Introduction to Hamlet

Hamlet is a five-act stage play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been first performed sometime between 1599 and 1602. Based loosely on Saxo Grammaticus’s account of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, Hamlet tells the story of the titular Prince of Denmark, who is visited by the ghost of his father. The ghosts tasks Hamlet with avenging his father’s murder at the hands of the villainous Claudius, who is also Hamlet’s uncle and the current king. However, Hamlet is plagued by doubts regarding both the ghost’s origins and the morality of murder, sending him into a spiral of guilt, doubt, and existential dread. Though some readers dismiss Hamlet as a cowardly and indecisive hero, his declining mental state and eloquent, tortured ruminations on death, madness, morality, and revenge have made the play one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and frequently analyzed works. 

Since its initial performance, Hamlet has remained one of the most frequently performed dramas on an international scale. In addition to the productions based directly on Shakespeare’s work, Hamlet has also been the subject of numerous interpretations and adaptations, ranging from Bollywood musicals (Haider, 2014) to cartoons about regicidal lions (The Lion King, 1994). Furthermore, the many ambiguities within the plot of Hamlet—such as the true nature of Claudius and Gertrude’s relationship, or the romantic history between Hamlet and Ophelia—have inspired novels, plays, films, and other works that attempt to explain or expand upon aspects of the original text. 

The endless possibilities for reinterpretation and adaptation presented by Hamlet have led some scholars to refer to it as a near-universal story, applicable to almost any cultural or political climate. On a more technical level, Hamlet is also often credited with popularizing certain dramatic and literary tropes, such as feigned insanity and the play-within-the-play. Hamlet has gone on to inspire many notable works—such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest—and its many iconic phrases, such as “to be or not to be,” have cemented the play's place in the upper echelons of literary and popular renown.

A Brief Biography of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English poet and playwright. Despite his widely accepted status as the greatest and most influential figure in the history of English-language literature, relatively little of his life is known. He grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon in a family of comfortable means. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children. As a young man, Shakespeare moved to London and became involved in the theater community as an actor, playwright, and company owner. Over the next two decades, his plays became increasingly popular, and his theater company thrived. In 1613, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died several years later of unknown causes. Given the immense erudition of Shakespeare’s work and the paucity of information about his life, some critics and readers have suspected that Shakespeare was in fact an aristocrat writing under a pseudonym. However, these suspicions remain unsubstantiated.

Shakespeare’s literary output includes a cycle of 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and 39 plays that range across comedy, tragedy, and history. His formal virtuosity—especially his mastery of prosody, metaphor, and wordplay—are evident throughout all of his work, and his plays are celebrated for their rich dramatic structures and psychological depth.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hamlet

Hamlet

Horatio is Hamlet's best friend and confidante. While Hamlet finds he cannot trust other people closest to him, such as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, and even Ophelia, Horatio is the one...

Latest answer posted September 16, 2020, 11:22 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

In act 4, scene 5 of Hamlet, Ophelia speaks her final words when lamenting the death of her father, Polonius. In the presence of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and her own brother, Laertes, Ophelia...

Latest answer posted September 16, 2020, 2:51 pm (UTC)

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Hamlet

The question of whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia have consummated their romantic relationship is a big one for both the audience and the characters within Hamlet itself. The audience knows that...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:59 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

Nothing within Shakespeare's text suggests Ophelia might be pregnant. No character comments on this as a possibility, and obviously Ophelia is not visibly pregnant, since that would be something...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:37 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

Hamlet is angry at his mother because he considers her unfaithful to the memory of his father. King Hamlet had only been dead for about a month when his mother began to align herself to her former...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:10 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

Claudius is a major antagonist in Shakespeare's Hamlet. He is King Hamlet's antagonist in that he murders his own brother. He also functions as one of Prince Hamlet's antagonists, because he...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:36 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

In Shakespeare's classic play Hamlet, Polonius plays the role of chief counselor to the king and is Ophelia and Laertes's father. He also attempts to help Claudius and Gertrude solve the mystery of...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 12:38 pm (UTC)

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Hamlet

It is never explicitly stated anywhere in the play why Hamlet did not become King of Denmark upon the death of his father, so one can only speculate. However, some explanations are more plausible...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:32 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

On the whole, it's perfectly reasonable to argue that Hamlet is indeed a victim. It is this victim status that makes him a quite sympathetic character overall and makes us feel rather sad when he...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:07 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

Hamlet is already grief-stricken by his father’s sudden death and reeling from his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle Claudius when he learns how his father truly died. The ghost of Hamlet's...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:59 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

As Hamlet dies, he asks Horatio to live on and tell his story after he is gone and states that he desires Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, to be made king of Denmark. But I do prophesy th’...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:35 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

At the end of the play, Claudius, wanting to get rid of Hamlet once and for all, arranges a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. He takes advantage of Laertes's desire for revenge on Hamlet...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:14 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

Hamlet struggles all through the first half of the play with suicidal thoughts, which emerge even before Hamlet hears from the ghost that Claudius has murdered his father. Hamlet has come home to a...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:55 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

There is no real evidence in the text to indicate that Hamlet has ever slept with his mother, Queen Gertrude. Despite this, many literary scholars and critics have suggested that Hamlet and...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:20 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

Ophelia's death happens offstage and is only reported to the audience through Gertrude. The exact nature of Ophelia's death is left ambiguous, though suicide is strongly suggested. We do know...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:30 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not a true story, as it does not accurately reflect the historical record. Research has revealed, however, that Shakespeare likely took inspiration for his story...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 1:46 pm (UTC)

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Hamlet

At the end of the play, Hamlet agrees to a fencing match with Laertes. He doesn't realize that Claudius and Laertes are working together to plot against him and have no intention of letting Hamlet...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:44 am (UTC)

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Hamlet

The first words of Hamlet are pretty simple and straightforward: “Who's there?” The words are spoken by Barnardo, a watchman walking the battlements of Elsinore Castle one cold winter's eve. It's...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 2:53 pm (UTC)

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Hamlet

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...

Latest answer posted September 15, 2020, 11:33 am (UTC)

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