What is an outline of the main plot and subplots in Hamlet?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The longest of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet is a tragedy of life, an existential drama, indeed, with Hamlet transcending the action of the  plot. The main plot revolves around Hamlet's soliloquies, his broodings upon the consciousness of man.

Act I

  • When Hamlet returns to Demark to attend his father's funeral , he is shocked to learn that his mother has already married, and her husband is her brother-in-law, the new king.
  • Accompanied by Marcellus and Bernado, two officers of the guard, Horatio informs Hamlet of having witnessed the ghost of King Hamlet. Hamlet agrees to meet them where the ghost has appeared.
  • In the house of Polonius, as his son Laertes prepares to depart for France, his father advises him on his behavior, and Laertes, in turn, cautions his sister Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet's intentions toward her because he is too far above her as a prince. After he leaves, Polonius tells his daughter that Hamlet has been deceiving her about his love for Ophelia.
  • In the final scene, Hamlet meets his father's ghost, who entreats his son to avenge his murder caused by his having been poisoned in his ear by Claudius (1.4.39). Hamlet swears to seek revenge, but rues the situation:

O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right (1.4.189-190)

Act II

  • The devious Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on his son in France. Ophelia tells her father of the strange behavior of Hamlet towards her.
  • Polonius goes to Claudius and Gertrude and arranges to spy on Hamlet as he visits his mother in her chambers.
  • Former schoolmates of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visit Hamlet, who is circuitous with them out of suspicion that they are being complicit with King Claudius.
  • As a subplot--Hamlet arranges for a visiting troop of actors to re-enact the nefarious deed of Claudius's poisoning of King Hamlet so that he can watch the reaction of Claudius in order to ascertain the king's guilt.


It is in this act that Hamlet speaks his most famous soliloquy, the "To be or not to be" speech.

  • Ophelia tells Hamlet that she has some "remembrances" to return to him; in his anger, Hamlet tells her to go to a nunnery and leave his world of sinners as Claudius and Polonius spy on him.
  • The play begins and Hamlet watches his mother and uncle closely. Afterwards, he is set to kill Claudius, but finds him praying and cannot commit the act because he does not wish to send him to heaven as a martyr.

Act IV

  • In four quick scenes, the action is accelerated as Hamlet baits  Claudius with the body of Polonius whom he has slain for spying on him. Gertrude and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report Hamlet's madness. Claudius sends the two men to kill Hamlet, who has gone to England. 
  • Ophelia has gone mad
  • Hamlet witnesses the honor and courage of Fortinbras and is moved to action by this "gentle prince" who is willing to die for honor.

Act V

  • Hamlet finds Laertes lamenting the death of Ophelia and declares his love for her. Osric enters with Laertes's invitation to duel.
  • After Hamlet's first strike, Gertrude drinks from Hamlet's poisoned cup and dies.
  • Laertes finally tells Hamlet they are both doomed after he touches Hamlet and in the scuffle, Hamlet has grabbed Laertes's poison rapier and touched Laertes.
  • Hamlet stabs Claudius 

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, 
Drink off this potion! Is thy union here? 
Follow my mother.

  • He tells Horatio as he dies to leave his kingdom to Fortinbras who praises Hamlet's sense of pure justice