Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act Four

Hello, everyone—

Act IV of Hamlet is *literally* drenched with emotion. Hamlet is sent away to England to be hanged, Ophelia drowns in a stream, and Laertes rushes to carry out vengeance on the prince. It’s a tense, melancholy, yet memorable scene that, like all the rest, are infused with literary wisdom. Here’s a fresh batch of quotes from this beautiful act. Enjoy!

(Note: All quotes are taken from my CliffsComplete edition of Hamlet.)

“Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so, my mother.” ~Prince Hamlet, Act IV, Scene III, Lines 53-54

Modern Translation: “Since my father and mother are man and wife, and since man and wife are one flesh, I shall say goodbye only to my mother (i.e., only his mother and not Claudius).”

Hamlet’s statement here is one of the most explicit allusions to the Bible in the entire play. He starts a logical progression from parenthood to marriage to marital union, and within that process he subtly convicts Claudius—his uncle-slash-stepfather—of his incest. In fact, conviction and subtlety permeates throughout the angry interrogations from the new king to Hamlet’s witty and piercing replies…which makes the conversation delightful yet suspenseful to watch and read.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” ~Genesis 2:24, NKJV

“This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace, that inward breaks, and shows no case without why the man dies.” ~Prince Hamlet, Act IV, Scene IV, Lines 27-29

Modern Translation (italicized portion from CliffsComplete edition): “This is the festering sore of much wealth and peace—it breaks inwardly, and vast armies die for no reason.”

Hamlet is here commenting on the actions of Norwegian prince Fortinbras, who is leading his men to fight for “a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.” After he hears that Norway is overtaking Polish land merely for selfish ambition, Prince Hamlet is appalled by his fellow royal’s rash behavior. Fortinbras’ men are dying simply to please Fortinbras, muses the Dane, but their efforts will only be in vain. The prince of Norway will be satisfied for a bit, and then want more. The royal system will thus break from the inside out, simply due to much wealth and “peace.”

“There is one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing; And one who makes himself poor, yet has great riches.” ~Proverbs 13:7, NKJV

“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.” ~Prince Hamlet, Act IV, Scene IV, Lines 33-39

Modern Translation (italicized portions from Folger copy): “What is the ultimate significance of man, if all he does is eat and sleep? He would be no more than a beast. Surely the One who made us did not give us the power of thought that looks into the past and the future to become moldy from neglect.”

This has a similar tone to Hamlet’s statement about the value of humanity in Act II (“What a piece of work is a man…”). But his observation in Act IV, at the beginning of his last soliloquy, gives us a more concrete reason for man’s superiority over nature. Unlike the animals, who only “sleep and feed,” man can think, decidetake action on an issue. In considering that, Hamlet is disgusted at himself for not murdering his uncle and in turn bringing justice to the rotten state of Denmark.

“What is man, that You should exalt him, that You should set Your heart on him, that You should visit him every morning, and test him every moment?” ~Job 7:16-17, NKJV

“So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt.” ~Queen Gertrude, Act IV, Scene V, Lines 19-20

Modern Translation (italicized portions from the CliffsComplete edition): “Guilt is so full of uncontrolled suspicion that it is revealed by its very efforts to conceal itself.”

Queen Gertrude’s insight reminds me of Adam and Eve’s behavior shortly after the Fall. God steps down into Eden and gives man a chance to repent, only to see both Adam and Eve refuse the offer of forgiveness. Adam blames Eve for his sin, Eve blames the serpent, and the devil stands there bemused. In the midst of this, though, God saw right through His first children’s game of hide-and-seek, cursing the earth, humans, and animals. Not only that; but whenever we attempt to hide our own guilt, He can see through us just as well.

“…[Y]our sin will find you out.” ~Numbers 32:23, NKJV

“A sister driven into desperate terms, whose worth, if praises may go back again, stood challenger on mount of all the age for her perfections.” ~Laertes, Act IV, Scene VII, Lines 26-29

Modern Translation (italicized portions from my Folger copy): “A sister driven into madness, whose worth, if I may praise what she used to be, challenged all the age to equal her excellence.

Although I do not wish to be driven into madness, Laertes’ praise for his sister has an air of sincerity and awe surrounding it. His and the queen’s ardent, genuine, and often-mentioned love for Ophelia convinces us that she must have brought beauty and joy to the world (albeit fictional) around her…which is why I always sign all my Hamlet posts with her name.

“Let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves.” ~First Peter 3:4-5a, NKJV

Before I conclude this post, I’d just like to recommend a clip of Hamlet’s sixth and last soliloquy, which is a part of Act IV. It’s one of my favorites:) Enjoy!


~Sarah Merly


November 11, 2017

Isaiah 53