ACT IV, SCENE IV
The sound of a drum and the entrance of an army tell you that the action is now near the Danish
border, where Fortinbras is leading his men into battle against Poland. You see him for the first time,
sending his captain to the palace to receive Claudius' promised permission to cross Danish territory. His
seven terse lines show him to be responsible, gentlemanly, and skilled in military etiquette. As
Fortinbras leaves, the captain meets Hamlet on his way to his ship. Hamlet stops to talk to him, and the
plain-spoken captain, after identifying the Norwegian troops, says frankly that the land they are fighting
o'er is worthless in all but name. "Why, then the Polack never will defend it," says Hamlet.
But yes, replies the captain, the garrisons of troops are already there. The captain leaves, and Hamlet tells
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the boarding party that he will be along in a moment. In his final
soliloquy Hamlet expresses his shame and amazement that others can act, when he himself cannot. That
Fortinbras, a "delicate and tender prince," is ready to go to war "Even for an
eggshell" gives him a kind of greatness, says Hamlet, for no quarrel is too small when honor is at
stake. A man who does not do what is set down for him by fate is "A beast, no more." Hamlet
who has infinite justification for his action, is shamed by Fortinbras' willingness to sacrifice twenty
thousand men for a plot of land not large enough to bury them. "O, from this time forth," he
concludes, "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" As the soldiers march past in the
opposite direction, Hamlet goes to board his ship for England.
In this final soliloquy you see the same reasoning side of Hamlet
that you saw in his "To be, or not to be" speech. Yet a change
has occurred. The traumatic events that have led to his being shipped
off to England have awakened in Hamlet the realization that there is no
escape from his destiny. His philosophy, which has been on the side of
life, survival, and caution, now is used to justify bravery, war, and
deeds of blood. Not the least surprising thing about Hamlet is that, almost
alone among Shakespeare's tragic heroes, he prepares to confront his fate
with a full knowledge of what it entails, and despite the fact that he
disagrees with it. Though the next few scenes will take you away from
Hamlet and from the fulfillment of his destiny, you feel, with him, that
a decision has been made. At some point he must act. This last view of
Hamlet, decisive and at peace with himself, is meant to stay in your mind
as a prologue to the violence that is soon to come.
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