Act IV - Scene II

[Elsinore.]

Enter Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and others.

HAMLET:
Safely stow'd.
GENTLEMEN:

[Within.]

Hamlet! Lord Hamlet!
HAMLET:
But soft! What noise? Who calls on Hamlet? O, here
they come.

[Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.]

ROSENCRANTZ:
What have you done, my lord, with the dead(5)
body?
HAMLET:
Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin.
ROSENCRANTZ:
Tell us where 'tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.
HAMLET:
Do not believe it.(10)
ROSENCRANTZ:
Believe what?
HAMLET:
That I can keep your counsel, and not mine own.
Besides, to be demanded of a sponge, what replication should
be made by the son of a king?
ROSENCRANTZ:
Take you me for a sponge, my lord?(15)
HAMLET:
Ay, sir; that soaks up the King's countenance, his
rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best
service in the end. He keeps them, like an ape, in the corner
of his jaw; first mouth'd, to be last swallowed. When he
needs what you have glean'd, it is but squeezing you and,(20)
sponge, you shall be dry again.
ROSENCRANTZ:
I understand you not, my lord.
HAMLET:
I am glad of it. A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.
ROSENCRANTZ:
My lord, you must tell us where the body is and
go with us to the King.(25)
HAMLET:
The body is with the King, but the King is not with the
body.
The King is a thing—
GUILDENSTERN:
A thing, my lord?
HAMLET:
Of nothing. Bring me to him. Hide fox, and all after.(30)

Exeunt.

Footnotes

  1. This is a phrase from a children's game similar to hide-and-seek. The "fox" hides and all other children chase after in pursuit. Hamlet uses this line to suggest that he didn't kill Polonius on purpose, but rather thought it was a game. Accordingly, within the game, Polonius isn't dead but rather just hiding. Hamlet of course knows perfectly well what he did and is just feigning madness so he isn't thrown in jail.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. A knavish speech is a disagreeable or deliberately cruel one, which thankfully hasn't offended Rosencrantz too much because he didn't understand it. It's possible that Hamlet simply doesn't care what his former friends think, but more likely he feels guilty for being so mean to them.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. Hamlet has been haranguing Rosencrantz in this speech, but in these last words relents and says that some day Rosencrantz will be dry (or free of the secrets and lies he's had to tell) again. In this way, Hamlet finally admits that his friends have been put in an impossible position and that it's not their fault Claudius asked them to spy on Hamlet.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. Hamlet explains this metaphor more fully in his next passage, where he states that as servants to the king Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suck up his attention (and suck up to him). In the line, sponge seems like a sneering insult, and one can imagine Hamlet delivering it with such disdain.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. Hamlet probably means that Polonius is now with the true king, now that they'd both dead. The present king is not with Polonius because Claudius is still alive. He then describes Claudius as "a thing-- / Of nothing." In true Shakespearean word play, Hamlet expresses his bitter disdain of Claudius by denouncing his very humanity ("a thing") and expresses his contempt for his position as King ("Of nothing").

    — William Delaney
  6. Recall that in Act II, Scene II, Hamlet asked what this "quintessence of dust" means to him. It's an allusion to Genesis 3:19: "For dust thou art, and unto dust though shall return." Shakespeare repurposes this line to suggest that Polonius was never anything more than dust, and now that he's dead he's where he always belonged.

    — Tyler Yamaguchi