportune time (III. iii. 74-97). Hamlet further demonstrates submissiveness and inaction when, after killing Polonius (III. iv. 32-27), he obeys the kings instructions to go to England (IV. iv. 38-44).Order now
On the way to England, Hamlet encounters Fortinbras’s captain, who informs Hamlet that he and his soldiers are on their way to Poland to conquer an insignificant plot of land (IV. iv. 18-22). Upon hearing this, Hamlet realizes that while Fortinbras’s army is going to war over a trivial matter, Hamlet, who has much better reasons to “go to war,” is sitting back and doing nothing. Hamlet realizes that he has been very passive and hesitant due to excessive analysis of his thoughts.
He resolves to give up reflection, feeling that, thus far, it has only led to cowardice. Hamlet vows to become more aggressive and to think only “bloody” thoughts from this moment on (IV. iv. 32-36). In this soliloquy, Hamlet ponders the difference between men and beasts, the reasons for which he has delayed his revenge, and the way in which Fortinbras, despite being detestable in terms of his ambition, provides Hamlet with an example to follow.
Hamlet begins his soliloquy by exclaiming, “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge!” (IV. iv. 32-33) Hamlet has been very listless and hesitant in carrying out his plans for revenge on Claudius, and he believes that everything is working against him to propel him to rise and to take action. Hamlet asks, “What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more” (IV. iv. 33-35).
In saying this, Hamlet deducts that a person who does nothing with his life except to sleep and eat is like a dull-witted animal, and nothing else. Hamlet believes that certainly God, who when creating man gave him “such large discourse” (IV. iv. 36), or reasoning power, and the capability of planning the future and remembering the past, didn’t give man these capabilities to “fust” and to remain “unused” (IV. iv. 39). Hamlet realizes that he has not been utilizing these capabilities. He says:
Now, whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event, — a thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward, — I do not know why yet I live to say ‘this thing’s to do,’ sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, to do’t. (IV. iv. 40-46)
Since Hamlet has a motive, the will, the strength, and the means to carry out his plans for revenge, he doesn’t know what is causing him to be so hesitant, whether it be demented carelessness or the cowardly scruple of thinking too much about the situation. Hamlet believes that if his former reasons for hesitancy were broken down into four parts, there would be only be one part wisdom and three parts cowardice. He realizes that by over-analyzing his thoughts and intentions, he has been acting like more of a coward than wasting his God-given gift of reasoning, along with his time.
Hamlet tells the audience:
Examples gross as earth exhort me: witness this army, of such mass and charge, led by a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit with divine ambition puffed makes mouths at the invisible event, exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare, even for a egg-shell. (IV. iv. 46-53)
Hamlet compares his inaction to date with Fortinbras’ action. Although Hamlet does not admire Fortinbras’s god-like ambition, he cannot help but to envy his fearlessness. While Hamlet fears the future, Fortinbras has a cavalier attitude towards the unseen outcome that his army faces. He pays little heed to the act of exposing his men, who are mortal and apprehensive, to luck, death, and dangerous heroics.
Hamlet comes to the conclusion that “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honor’s at the stake” (IV. iv. 53-56). In other words, To be truly noble, one must not take action without a great cause, but he or she should nobly recognize an argument, no matter how small, when honor is at stake. In comparing himself to this ideal, Hamlet relates:
How stand I then, that have a father killed, a mother stained, excitements beyond my reason and my blood, and let all sleep, while to my shame I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men that for a fantasy and trick of fame go to their graves like beds, fight for plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain? (IV. iv. 56-65)
Hamlet is ashamed of his hesitancy and passiveness. He realizes that he has plenty of cause to take action. His father has been murdered and his mother has been “corrupted” by an adulterous relationship. These occurrences are causing Hamlet both mental and physical anguish, yet he allows everyone to go without punishment. Hamlet also becomes ashamed when he compares himself to Fortinbras’s army. Hamlet foresees the impending death of these twenty thousand men who, for illusion and frivolous moment of fame, go to their graves as easily as they go to bed at night.
Hamlet says that the men will be fighting for plots in such numbers that there will not be enough space on the battlefield to hide their slaughtered bodies.
Hamlet makes a vow that, “from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV. iv. 65-66) Hamlet decides to cast aside his hesitant and reflective nature, and to finally take action. He swears that from this point on, his thoughts will be murderous or be worth nothing.
Following this soliloquy, Hamlet becomes much more rebellious and aggressive. For example, in Hamlet’s letters to Horatio and Claudius, Hamlet appears to be much more decisive and rash. He writes to Horatio to tell him that he has single-handedly boarded a pirate ship, has been captured, and has made a deal with them to take him back to home to Denmark. These actions are eminently unlike the character of Hamlet that was witnessed in the previous scenes. Hamlet also writes a letter to Claudius, which is very sarcastic and taunting. In it, Hamlet uses expressions such as “high and mighty” and “your kingly eyes” (IV. vii. 43-44), which seem to be mocking the king.
The final example of how Hamlet’s character drastically changed at the conclusion of the novel is when he enters into the duel with Laertes. Horatio warns Hamlet that he “will lose this wager” (V. ii. 184), however Hamlet replies:
We defy augury: there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all; since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be (V. ii. 193-197).
Hamlet realizes that he probably will not survive the duel with Laertes, yet he decides to fight Laertes anyway, saying, “let it be.” Hamlet resolves that he can no longer fear the uncertainty of the future, and he decides to finally take action and to avenge his father’s murder.