(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)