Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 1
From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.
1. matter, something of importance, something material; profound, drawn from the depths of your heart, and so deep in significance.
2. translate, explain the meaning of; 'tis fit, it is only right.
4. Bestow ... while, be good enough to leave us alone for a short
6. How does Hamlet? what is the state of Hamlet's mind?
8. which, as to which; on the question which.
10. Whips out, he hastily draws; for the ellipsis of the nominative, see Abb. 399.
11. brainish apprehension, mad-brained fancy; the suffix -ish,
having, as often, a contemptuous signification.
13. It had ... there, I myself should have fared as Polonius has,
if I had been in his place. The king's first thought is a selfish
14. His liberty, the fact of his being allowed to go at large;
threats, risk, danger.
16. how shall ... answer'd, what excuse shall we be able to
make for ourselves in regard to this deed?
17-9. It will man, the blame of the deed will be laid upon us
for not having used the precaution of keeping this madman under
restraint where he could not have come in contact with anyone;
short, "opposed to loose, iv. 3. 2" (Cl. Pr. Edd.).
20. We ... understand, we deliberately refused to perceive: we
purposely shut our eyes to; the king cannot help being a hypocrite even to himself and his queen.
21. owner, one subject to.
22. To keep ... divulging, rather than let it be known.
23. pith of life, the vital parts.
24. To draw apart, to put out of the way so that no harm may
come to it.
25-7. O'er whom ... done, over which he shed tears of repentance, his very madness showing in this a touch of soundness, like a vein of pure ore in the midst of mines of base metal; ore, probably used for the finest of ores, gold; for mineral, = mine,
Steevens compares Hall's Satires, "Shall it not be a wild-fig in a
wall, Or fired brimstone in a minerall?" Staunton takes the word
for metallic vein, lode.
29. shall ... touch, gild the mountains with its first rays.
30. But, than.
31, 2. We must, ... excuse, we must use all our authority as
king to put a good face upon, and all our skill in special pleading
to excuse, the deed; cp. Macb. iii. 1. 118-20, "Though I could
With barefaced power sweep him from my sight, And bid my
will avouch it, yet I must not For certain friends that are both
his and mine," i.e. because of motives of policy.
33. join you ... aid, take others to help you.
36. speak fair, use gentle language to him.
38. call up, summon to our assistance.
40. so, haply, slander, in that way if we take those measures,
perhaps slander; the quartos and folios here mark a hiatus;
Theobald conjectured 'for, haply, slander,' which, with Capell's
substitution of 'so' for 'for,' has been accepted by most modern
41-4. Whose whisper ... air, whose poisonous whisper flies from
end to end of the world as unerringly and as fatally as the cannonball to its mark, may pass by us and only hit the air which feels no wound; blank, the white disc, now the 'gold,' in a target,
from F. blanc, white; for woundless air, cp. Macb. v. 8. 9,
"the intrenchant air."
45. discord, in not knowing what course to take, one moment suggesting one, another moment suggesting another; dismay, in anticipating what others may do in consequence of
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_4_1.html >.
How to cite the scene review questions:
Mabillard, Amanda. Hamlet: Scene Questions for Review. Shakespeare Online. 27 Dec. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_4_1.html >.
Scene Questions for Review
1. There is some ambiguity as to what extent Gertrude believes Hamlet, but here (lines 8-10) she clearly lies to shield her son from the wrath of Claudius. In the first printed version of the play, known as Q1, there is a scene between Horatio and Gertrude in which Gertrude elaborates on her feelings. You can read the scene here. Why do you think Shakespeare chose to cut this scene from his revised edition of the play, known as Q2 (the one upon which modern editions are based)?
2. How would you describe Claudius' reaction to the murder? Does he show any grief over the death of Polonius? His own safety is foremost on his mind, but can we find a note of sympathy in his first words after he learns of Polonius' death -- "O, heavy deed!"?
3. Do you think Gertrude is telling the truth when she says Hamlet "weeps for what is done", or is she again trying to soften Hamlet's offense? We know Hamlet is remorseful (see 3.4.170-174 and 5.2.215-224). Perhaps Gertrude is speaking metaphorically?
4. Does Claudius' emphatic "O Gertrude, come away!" show he does not believe her? In some productions of the play Claudius is angry; in others Claudius maintains a loving tone. Which do you think is more plausible given the circumstances?
5. In Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, Henry Norman Hudson writes that Shakespeare "beats all other poets, ancient and modern, in constructing metaphors upon the most subtle, delicate, and unobvious analogies." Here Claudius expresses the simple thought that he hopes he will not be blamed for the murder of Polonius with just such a metaphor (lines 40-44). Can you paraphrase this passage?
6. Why do you think Claudius now thinks it is necessary to "call up" his "wisest friends?" Keep in mind that Polonius was Lord Chamberlain, and thus the most important official of Claudius' Court.
Do You Agree? ... In Hamlet "there are contradictions in detail which arise from haste and carelessness; there is obscurity as regards the motives and relations of the characters, which arises from an indifference to the questionings of a spectator who should be also a thinker or reader -- if indeed
Shakespeare ever thought of reader at all. There is the contradiction between Hamlet's two accounts of the reason for his affront to Laertes, on the one hand; there is the utter failure to clear up Hamlet's relation
to Ophelia, on the other. Much of what I have just said may almost equally well be said of other plays of Shakespeare's, especially of King Lear; but it is true in a special sense of Hamlet. Indeed, in the wildest of all vagaries of critical enthusiasm, the obscurity of the play has been made out to be one of its superlative virtues." (Elmer Edgar Stoll. Hamlet: An Historical and Comparative Study, p. 71)
Essential Resources ... Explore our Shakespeare Glossary and find the meanings of old and unusual words used in Elizabethan England and, of course, in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Just what is a rabbit-sucker anyway? The Shakespeare Glossary.