Three times, the ghost of Denmark’s dead king has stalked the battlements of Elsinore Castle. On the fourth night, Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, brings the thirty-year-old prince to the battlements to see the specter of his father. Since his father’s untimely death two months earlier, Hamlet has been grief-stricken and exceedingly melancholy. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his father perplex him, and his mother has married Claudius, the dead king’s brother, much too hurriedly to suit Hamlet’s sense of decency.
That night, Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and listens in horror as it tells him that his father was not killed by a serpent, as had been reported: He was murdered by his own brother, Claudius, the present king. The ghost adds that Claudius is guilty not only of murder but also of incest and adultery. The spirit cautions Hamlet to spare Queen Gertrude, his mother, and leave her punishment to heaven.
Hamlet ponders his next move. The ghost’s disclosures should have left no doubt in his mind that Claudius must be killed, but the introspective prince is not certain that the apparition he saw was really his father’s spirit. He fears it might have been a devil sent to torment him or to trick him into murdering his uncle. Debating with himself the problem of whether or not to carry out the spirit’s commands, Hamlet swears his friends, including Horatio, to secrecy concerning the appearance of the ghost. He also tells them not to consider him mad if he begins to act strangely.
Meanwhile, Claudius is facing not only the possibility of war with Norway but also, much worse, his own conscience, which is troubled by his act of fratricide and his hasty marriage to Gertrude. The prince’s melancholy worries him, for he knows that Hamlet resented the marriage. Claudius fears that Hamlet may try to usurp the throne. The prince begins to put into action the plan he mentioned to his friends: He acts strangely at court. Hamlet’s strange behavior and wild talk make the king think that he may be mad, but he remains unsure. To learn whether Hamlet’s manner and actions are caused by madness or ambition, Claudius commissions two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on the prince. Hamlet sees through their clumsy efforts, however, and responds to their inquiries with confusing wordplay.
Polonius, the garrulous old chamberlain, believes that Hamlet’s strange behavior is the result of his lovesickness for Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter. Hamlet, meanwhile, becomes increasingly melancholy and guarded. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius all spy on him constantly. Even Ophelia, he thinks, has turned against him. However, the thought of deliberate murder is revolting to him, and he is plagued by uncertainty as to whether the ghost he has seen represents good or evil. When a troupe of actors visits Elsinore, Hamlet sees in them a chance to discover the truth. He instructs the players to enact before the king and the court a scene resembling the murder described to him by the ghost. Hamlet believes that Claudius will react guiltily to the performance if he is indeed a murderer. Thus, by watching the king carefully during the play, Hamlet hopes to discover the truth for himself.
Hamlet’s plan works. Claudius becomes so unnerved during the performance that he walks out before the end of the scene. Convinced by the king’s actions that the ghost was right, Hamlet no longer has a reason to delay carrying out the wishes of his dead father. Even so, he fails to take advantage of his first chance to kill Claudius. Hamlet comes upon the king alone and unguarded in an attitude of prayer. He refrains from killing him, however, because he does not want the king to die in a state of grace: He wants to send him to hell, not to heaven.
The queen summons Hamlet to her chamber to reprimand him for his insolence to Claudius. Hamlet, remembering what the ghost told him, speaks to her so violently that she screams for help. A noise behind a curtain follows her cries, and Hamlet, suspecting that Claudius has been eavesdropping on them, plunges his sword through the curtain, killing the spy—who turns out to be Polonius. When he hears of Hamlet’s violent deed, the king fears a similar attack on his own life. He hastily orders Hamlet to travel to England as an ambassador in company with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry a warrant for Hamlet’s death. The prince discovers the orders, however, and alters them so that the bearers, rather than he, will be killed on their arrival in England. Hamlet then returns to Denmark.
Hamlet discovers that much has happened at home during his absence. After being rejected by Hamlet, her former lover, Ophelia has gone mad and drowned herself. Laertes, Polonius’s hot-tempered son, has returned from France and collected a band of malcontents to avenge the death of his father. He had thought that Claudius killed Polonius, but the king has told him that Hamlet was the murderer and has persuaded Laertes to take part in a plot to murder the prince.
Claudius arranges for a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. To allay suspicion of foul play, the king bets on Hamlet, who is an expert swordsman. At the same time, he poisons the tip of Laertes’ weapon and places a cup of poison within Hamlet’s reach in the event that the prince becomes thirsty during the duel. However, it is Gertrude, who knows nothing of the king’s treachery, who drinks from the poisoned cup and dies. During the contest, Hamlet is mortally wounded by the poisoned rapier, but the two contestants exchange foils in a scuffle, and Laertes receives a fatal wound as well. Before he dies, Laertes is filled with remorse and tells Hamlet that Claudius was responsible for poisoning the sword. Hesitating no longer, Hamlet seizes his opportunity to act: He stabs the king with the poisoned blade and forces him to drink from the poisoned cup before finally dying himself.