Oh, man. Act 4 is always exciting, and both of these plays have now worked themselves up into a murderous frenzy. In Act 4 of Hamlet, King Claudius says something to the effect of, “Holy crap–there are so many ways for us to get killed right now, we better be careful!” Unfortunately, these plays, like life, are tragedies, and there’s no escaping death.
At least most of the cast makes it out of act 4 alive. Here are some thoughts:
Iago manages to make Othello so mad in scene 1 that Othello actually has a seizure. Earlier, in Act 3, Othello knelt before Iago and swore to him that he would pursue vengeance against Cassio and Desdemona. The imagery of that scene was clear: Othello was submitting himself to the “devil” Iago. I think this scene in act 4 is the natural consequence of his devilish pact. Iago now has full control over him in every way and can use him for his own evil purposes. This whole play is essentially the story of Iago gaining control of ever more powerful people, starting with Roderigo and Emilia, and moving on to Cassio, Othello, and, at the pinnacle of his power in act 4, Desdemona.
Which brings up a whole bundle of other issues: Is Desdemona the most powerful character in the play? We could talk about this for hours, considering the power of her beauty (“fairness,” as Iago puts it in his act 2 “paradoxes”), the power of her virtue (sexual “purity”), the power of her honesty, the power of her intellect (she can exchange “paradoxes” with Iago any day of the week), the power of her social status and family, etc. Clearly, the pinnacle of Iago’s “achievement” is having Desdemona kneel before him and plead for his help in act 4 scene 3. Not to get too explicit here, but Iago, who has indicated his longing for Desdemona’s good graces and lust for her beauty, is pretty “excited” to have this powerful woman kneeling before him.–it definitely gives him a certain sadistic pleasure. This scene is so charged with conflict and desire. It’s hard to get much of that from reading and listening, but hopefully when we see it portrayed in film and on stage we’ll get a better idea of the strong emotions at play.
Ophelia dies today, and we don’t “get” to see it. In fact, the only witness was apparently the queen, who, for some reason, did nothing to stop the slow “accident” that she saw unfolding in front of her. This strange way of reporting the death of a major character only highlights one of the weird themes of Hamlet, that is the problem of how do you know what you know? And the related problem, How do you know if you know what you know? In this case, we have only the queen’s report of the incident, which is poetic and beautiful, but who knows how true. In the context of Hamlet, in which so many people have been spying and reporting on each other, it’s just another report from someone with a limited view.
Also in Act 4, I think we get to see for the first time how powerful Claudius might actually be. Up until this moment, Claudius has been off-guard, defensive, and brooding. But now, with Hamlet out of the way, and an enraged Laertes to contend with, we see Claudius taking on new persuasive powers. He talks Laertes out of assassinating him outright, and turns Laertes’ rage against Hamlet, who, according to a letter Claudius receives in the middle of the scene, has unexpectedly returned to Denmark. Claudius’ powers of persuasion in this scene almost rival Iago’s (from Othello). Details like this help us understand how Claudius may have worked his way into the king’s castle, bedroom, and, eventually, crown.
Anyway, for both of these plays, the scene is now literally set for massive trauma and bloodshed, but, far from being gleeful observers at this point, Shakespeare has used his genius to fill us with dread and the melancholy that is proper in an audience about to witness the fruits of flawed human endeavor.
After reading, I distributed the next Quotes and Notes sheet. You can download it at the bottom of this post. Please read the instructions carefully, and remember: There’s only one kind of wrong answer on the notes section of this sheet: A summary or paraphrase of the quote. I know what the quote means, and I assume you know, if you wrote it down. I want to see how you can expand the quote by guessing about a character’s thoughts and feelings, commenting on similar experiences you’ve had, or expressing your informed opinion on the matter.
Happy quotes ‘n’ noting!