Key Plot Points

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While we recommend reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its entirety, we understand that your classroom may have time constraints. The following Key Plot Points are meant to guide you and your students to the most relevant parts of the text so you can plan your lessons most efficiently. 

Hamlet Converses With the Ghost (Act 1, Scene 5): Hamlet agrees to hear what the ghost has to say, and it declares itself the ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet. It goes on to say that King Hamlet’s death was not an accident, but a murder perpetrated by Claudius. Hamlet, already disgusted by Claudius’s hasty marriage to Gertrude, is quick to condemn both his mother and his uncle. However, the ghost advises Hamlet to leave Gertrude’s judgment to heaven and to only pursue revenge against Claudius. This scene provides the inciting action for the play, furnishing Hamlet with the necessary motivation to pursue his revenge plot. However, doubts over the ghost’s identity and trustworthiness hinder him. 

Hamlet Sets a Trap for Claudius (Act 2, Scene 2 and Act 3, Scene 2): Hamlet’s former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are now spying for Claudius, arrive in Elsinore alongside a traveling theater group. In order to verify Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet decides to stage a play containing a scene modeled after the ghost’s description of its murder. Hamlet hopes that Claudius will be affected by the scene, thereby confirming his involvement in King Hamlet’s death. In order to deter suspicion, Hamlet also begins acting mad. The only person with whom he discusses his plot is Horatio, cementing Hamlet’s isolation within Elsinore. 

Hamlet Confronts Gertrude and Kill Polonius (Act 3, Scene 4): After the play-within-the-play, Gertrude calls Hamlet to her closet and confronts him about his mistreatment of Claudius. Hamlet responds by rebuking her for her hasty and incestuous remarriage. Hamlet’s intensity frightens Gertrude and as she calls out for help, Polonius, who had been spying on the conversation, reveals himself. Hamlet assumes the concealed figure is Claudius and stabs Polonius, killing him. In the aftermath, Hamlet continues to shame his mother for her remarriage to Claudius until the ghost reappears to remind him of his purpose. However, Gertrude cannot see the ghost and takes Hamlet’s actions as a confirmation of his madness. Polonius’s death sets into motion the events of the rest of the play, as Hamlet leaves for England and Laertes returns to Denmark. 

Hamlet Gains Resolve and Laertes Seeks Revenge (Act 4, Scenes 4, 5, and 7): As Hamlet departs for England, he witnesses Fortinbras’s army passing through Denmark. Upon learning that the Norwegian army is fighting with Poland over a relatively useless piece of land, Hamlet is inspired by Fortinbras’s straightforward ambition and pursuit of action. Meanwhile, Laertes arrives at the Danish court with plans to overthrow Claudius as revenge for Polonius’s murder. However, Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet murdered Polonius, redirecting his ire and setting up the final confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet. 

Hamlet Dies (Act 5, Scene 2): Upon returning to Denmark, Hamlet has a newfound resolve to complete his revenge. He sets aside Horatio’s misgivings and agrees to a fencing match with Laertes. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, Claudius and Laertes are working together, and Laertes is using a poisoned sword. During the duel, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup that Claudius prepared as a back-up plan for assassinating Hamlet, and both Laertes and Hamlet are injured by the poisoned sword. After Gertrude dies, the injured Laertes informs Hamlet of Claudius’s treachery and requests forgiveness. Hamlet forgives the dying Laertes and then kills Claudius. Horatio attempts to take his own life, but Hamlet stops him, requesting that he instead remain alive in order to clear Hamlet’s reputation after he dies. The play closes as Fortinbras arrives and Horatio prepares to tell Hamlet’s story. 

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