What is the main storyline of Hamlet?

In the main storyline of Hamlet, Prince Hamlet struggles with whether or not to kill his uncle Claudius, after the ghost of his father tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius and orders Hamlet to avenge his death.

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At the beginning of the play, Prince Hamlet comes home from his studies abroad after his father, the king, dies. In addition to his grief over his father, Hamlet is bothered by his mother's decision to marry his uncle, Claudius, who is now the new king.

Shortly after her...

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At the beginning of the play, Prince Hamlet comes home from his studies abroad after his father, the king, dies. In addition to his grief over his father, Hamlet is bothered by his mother's decision to marry his uncle, Claudius, who is now the new king.

Shortly after her arrives, Hamlet encounters what seems to be the ghost of his father on the ramparts of the castle. The ghost tells him that he was murdered by Claudius. Because Claudius poisoned him as he napped, the former king was not able to make a final confession and died in a state of sin (meaning his soul cannot go to heaven). He commands Hamlet to kill Claudius to avenge his death.

This sets up the central conflict of the play. Hamlet has to decide whether or not the ghost is telling the truth or whether he was an emissary sent by Satan to trick Hamlet into killing an innocent man. As he works to establish the truth, Hamlet decides to feign madness to cover his tracks; as the play goes on, however, it becomes less and less clear whether Hamlet's madness is an act. In the first half of the play, the anguished Hamlet works on establishing Claudius's guilt, finally doing so by staging a play that reenacts the murder and observing Claudius as he watches it. Claudius's reaction assures Hamlet of his guilt.

The second half of the play follows Hamlet as he continues to hesitate over killing Claudius, though, at one point, in a frenzy, Hamlet kills Polonius when he mistakes him for Claudius. This sets off a destructive chain of events, resulting in the death of Ophelia (Polonius's daughter). This half of the play also reveals Claudius plotting to kill Hamlet, whose increasingly erratic behavior makes him a threat to the throne. Claudius plots with Laertes, Ophelia's brother, to kill Hamlet to avenge his sister's and father's deaths.

At the end of the play, Claudius and Laertes stage a fencing match intended to kill Hamlet. They manage to fatally wound Hamlet, but he discovers their treachery and finally kills Claudius. In the end, the fencing match results in the deaths of most of the major characters—including Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and Laerte. As Fortinbras, a royal from Norway, arrives at the castle in the midst of all the chaos, the dying Hamlet passes the kingdom to him.

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