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ACT IV SCENE IVA plain in Denmark.
Enter FORTINBRAS, a Captain, and Soldiers, marching.
PRINCE FORTINBRASGo, captain, from me greet the Danish king;
Tell him that, by his licence, Fortinbras
Craves the conveyance of a promised march
Over his kingdom. You know the rendezvous.
If that his majesty would aught with us,
We shall express our duty in his eye;
And let him know so.
CaptainI will do’t, my lord.
Exeunt FORTINBRAS and Soldiers.
HAMLETGood sir, whose powers are these?
CaptainThey are of Norway, sir. 10
HAMLETHow purposed, sir, I pray you?
CaptainAgainst some part of Poland.
HAMLETWho commands them, sir?
CaptainThe nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.
HAMLETGoes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?
CaptainTruly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it; 20
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.
HAMLETWhy, then the Polack never will defend it.
CaptainYes, it is already garrison’d.
HAMLETTwo thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
CaptainGod be wi’ you, sir.
ROSENCRANTZWill’t please you go, my lord? 30
HAMLETI’ll be with you straight go a little before.
Exeunt all except HAMLET.
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple 40
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, 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. 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 puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event, 50
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men, 60
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Next: Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5


Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 4

From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.


1. from me greet, bear my greetings to.

2. by his license, if he will allow it.

3, 4. Craves … kingdom, desires that, according to promise, he may be allowed to transport his forces across Denmark: the rendezvous, the appointed place of meeting; Fr. rendez, 2nd person plural, imperative, of rendre, to render, bring, and vous, the plural of the 2nd personal pronoun; a military term for the place appointed for soldiers to assemble.

5. would … us, wishes to see us for any purpose.

6. We shall … eye, we shall be ready to appear before him in person and do homage to him; for in his eye, Steevens compares A. C. ii. 2. 212, “Her gentlewomen … tended her i’ the eyes,” and says “the phrase seems to have been a formulary for the royal presence.”

7. And let him know so, and therefore tell him so. For this change of construction, cp. M. A. v. 1. 303, 4, “I do embrace your offer; and dispose (i.e. do you dispose) For henceforth of poor Claudio. ”

8. softly, slowly; i.e. with the troops under your command.

9. powers, forces; as frequently in Shakespeare.

10. of Norway, belonging to Norway.

11. How purposed, with what object have they marched hither?

15, 6. Goes it … frontier? is the expedition directed against the mainland of Poland, or only some outlying portion of that kingdom?

17. with no addition, without exaggeration.

18. to gain, to make ourselves masters of.

19. That hath … name, whose only value lies in the name of possession.

20. To pay … it, I would not pay five ducats, not even five, for the lease of it.

21. Norway, the king of Norway.

22. ranker, higher; literally more exuberant in growth; sold in fee, sold out and out, not merely farmed; a ‘fee’ originally signified an estate feudally held of another person, and an estate in fee simple is the greatest estate or interest which the law of England allows any person to possess in landed property.

23. then, if it is worth no more than that.

25, 6. Two thousand … straw, the decision of this petty quarrel will cost the lives of at least two thousand men, and the waste of, etc.; for debate, = decide by combat, cp. Lucr: 1421, “It seem’d they would debate with angry swords”; the word is from the O. F. debatre, to beat down.

27-9. This is … dies, this morbid desire in the body politic to quarrel about nothing, a desire due to superabundance of wealth and the idleness of a long peace, is like an abscess in the physical body which bursts inwardly without showing any visible cause of the man’s death; i.e. this readiness to quarrel merely for the sake of quarrelling shows an unhealthy condition in a state; so, in i. H. IV. iv. 2. 32, the idle, discontented, fellows whom Falstaff enlists are called “the cankers of a calm world and a long peace“;
imposthume, from “O.F. apostume, an ‘inward swelling full of corrupt matter’; Cot. — Lat. apostema, an abscess. – Greek…[] a standing away from; hence a separation of corrupt matter …. Here the prefix im – is due to mere corruption” (Skeat, Ety. Dict.). Cp. Beaumont and Fletcher, Four Plays in One, “the two imposthumes That choke a kingdom’s welfare, — ease and wantonness.”

30. God … you, merely a courteous form of bidding farewell.

32. How all … me, how everything that happens seems to denounce my irresolution! inform against me, being a charge against me as informers do against guilty persons; cp. R. II. ii. 1. 242, “what they will inform … ‘gainst any of us all.” [Please click here for analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquy.]

34. market of his time, that for which he brings his time for sale as beasts are brought on market-day.

35. a beast, no more, thus making himself no better than a brute beast.

36, 7. made us … after, endowed us with such comprehensive faculties, faculties which concern themselves with both the future and the past; not like those of brute beasts which seem concerned with the present moment only.

39. to fust, to grow fusty, mouldy; literally ‘tasting of the cask,’ from O. F. fuste, a cask.

40. craven, cowardly: literally one who sues for mercy.

41. Of thinking, which consists in thinking: precisely, minutely.

42. 3. A thought … coward, a mode of thinking which, if quartered, will be found to be made up of one part of wisdom to three parts of cowardice.

44. ‘This … do,’ this act still remains to be done; for the infinitive active where we use the passive, see Abb. § 359.

46. Examples … me, so plain and material that the dullest man could not fail to recognize them as such.

47. Witness, for instance; literally ‘let this army witness’; charge, cost.

48. delicate and tender, brought up in ease and luxury, and so not naturally inclined to such rough work.

50. Makes … event, laughs at the possible consequences; cp. ii. 2. .344, “makes mows.”

51. mortal, liable to death.

53. an egg-shell, the merest, most worthless, trifle.

54. Is not to stir, Furness thinks that the negative belongs to the copula, and that there should be a comma after notargument, cause of quarrel.

55. But greatly … straw, but to be prompt to find in the slightest trifle provocation for fighting. [Please click here for further analysis of Fortinbras’ motivation.]

51. When … stake, when honour is concerned; when it is honour that is the subject of attack; cp. T. N. iii. 1. 129, “Have you not set mine honour at the stake And baited it with all unmuzzled thoughts…?” Schmidt takes at the stake, as equivalent to ‘at stake,’ as in Oth. iv. 2. 13.

56-9. How stand … sleep? how unworthy is my position, then, who though my father has been murdered and my mother’s good fame destroyed, — facts which should be sufficient to stir both my reason and my passion, — still allow things to remain exactly as they were without making the smallest effort to remedy them.

61. for a … fame, for the sake of such a fanciful whim as the desire of fame; for trick, in this sense, cp. M. M. iii. 1. 114, “Why would he for a momentary trick Be perdurably fined?” Schmidt takes trick as = trifle, as in Cor. iv. 4. 21. [Please click here for more on the problem this passage presents.]

62. like beds, as readily as they would to their beds: plot, small strip of land.

63. Whereon … cause, too small to hold the combatants for it.

64. which is … continent, which is not large enough to be the tomb and cover; continent, that which contains; cp. A. C. iv. 4. 40, “Heart once be stronger than thy continent, Crack thy frail case!”

How to cite the explanatory notes:Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1919.