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PLOT SUMMARY / ONLINE NOTES: HAMLET BY SHAKESPEARE
ACT IV, SCENE 1
Queen Gertrude reveals to Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius in a fit of madness. Claudius, realizing this murder must have been meant for him, is greatly agitated. He cunningly magnifies Hamlet's insanity and the threat that it now poses, justifying his decision to send Hamlet away to England. Claudius then calls back Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and tells the courtiers about Polonius. He instructs them to see that the Chamberlain's dead body is taken to the chapel. Claudius, still trying to protect himself, then tells Gertrude that they must call their friends and tell them what has transpired and what they intend to do about it. In this way, they will secure themselves against malicious slander and will not be held responsible for the Chamberlain's death.
The Queen reveals to Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius, who was hiding behind the arras in her room. She does not tell him that Hamlet suspects Claudius of killing the King; instead she states that she is convinced that Hamlet is mad.
Even though the Queen seems to be protecting Hamlet, her regard for Claudius seems undiminished in spite of her son's accusations. In typical fashion, Claudius is only concerned with saving his own skin. He now knows for sure that Hamlet constitutes a real threat to him and is more eager than ever to send the Prince off to England. He justifies his action by saying that Hamlet is a potential threat to the lives of his subjects. Like a good king, he will protect them from the madness of the Prince. The death of Polonius has provided Claudius with the perfect opportunity of getting rid of his most dangerous foe.
ACT IV, SCENE 2
In another room of the castle, Hamlet hides Polonius' body. He then greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have come in search of him. Once again filled with contempt at the dishonesty of his childhood friends, he refuses to answer their queries. He simply tells them that he has "compounded" the body of Polonius with dust. He then openly derides them as sponges, ready to soak up "the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities." He warns them that Claudius will squeeze them dry when he no longer needs them. Hamlet does not tell them where he has hidden the dead body, but he does agree to meet the King.
Primarily, this scene reveals Hamlet's increasing animosity toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his childhood friends whom he believes have deserted him in favor of service to Claudius. He uses deliberately confusing and involved language with them, in order to further persuade them he is mad. He also insults the King in their presence. Structurally, this scene functions as a bridge between the plotting of the King against Hamlet and Hamlet's attempt to murder the King.