Hamlet summary

Hamlet Summary

Prince Hamlet has been summoned home to Denmark to attend his father's funeral. One night, a Ghost reveals itself to Hamlet, claiming to be the ghost of Hamlet's father, the former king. The Ghost claims that the old king was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who has since married Hamlet's mother and assumed the throne.

  • Hamlet decides to uncover the truth for himself. He makes himself appear crazy, mistreating his girlfriend Ophelia to deflect Claudius' suspicion. He later convinces a troupe of players to perform The Murder of Gonzago, a play that reenacts King Hamlet's death by poisoning. Claudius' response to the play is suspicious.
  • Hamlet spies on Claudius, listening to him pray. Enraged, Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, Ophelia's father. Claudius sends Hamlet to England on the pretense of a diplomatic mission, having secretly arranged for the prince to be executed on arrival. Hamlet cleverly escapes, returning in time to witness Ophelia’s funeral. She may have killed herself.
  • Claudius arranges a duel between Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother Laertes. During the duel, Gertrude drinks from a poisoned goblet intended for Hamlet. Laertes and Hamlet scuffle, wounding each other with a poisoned rapier. In his last moments, Hamlet kills Claudius, at last avenging his father.

Synopsis

The play opens on a dark night at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. A couple of guards discuss an unsettling recent phenomenon: a ghost resembling Denmark’s newly deceased king has been regularly appearing outside the castle at night. Convinced that the appearance of a ghost means evil is afoot, the guards resolve to tell the late king’s son, Prince Hamlet, about the ghost of his father. Prince Hamlet has returned from his studies in Germany to attend his father’s funeral and to witness his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius, who has now assumed the throne. In addition to the recent upheavals within the royal family, Denmark is under threat from Fortinbras, the son of the late king of Norway. Unbeknownst to his uncle (the current king of Norway), young Fortinbras has been gathering troops to attack Denmark and reclaim the lands his father once lost.

One night, the ghost of the late king appears to Hamlet and reveals that his seemingly accidental death was actually a murder. The ghost tells him that the murderer was none other than Claudius, the king’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle. Disgusted by the thought that Claudius murdered his own brother before stealing his wife and his throne, Hamlet vows revenge. He decides to feign madness in order to investigate the matter further. Hamlet begins to act erratically, even toward Ophelia, a beautiful young noblewoman and the object of Hamlet’s affection. Ophelia’s father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, warn her to stay away from Hamlet, though Polonius believes that Hamlet’s recent madness must stem from his love for Ophelia.

Wanting to uncover the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s old school friends, to court. At Polonius’s suggestion, he and Claudius eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia to ascertain whether it is love that has altered Hamlet’s mental state. When this encounter proves inconclusive, Claudius decides to send Hamlet on a trip to England, and Polonius suggests that he attempt to eavesdrop yet again—this time on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. Meanwhile, inspired by the arrival of an acting troupe, Hamlet decides to have them perform a play that will mimic his father’s murder. Hamlet closely watches Claudius during the murder scene, and he interprets Claudius’s suspicious reaction as a confirmation of his guilt. After the play, Hamlet spies Claudius at prayer and realizes that this would be the perfect time to enact his revenge and kill him. However, he reasons that it would be too lenient to allow Claudius to go to heaven cleansed of his sins and decides that he should wait to act.

As Hamlet goes to meet his mother in her chambers, Polonius conceals himself behind a tapestry to listen in on their conversation. When Hamlet hears someone behind the tapestry, he thrusts his sword through it, killing Polonius. Desperate to maintain order, Claudius decides to send Hamlet (accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) to England at once. In secret, Claudius drafts a letter to England, instructing that Hamlet be killed immediately upon arrival. Ophelia is driven mad by the loss of her father and ultimately drowns after falling into a brook. En route to England, Hamlet discovers Claudius’s treacherous plot and manages to return to Denmark. Enraged by the untimely deaths of his father and sister, young Laertes returns to court, and Claudius persuades Laertes to help get rid of Hamlet once and for all.

When Hamlet returns to Elsinore, Claudius arranges a public fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, Laertes’s fencing sword has been secretly sharpened and poisoned, ensuring that even the smallest nick will kill Hamlet. As a backup plan, Claudius has also poisoned a cup of wine to offer Hamlet should Laertes fail to wound him. During the duel, Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned wine intended for Hamlet. Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword and is, in turn, wounded with it himself in the ensuing scuffle. When Gertrude suddenly drops dead from the poison, Laertes admits his and Claudius’s treacherous plot to Hamlet. Enraged, Hamlet kills Claudius by stabbing him with the poisoned sword and forcing him to drink the remaining poisoned wine. Laertes dies after asking for Hamlet’s forgiveness. Beginning to succumb to the poison himself, Hamlet begs his friend Horatio to live and tell the world what has happened here. As young Fortinbras’s troops approach the castle, Hamlet says that Fortinbras should be made king. Hamlet dies just before Fortinbras enters the room, which is now littered with the bodies of the royal family. Horatio promises to explain the events that have led to this tragedy, and Fortinbras orders that Hamlet’s body be carried away with dignity.

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 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.