Hamlet Summary

Shakespeare's Hamlet details Prince Hamlet's efforts to avenge his father's murder.
  • After Prince Hamlet returns to Denmark, the ghost of his father appears and identifies Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, the current king, as his murderer.
  • Wary of the ghost, Hamlet tries to confirm Claudius's guilt before seeking revenge. To deflect suspicion, Hamlet makes himself appear mad.
  • After a previous attempt to kill Hamlet fails, Claudius conspires with Laertes to murder Hamlet during a public duel. Laertes seeks vengeance because Hamlet murdered his father, Polonius, and mistreated his sister, Ophelia, who later committed suicide.
  • During the duel, Hamlet, his mother, Laertes, and Claudius all die.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,764 words.)