Summary of the Play
Prince Hamlet of Denmark is urged by his father’s Ghost to avenge his murder at the hands of the dead king’s brother, now King Claudius; to make matters worse, Claudius has married the widow, Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. Denmark is under threat of invasion from young Fortinbras, who seeks to regain lands lost to Hamlet’s father by Fortinbras’s father. Claudius sends word to the King of Norway (Fortinbras’s uncle) to curb Fortinbras’s aggression. In the meantime, Hamlet feigns madness with his family and friends, including his beloved, Ophelia, sister to Laertes and daughter to Polonius. Both Polonius and Laertes warn Ophelia against Hamlet’s amorous advances. Polonius believes Hamlet’s “madness” to be love sickness. Laertes is given permission to return to his studies in Paris.
Claudius directs Gertrude to try to learn the cause of Hamlet’s odd behavior; they suspect it is the old king’s death and their own recent marriage. Meantime, Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Ophelia and Hamlet, who spurns her and appears mad. The King reveals to Polonius his plan to send Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet seizes the opportunity presented by a traveling troupe of players to expose the King’s guilt with a “play within a play.” Soon after, Hamlet delays killing Claudius because the King is at prayer, and Hamlet does not wish to send him to heaven instead of hell. When Gertrude meets with Hamlet as Claudius has directed, Polonius hides behind the arras in Gertrude’s room to eavesdrop on the conversation. Hamlet, suspecting the interloper is Claudius, stabs and kills Polonius.
When Polonius’s body is discovered, Claudius summons Hamlet and tells him he must sail to England for his own safety; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accompany Hamlet, carrying letters to the English, threatening war unless they kill Hamlet. Hamlet eventually escapes, returns to Denmark, and is met by Horatio.
Ophelia has gone insane after Hamlet’s departure and her father’s death. Laertes returns and vows to avenge Polonius’s death. Claudius contrives a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, during which Hamlet is to be injured with a poisoned sword tip and poisoned with a drink, thus assuring his death. When news arrives that Ophelia has drowned herself, Laertes is grief stricken. Hamlet and Horatio happen upon the burial site and funeral cortege; Hamlet tries to fight Laertes but is restrained.
Hamlet tells Horatio that he rewrote the papers carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that the letters now call for their own deaths. Osric invites Hamlet to the duel with Laertes; Claudius has supposedly bet on Hamlet to win. Gertrude mistakenly drinks from the cup poisoned by Claudius for Hamlet, and dies; Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword, and then Hamlet wounds Laertes when they accidentally exchange swords. When Laertes reveals the conspiracy, Hamlet wounds the King and forces the poisoned drink upon him. Laertes and Hamlet reconcile, and Laertes dies; Hamlet prevents Horatio from drinking the poison so that he can live to tell the truth. Hamlet names as his successor young Fortinbras, who arrives and orders Hamlet buried with all dignity.
Estimated Reading Time
Given a text with abundant and helpful footnotes, an average student should expect to spend at least an hour per act on the first read through; subsequent readings should take less time, as the language becomes more familiar. Certainly a five-hour stretch is not advised; probably a few scenes at a time, or perhaps an entire act, would be a comfortable portion for an average reader. Since there are five acts with a total of twenty scenes, the student could expect to spend at least five hours in perhaps six to eight sessions.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
There is little debate that Shakespeare is the greatest Renaissance tragedian, and that King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608) and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are the best examples of his work in that genre. Since its first production at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Hamlet has been the subject of intense critical inquiry, and the figure of Hamlet has been among the most intensely studied of any of Shakespeare’s creations. Intellectual, self-reflective, alienated, and seemingly paralyzed by doubts about both himself and the circumstance in which he is called upon to act as an agent of revenge, Hamlet has come to be considered the quintessential modern hero.
For the subject of his drama, Shakespeare turned to a story already popular in English theaters; at least two earlier productions of the sad tale of the Danish prince had appeared in London playhouses. In many ways, Hamlet is typical of a subgenre immensely popular in Shakespeare’s time: the revenge play. Most of these were bloody spectacles in which almost every character dies in the final act. The body-strewn stage in act 5 of Hamlet continues this tradition, as does the central action of the drama: the need for the young Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, the king, whose ghost informs Hamlet early in the play that he (the king) had been poisoned by Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius so Claudius could become king and marry Hamlet’s mother, the queen Gertrude.
The central dramatic interest in the play is the character of its hero. Hamlet sees himself as the “scourge and minister” of some higher order, returned from school in Germany to set right the disorder in his realm caused by his uncle’s murderous action. Unfortunately, the sensitive prince is not callous enough to ignore the doubts he has about the exact cause of his father’s death. He has been told by his father’s ghost that Claudius committed murder; other hints to that effect abound. The prince feels he must delay his revenge, however, until he is certain Claudius is guilty.
Compounding Hamlet’s problem is the fact that his mother, whom he loves dearly, has married his uncle soon after the old king has died. It is not at all clear to Hamlet whether his mother has had a hand in the murder, whether she is simply...
(The entire section is 954 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Three times, the ghost of Denmark’s dead king has stalked the battlements of Elsinore Castle. On the fourth night, Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, brings the thirty-year-old prince to the battlements to see the specter of his father. Since his father’s untimely death two months earlier, Hamlet has been grief-stricken and exceedingly melancholy. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his father perplex him, and his mother has married Claudius, the dead king’s brother, much too hurriedly to suit Hamlet’s sense of decency.
That night, Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and listens in horror as it tells him that his father was not killed by a serpent, as had been reported: He was murdered by his own brother, Claudius, the present king. The ghost adds that Claudius is guilty not only of murder but also of incest and adultery. The spirit cautions Hamlet to spare Queen Gertrude, his mother, and leave her punishment to heaven.
Hamlet ponders his next move. The ghost’s disclosures should have left no doubt in his mind that Claudius must be killed, but the introspective prince is not certain that the apparition he saw was really his father’s spirit. He fears it might have been a devil sent to torment him or to trick him into murdering his uncle. Debating with himself the problem of whether or not to carry out the spirit’s commands, Hamlet swears his friends, including Horatio, to secrecy concerning the appearance of the ghost. He also tells them not to consider him mad if he begins to act strangely.
Meanwhile, Claudius is facing not only the possibility of war with Norway but also, much worse, his own conscience, which is troubled by his act of fratricide and his hasty marriage to Gertrude. The prince’s melancholy worries him, for he knows that Hamlet resented the marriage. Claudius fears that Hamlet may try to usurp the throne. The prince begins to put into action the plan he mentioned to his friends: He acts strangely at court. Hamlet’s strange behavior and wild talk make the king think that he may be mad, but he remains unsure. To learn whether Hamlet’s manner and actions are caused by madness or ambition, Claudius commissions two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on the prince. Hamlet sees through their clumsy efforts, however, and responds to their inquiries with confusing wordplay.
Polonius, the garrulous old chamberlain, believes that Hamlet’s strange behavior is the result of his lovesickness for Ophelia,...
(The entire section is 1027 words.)
Act Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Barnardo, Francisco, and Marcellus: sentinels
Horatio: Hamlet’s close friend and confidante
Ghost: of Hamlet’s father, the former King of Denmark
Just after the striking of twelve, Francisco is relieved of his watch by Barnardo and Marcellus, who have entreated Horatio to stand with them this night to witness the reappearance of the dead king’s apparition. The Ghost appears and disappears twice but does not speak to the four, who decide to tell Hamlet in the morning. They note that a Ghost often portends grave events, and believe the King’s Ghost is related to the impending war with young Fortinbras of Norway, who seeks to regain the lands...
(The entire section is 280 words.)
Act I, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Claudius, King of Denmark: Prince Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather
Gertrude, the Queen: Hamlet’s mother
Polonius: the King’s advisor
Laertes: son to Polonius
Prince Hamlet: son of the late King and Queen Gertrude
Voltemand and Cornelius: messengers to King of Norway
King Claudius announces that, despite his grief over his brother’s recent death, he has taken Gertrude to wife. He also informs the court of young Fortinbras’s aggression, and assigns Voltemand and Cornelius to deliver a dispatch to the King of Norway (Fortinbras’s uncle) urging that he restrain his nephew. Laertes asks the King’s...
(The entire section is 375 words.)
Act I, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Ophelia: daughter to Polonius; sister to Laertes
Laertes meets Ophelia to say his farewells before returning to France. He warns her to beware of Hamlet’s trifling with her, and urges her to remain chaste. Ophelia agrees to heed his advice, while urging him to obey it as well. Polonius enters and counsels Laertes, who departs. Polonius also warns Ophelia of Hamlet’s amorous intentions, and finally instructs her to avoid him altogether. She assents.
This scene presents tender, if somewhat humorous, dialogue between sister and brother, father and son, and father and daughter. Buried in the conversation,...
(The entire section is 152 words.)
Act I, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus wait just after midnight to see the Ghost. It appears, and beckons to Hamlet, who follows it. Horatio and Marcellus go after them.
First Horatio, and now Hamlet, have been brought to verify the appearance and identity of the Ghost. Hamlet appears resolute as he follows the beckoning apparition, though the others advise against it. His courage and resolution in this short scene are in sharp contrast to his apparent attitude in later scenes as he struggles with the issue of revenge.
(The entire section is 88 words.)
Act I, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
The Ghost of his father tells Hamlet that he was murdered by poison poured into his ear by Claudius. The Ghost urges Hamlet to avenge him, but to leave judgment of his mother to heaven. As the Ghost leaves, Hamlet swears to remember his father. Hamlet refuses to divulge the conversation to Horatio and Marcellus when they appear, and the Ghost reappears, repeatedly crying for them to “Swear” not to tell what they have seen. Hamlet also instructs them not to reveal the truth if he appears to be acting “odd” later on, and they finally so swear. Hamlet laments his appointed role as avenger of so great a wrong.
That the Ghost swears the soldiers to...
(The entire section is 208 words.)
Act II, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Reynaldo: Polonius’s servant
Polonius sends Reynaldo to Paris to spy on Laertes, instructing him to use delicate indirection to learn of Laertes’s behavior from other “Danskers [who] are in Paris” (7). After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters, distressed, and tells her father that Hamlet has just approached her with “his doublet all unbraced; / No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle” (75-77). She says he “held [her] hard” (84) by the wrist, studied her silently for several moments, sighed “piteous and profound” 91), and then left her. Polonius believes Hamlet is lovesick because Ophelia has...
(The entire section is 217 words.)
Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: longtime friends and former schoolmates of Hamlet
Voltemand and Cornelius: sent by Claudius as ambassadors to King of Norway
The Players: traveling actors hired to perform at the castle
King Claudius and Queen Gertrude receive Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, who agree to visit him and seek the cause of Hamlet’s “transformation” (line 5). Polonius enters to announce the arrival of Voltemand and Cornelius from Norway, and to say that he believes he has found the “very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (line 49). However, he delays revealing the information until the...
(The entire section is 2573 words.)
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
In the presence of Polonius and Ophelia, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude question Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their recent conversation with Hamlet; the pair report that although Hamlet confessed to being “distracted,” he would not reveal the cause, evading questioning with “a crafty madness.”
Hamlet’s friends also report that Hamlet was pleased to learn of the visit of the traveling players, and that he has arranged a performance for that night, to which he has invited the King and Queen. The two men leave, and Claudius instructs Gertrude to leave also so as not to encounter Hamlet, for whom he has secretly sent, “That he, as ‘twere by accident, may here / Affront...
(The entire section is 924 words.)
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Hamlet enters, giving instructions to several of the Players on the appropriate and most effective delivery of the “speech” which he has prepared for insertion into the evening’s performance. As the Players exit, Polonius enters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who inform Hamlet that Claudius and Gertrude have agreed to attend the play. Hamlet urges the trio to go help hasten the Players, then summons Horatio. Hamlet expresses his love and respect for Horatio, then asks Horatio to scrutinize Claudius during the one scene which “comes near the circumstance . . . of my father’s death.” Horatio agrees.
Gertrude invites her son to sit beside her, but he refuses in favor of a seat...
(The entire section is 1184 words.)
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Claudius enters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Claudius is convinced that Hamlet, in his “madness,” means to harm him in some way. He proposes to send Hamlet to England, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for safety’s sake. They agree, noting that the fortunes of “Majesty” always affect the lives of many others besides itself. This voyage is to commence at once.
Polonius enters to inform Claudius that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude’s private room; Polonius announces that he will hide “behind the arras,” in order to “o’erhear” their conversation. Polonius says he expects Gertrude to severely scold Hamlet, but notes that, as Hamlet’s mother, she will be...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Act III, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Polonius urges the Queen to be sharply critical of Hamlet’s actions, and to tell him that she has had to intercede on his behalf, standing “between / Much heat and him.” Polonius then hides behind the wall tapestry as Hamlet enters. Hamlet speaks very directly to his mother, telling her that she has offended his father, and proposes revealing her “innermost part” to her. Gertrude cries out in fear that Hamlet means to murder her, prompting Polonius to call out from behind the curtain. Hamlet, supposing the eavesdropper to be Claudius, thrusts his sword through the curtain, killing Polonius, over whom Hamlet says, “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy...
(The entire section is 589 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter; Claudius remarks on Gertrude’s sighing, which he asks her to explain. She dismisses the two young men, and then relates to Claudius the recent events in her closet; she says Hamlet, “in his lawless fit,” has killed Polonius. Claudius notes that he himself would have been killed, had he been the one hiding behind the curtain. He regrets that, out of love for Hamlet, he neglected to do what was best; that is, he “Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt / This mad young man,” but instead “let [him] feed / Even on the pith of life” like a disease kept unacknowledged.
Gertrude reveals that Hamlet, who has gone to...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Hamlet enters, having “Safely stowed” the body of Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, seeking the corpse, but Hamlet won’t tell where it is hidden, saying only he has “Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.” Then Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a “sponge . . . that soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities.” But that when the King needs what they “have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again.” When they ask again of the body’s whereabouts, Hamlet again refuses to say, but agrees to go with them to the King, whom Hamlet says is “a thing . . . Of nothing.” Hamlet dashes offstage as if they are pursuing him in a game of...
(The entire section is 250 words.)
Act IV, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Claudius enters with several men, whom he has told of Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, and that he has “sent to seek him and to find the body.” He tells them it is dangerous to allow Hamlet to remain at large, but that because of Hamlet’s popularity among the “distracted multitude,” his punishment must not seem too heavy; the public only judge what they can see, and weigh only the punishment, “But never the offense.” Claudius says Hamlet’s sudden leaving must seem to be part of a careful plan in order to keep things “all smooth and even.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and report that Hamlet will not reveal the location of Polonius’ body, and that Hamlet is waiting...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
Act IV, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Young Fortinbras: nephew to the aged king of Norway
Captain: officer in Fortinbras’ army
Fortinbras sends his Captain to Claudius, seeking escort for his army’s safe march through Denmark. He says if the King wishes, he will meet personally with him. Fortinbras exits with his army. Hamlet and Rosencrantz enter and learn from the Captain that the army, headed for “some part of Poland,” means to attack a “little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name,” not worth “five ducats.” Hamlet doubts the Poles will defend such a worthless area, but the Captain tells him “it is already garrisoned.” Hamlet comments...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Act IV, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
Horatio, Gertrude, and a Gentleman enter. At Horatio’s urging, the Queen finally agrees to speak with Ophelia, who the Gentleman reports to be in a distracted, pitiable state, babbling nonsense about her dead father. Ophelia enters singing of a dead man, and a maid deflowered. Claudius enters, and seeing her state, orders Horatio to “Follow her close; give her good watch.” Alone with Gertrude, Claudius relays all the bad news from court: Polonius’ murder and hasty burial, Hamlet’s “remove” to England, public unrest at Polonius’ death, Ophelia’s madness, and Laertes’ secret return from France and his suspicions that Claudius is somehow responsible for Polonius’ death. Claudius...
(The entire section is 671 words.)
Act IV, Scene 6 Summary and Analysis
Sailors: seafaring men who bring news from Hamlet
Horatio and a few others are accosted by Sailors with a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, detailing his capture at sea by pirates, who, he says, treated him well. The letter instructs Horatio to deliver the “letters I have sent” to the King, and then come at once to him, guided by “these good fellows.” Hamlet adds that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still sail toward England, and says “Of them I have much to tell thee.”
Horatio promises to reward the Sailors for delivering the messages.
The unlikely capture-rescue of Hamlet by the pirates...
(The entire section is 229 words.)
Act IV, Scene 7 Summary and Analysis
Laertes asks Claudius why, as King, he did not act against Hamlet, whom Claudius accuses of “[pursuing] my life.” Claudius cites two reasons. First, his own love for Gertrude, whose love for Hamlet is so great that he cannot counteract it. Second, the love the general public has for Hamlet makes it impossible for them to see Hamlet’s faults; they would tend to turn Claudius’ accusations back upon himself. Claudius tries to assure Laertes that they are united in their love of Polonius and in their desire for revenge against Hamlet for his plottings.
A Messenger enters with letters from Hamlet, for Claudius and for Gertrude. Hamlet tells the King that he has landed “naked [without...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Act V, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Two Clowns: rustics who are digging Ophelia’s grave
Doctor of Divinity: priest who presides at Ophelia’s burial
The two rustics discuss the particulars of Ophelia’s death and burial. The coroner has ruled that she shall have a Christian burial, which would mean that her death was accidental. But the men believe that Ophelia must have drowned herself, and suicide would prevent her from having a Christian burial. They decide that because she is a gentlewoman, she—like her class—is more privileged to drown or hang herself than are her fellow Christians. They make grisly jokes as they continue digging; then one sends the other to...
(The entire section is 946 words.)
Act V, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Hamlet explains to Horatio how he managed to switch the letter which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carried, ordering Hamlet’s death, for one which ordered their own upon their arrival in England. Because of how smoothly this “changling” occurred, Hamlet expresses his belief that fate, or some “divinity,” works out the details of our lives even when we have only a rough plan. Hamlet says that he feels no guilt for ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since they so eagerly pursued his under Claudius’ direction. And is it not now incumbent upon him, Hamlet continues, to also pay back the King for his evil deeds? Hamlet expresses his regret that he lost his temper with Laertes,...
(The entire section is 1981 words.)