Hamlet Monologue (Act 4 Scene 4) | How all occasions do inform against me
How all occasions do inform against me

Hamlet Monologue (Act 4 Scene 4)

Written by on | Monologues Unpacked

 

Today we are exploring one of Hamlet’s most iconic monologues. This is Hamlet’s monologue from Act 4 Scene 4 and is the final of seven soliloquies from the play. Like in all of his soliloquies, Hamlet is in direct communication with the audience and in these moments we get access to his inner thoughts. This can be a tricky element of performing this monologue, as most actors aren’t used to direct-address. However, finding that relationship with the audience and allowing them into your imaginary world is vital.

This is Hamlet’s final soliloquy and happens near the end of the play. Therefore, it must capture the pent up frustration, emotion and tension of his mental state. Reading the play regularly and really understanding the context will help you immensely in performance.

Though most of the monologue is characteristically equivocal, it does conclude with two of his most decisive lines from the play “O, from this time forth, | My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth. You could argue this monologue represents a major turning point for Hamlet.

What is that inner journey? And how do you get to that turning point during the monologue? Well, that is your challenge!

It is a tricky monologue, but when done well it can be a showstopper in performance, or in an audition context. So without further ado, let’s take a look at this iconic monologue from Act 4 Scene 4 and hopefully help you bring it to life for your next audition or performance.

Where are we?

In the play, it is listed as “a plain in Denmark”. As you will see in Kenneth Branagh’s version below, that is generally interpreted as an open, vast, and rather cold setting in the sparse Danish wilderness. I believe the important element here, is that it is an ambiguous space, in which Hamlet has no direct relationship. This is the opposite of many other scenes in the play.

Who are we talking to?

The audience. As I mentioned in the introduction, this is a soliloquy, which means Hamlet is talking to the audience. In David Tennant’s version below, when performing on-screen it could mean communicating directly to the camera.

What is Hamlet’s state of mind?

This is the million-dollar question, and anyone who thinks they know what is going on inside Hamlet’s mind has no idea what they are talking about. Hamlet is one of the most difficult characters to unpack in all of English literature, and scholars, critics and actors have disagreed on every element of Hamlet since the play was first performed. There is even evidence that Shakespeare himself wrestled with the character and continued to rewrite the play all throughout his career.

However, the reality of the situation is that he has just heard from a Captain that the Norwegian army is about to go to war, fighting for an eggshell (a worthless piece of land).

He is certainly struck by this, and a philosophical conundrum follows where Hamlet wrestles with the nature of man, and his own relationship to honour, revenge and action. It also sets up a comparison between himself and the Prince, who represents everything Hamlet is not. He is perhaps feeling anger and even embarrassment at how this “tender prince” is so willing to risk his life without being stirred by “great argument” — whilst he is doing nothing with his own situation. This is ANOTHER provocation to Hamlet to finally take action when he himself has been motivated by so many “excitements of [his] reason and [his] blood”. The spectrum from philosophical pondering to fired-up determination is something every actor must consider in playing. I think both need to be present for this monologue to come to life, but we cannot lean too heavily into one mode. Hamlet refuses uniformity, and no Hamlet monologue will succeed if you limit him to just one character choice throughout.

What has JUST happened?

Hamlet is in conversation with a Captain of the Norwegian army, who is talking about how they are about to fight for a “straw” (a piece of land not worth fighting over). Hamlet appears curious during this chat, almost in disbelief.

The Captain leaves and Rosencrantz (Hamlet’s “friend”) approaches saying:

“Will’t please you go, my lord?” – encouraging Hamlet to keep moving.

Hamlet responds: “I’ll be with you straight. Go a little before”.

Once Rosencrantz has left we begin…

Hamlet Act 4 Scene 4 (Original Text)

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 godlike reason
To fust in us unused. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’event
(A thought which quartered 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 puffed,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. 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 killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep; while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
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.

(Exit)

Unfamiliar words/phrases

inform: bring evidence
dull: inactive
market: profit (like in marketing)
discourse: faculty of understanding
fust: grow mouldy
oblivion: forgetfulness, mindlessness
scruple: introspective doubt
craven: coward
craven scruple: cowardly hesitation
event: outcome
gross: heavy, but here obvious
mass: large amount
charge: expense, outlay
delicate: sensitive
make mouths at the invisible event: make scornful faces at the unseen outcomes
dare: present, inflict
eggshell: something worthless
argument: reason
greatly: nobly
quarrel: reason for hostility
stain: taint, defiled
excitement: encouragement, incentive
reason: common sense, power of reasoning
blood: passion, strong feeling
fantasy and trick of fame: illusion and trifle (little bit) of reputation
try: contest, fight out
continent: enclosure, container

Tools for looking up Shakespeare’s words

When unpacking a Shakespeare monologue I always use a combination of the following:

  1. Shakespeare’s Words (Ben and David Crystal)
  2. Cambridge Dictionary (Standard Dictionary, totally free)
  3. Etymonline (Etymology dictionary, for finding the history of a word)
  4. Glossing (notes at the bottom of the plays – StageMilk recommends Arden versions)
  5. You can also look at other Shakespeare lexicons (C.T. Onions + A. Schmidt are the OGs)

Hamlet Act 4 Scene 4 Translation/Analysis

Introduction to analysis

Hopefully, you are already starting to deepen your understanding of this monologue. However, understanding the context, and knowing what all the words mean, isn’t quite enough to really bring clarity to Shakespeare’s extremely complex, knotty thoughts. Here I will do my best to offer an analysis of the monologue thought by thought.

I have broken the monologue into sections that I believe represent the core thoughts or beats of the piece.

I want to be very honest about my analysis: this is just MY interpretation. Though I work a great deal on Shakespeare’s text as an actor and teacher, I still have so much to learn. I caution you to NOT to take this as gospel, but simply another opinion.

Many interpretations of Shakespeare are put forward as absolute — as if there is one way to look at a particular monologue — and that is just nonsense. This entire play is still hotly debated among leading scholars and academics. Avoid gripping too tightly to any one interpretation and always trust your own impulses and instincts when working with Shakespeare’s text.

In this vein, I hope in some instances my questioning is as helpful as my explanations. Enjoy!

How all occasions do inform against me
And spur my dull revenge.

Everything around Hamlet is spurring him on, almost accusing him of not taking action against his father’s murderer. First, there was the player who is referenced in Hamlet’s Act 2 Scene 2 monologue, and now again in this situation with Fortinbras. All occasions are “informing against” him. It’s almost like the universe is trying to get him back on task and rekindle his dull (inactive) revenge.

“Occasions” was one word I struggled with in breaking down this monologue. Does it simply mean “situations” or “events”? In one glossary it was defined as “course of events”, which would support this. I think most interpretations take it like this, but something about it still leaves me unsatisfied. If they are the events, is it the events of the players and Fortinbras, or the broader events of his father’s death etc? Or is it just everything! Does it just feel like everything is closing in on Hamlet? This may seem trivial, but I think getting specific about what exactly Hamlet means when he says “occasions” is important.

Though I am still wrestling with this one, it is clear that the start of the monologue inspired by what he has just heard from the Captain about how the Norwegian army is fighting for a “straw” (a worthless piece of land). Hearing about the “imminent death of twenty thousand men” who are killing themselves for a “trick of fame” makes Hamlet realise how little motivation some people need to go to war, and here he is, with all the motivation in the world and yet he can’t do anything. This immediate situation is a “gross” example and definitely spurring him on. Perhaps it is the final straw of all the “occasions” that have happened since he promised his father he would take revenge.

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Here Hamlet is having one of his classic philosophical moments. He is discussing the value of a man if his “profit” or “worth” is just to sleep and eat, like an animal. Any half-ambitious human has at some stage in their life considered this. It is the notion that life is like a business and we make a profit from it; maybe that is making money, creating art or contributing to society. For a Prince such as Hamlet, the idea that the goal of life is to simply lie on the couch eating twisties, is detestable. I talked through that line at some length as I struggled with “market” in my own evaluation, so I hope something in there is helpful.

Remember as well that this section is NOT just a philosophical investigation, but also a personal attack as well. He is deeply frustrated about his own inaction. And he is becoming one of the people that he detests.

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused.

The sense of the first line is fairly easy, once understood, though early on I was confused about the “he”. That is a reference to God, so that the first line sits something like this in modern English: Certainly, the god that created us with such incredible mental faculties.

The second line threw me for a while, and there still lingers some ambiguity. I thought it was god looking before and after, like god being beyond time (maybe being able to look into the past and future) and I still like this, but most academics agree that it’s humans having the capacity to have memories (before) and look into the future (after). So looking before and after is talking about humans ability which connects to large discourse. One interpretation I read is even more specific, stating that it could be the ability for humans to learn from their past.

So then to finish this whole thought could be translated something like this: God didn’t give us not this incredible brain and mental ability, this capacity to learn from our memories and make our own futures, just to be wasted and go mouldy in us.

Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’event
(A thought which quartered 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.

Direct translation:

Now whether it is animal-like forgetfulness/mindlessness or some overly pedantic cowardly thinking on the future outcome. (Which to be honest those thoughts worriers have are in reality usually a small part based on wisdom and mainly just stem from fear). I am not sure why I am continuing to say to myself “I should do this thing!” since I have the motivation, the willpower, the strength and the means to do it.

“Do it” here meaning to take revenge and kill his uncle Claudius.

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 puffed,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell.

Direct translation:

Examples as obvious/blatant as this one with Fortinbras encourage me to action within my own life. Look at this big and expensive army, which is lead by a sensitive or inexperienced (I prefer this) prince, who with his mind focused on doing something ambitious, has given him a puffed up strength, so that he scorns the risks of going to war! And by doing so he is exposing his mortal self to the dangers that the future event, including possible death and certain dangers of fighting, even for a terrible piece of land (the eggshell).

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.

This is a hotly debated section of the monologue, and it still proves difficult for me. As far I can determine there are three main interpretations:

  1. Truly great men only stir into action (war or a fight) for good reason. This is a known principle. But if honour is at stake you should go and fight even if there is no reason. And therefore Hamlet is saying you should, like Fortinbras, take action even if you are fighting over a “straw.”
  2. The other slightly different interpretation is that “if honour is at stake” you should seek out the smallest detail in the incident to merit your quarrel. Thus the “find” becomes important in the sentence.
  3. A final interpretation is that Hamlet is being somewhat sarcastic. He has just talked about how silly this all is, so why would he all of a sudden be on board for what appears to be a very simple, hyper-masculine way of viewing the world – let’s just go to war because of honour! I think a philosophical, reflective, thoughtful character like Hamlet, would see how silly all this is. So is he mocking the idea? But if so, his final lines don’t feel ironic. A tough section.

At this stage in my work with the monologue, I think he is mocking slightly, but also some part of him knows that there is a truth to what he is saying.

How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep; while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
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?

In the previous section, I listed various interpretations for how you could play it, but whichever you choose, Hamlet then has to reflect on his own situation. This next portion of the monologue is undoubtedly more personal and he is definitely playing truthfully, without irony or sarcasm.

He is reflecting on how he “stands” in comparison to this silly situation with Fortinbras. Hamlet actually has got something to be angry and vengeful about: his father has been murdered and his mother is stained (likely a reference to incest with his uncle). These are genuine events that incentivize his “reason” (common sense or logical mind) and “blood” (his fire and passion).

Hamlet reflects that he has “let all sleep” (doing nothing), while before his eyes he is about to see 20,000 men die for an illusion and fleeting bit of fame in a meaningless war. These soldiers will be going to their deaths as easily as you fall asleep every night; fighting for a piece of land that is not big enough to hide all the dead bodies that have fought for it in the first place.

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.

These final two lines are two of Hamlet’s most decisive lines of the entire play. For me, they feel somewhat abrupt in performance, as he hasn’t really shown any certainly up until this moment in the speech, and then all of a sudden – BANG!

The simple translation of this section is that from this time forward Hamlet’s thoughts are going to no longer be tarnished with indecision and weakness, but instead remain purely vengeful (and bloody).

The play has all been about his lack of action, and this is his oath to no longer dally and to commit to being resolute in his revenge. And to his credit that ends up pretty much being the outcome.

You can consider in performance whether this section is Hamlet giving himself a gee-up or more of a statement where he is immediately resolved. There is a lot to explore when working on this section of the monologue.

Further Resources

I have already mentioned the fantastic resource Shakespeare’s Words, but I also recommend always having MyShakespeare open, as well as Litcharts and SparkNotes/No Fear Shakespeare. Some actors turn up their noses at these kinds of resources, particularly No Fear Shakespeare, but I think they are awesome. Often the translations are overly simplified and sanitised for a younger audience, but they can be a great help in unpacking a Shakespeare monologue.

The other final unconventional tool is using Genius. This was originally designed for understanding the meaning behind popular song lyrics, but it now offers some formidable breakdowns of iconic Shakespeare monologues and poems. It’s a little harder to verify the quality of the interpretation, as the platform is fairly open, but it might be another resource to explore.

Famous Actors Perform Hamlet Monologue Act 4 Scene 4

I always encourage actors to work from instinct and try their best to avoid being influenced by other actors. When I am working with my students as part of our online acting training, if an actor is working on a film scene, I always suggest NOT to watch the film. It is just too difficult to shake the impression left by the original actor.

However, when it comes to Hamlet, the role is simply too iconic to be avoided. And why would you! You are inevitably going to watch a version of Hamlet at some stage in your life, so you may as well watch them all! In watching multiple versions, you lose the attachment to any one interpretation.

I have seen all the major film versions of Hamlet (some are featured on our list of best Shakespeare films page) but I have collected a few versions of this specific Hamlet Act 4 Scene 4 monologue, performed by some iconic actors. All three of these versions are incredible in their own way.

What I want you to observe is how varied this piece is amongst the actors. Hamlet, though always having commonalities among actor’s interpretations, gives so much scope for exploration. He is so grand, so varied, so quick, that no one actor can contain him or say they played the definitive Hamlet. Each actor must come to it fresh, but why not learn from some of the best and get excited by the history of this iconic character.

Andrew Scott Performing “How all occasions do inform against me”

Andrew Scott is incredible. Even though I am a big fan of him and his Hamlet, in this monologue I was taken back by how broken up and informal he performs. Andrew Scott always makes text his own, but this is a great example of how flexible Shakespearean text is and how you can absolutely bring yourself to the role.

David Tennant Performing “How all occasions do inform against me”

David Tennant famously played Hamlet in the acclaimed 2009 version directed by Gregory Doran. To many, he is the strongest onscreen Hamlet we have seen in the modern era. He has all the qualities of Hamlet and certainly delivers an awesome performance. Here he performs the monologue in probably the most intimate way I have seen. It’s shot in a very specific way and with how it’s produced it becomes a very different experience to Andrew Scott’s or Kenneth Branagh’s. This is also such good example of how much your location and given circumstances affect your performance.

Kenneth Branagh performing “How all occasions do inform against me”

This is a seriously grand version, with Kenneth standing in the icy fields of Denmark. Kenneth is one of the great Shakespearean actors and manages to find an incredible build through the piece. It’s certainly epic, but I love it.

Conclusion

I recently achieved a long term goal of learning all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. But since realising this goal I have not been able to put down my copy of the play. This is a play, and character, that will capture your heart and mind. And it will make you a better actor. Hamlet has enchanted many actors, and exploring the play is a right of passage for any great actor.

Harold Bloom, the literary critic, says “the enigma of Hamlet is that so many are moved to identify with him, and he does not want or need such identification.” I agree. He is a character that cannot be pinned down or defined. You must dive deeply into him, and in doing so allow yourself to be taken on the ride. But I can assure you wherever it takes you and however far you along the rabbit hole you go, it will always be an enriching experience.

This is the greatest play ever written, and Hamlet the greatest character. He is so real, so integral to our collective consciousness, that we cannot know what the world would be without him. I am grateful to have found this play, and I wish the same for you. 

Enjoy working on this monologue! (If you find this particularly monologue is not right for you we have plenty more Hamlet monologues to explore).

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

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