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.
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 unaware of Claudius’s treachery, or whether she believes Claudius is innocent. Much is made of the mother-son relationship; Hamlet spends considerable time trying to convince his mother that she has made a mistake in marrying Claudius. Only when she finally comes to accept his view that the new king is somehow guilty does Hamlet decide to act. His decision is precipitated by several other actions as well, most notably the efforts of his supposed friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to have him killed.
Many critics have observed that Hamlet is really too sensitive to effect the revenge that he intends. He is by nature melancholic, possessing a fatalistic disposition that borders on the suicidal. His most famous soliloquy focuses on the virtue of ending his life. “To be, or not to be,” he begins his musings; that is, indeed, a central question for him, since he sees little benefit in continuing to live in a world where injustice reigns. Nevertheless, he decides to act to avenge his father’s murder—once he is certain he knows who has been involved in the plot to kill him. Viewing the world as a place where things are seldom as they seem, he spends a good portion of his time trying to sort appearance from reality. He invents various devices to help illuminate the truth, such as his elaborate arrangement for a dumb show that will re-create the murder of his father in the presence of Claudius to try to make the king reveal his guilt. Hamlet is not satisfied simply to take vengeance on his uncle clandestinely; he wants Claudius to admit his guilt.
For centuries, scholars have debated Hamlet’s inability to act even when he has the opportunity to do so. Early in the play, his inactivity can be attributed to his lack of assurance that Claudius is guilty. Were he to kill the new king without justification, he would be seen as no better than a murderer himself, and no good would come of his action. Nevertheless, when he does appear to have sufficient evidence of Claudius’s role in his father’s murder, the prince still seems paralyzed. In a crucial scene after Claudius has seen the dumb show and left the room visibly upset, Hamlet finds his uncle praying in the castle’s chapel. It is a perfect chance to slay the king, but Hamlet refrains because he says he does not want to send his uncle’s soul to heaven. Such casuistry has been reason for several critics to claim that Shakespeare is simply drawing out the drama until the final catastrophe. By the final act, Hamlet has become totally fatalistic. Having killed Polonius accidentally, he has already bloodied his hands; he accepts the challenge of Polonius’s son, Laertes, with resignation, knowing that he will probably be killed himself. In the final scene, all of the principals meet their end—and almost all by some mischance of fate. Despite the resounding encomium pronounced over the body of the slain prince, the bleak ending offers little encouragement for an audience who has witnessed this great tragedy. Surprisingly, however, the ending seems justified, in that order has been restored to the Danish kingdom, although won at a terrible price. Such is the lesson of most great tragedies, and Hamlet ranks with the very best examples of the genre.