• Year Published: 1599-1602.
  • Pages: 289.

Hamlet Summary

Upon being summoned from his German school back to his home in Denmark for attending his father’s funeral, Prince Hamlet becomes depressed. It is shocking for him when he discovers that his mother Gertrude has already married his Uncle Claudius who now sits on the throne. Hamlet calls the marriage as ‘foul incest’ and suspects a foul play since his uncle has crowned himself as the king despite Hamlet being the true heir to the throne.

The ghost of King Hamlet visits the castle and Hamlet’s suspicions are further confirmed. The complaining ghost says that he cannot rest in peace since he was murdered and is now spending his days walking on Earth in Purgatory. He calls on Hamlet and tells him to avenge his death but also instructs him to spare Gertrude, he tells Hamlet to let her fate be decided by heaven. Claudius defends himself by saying telling Hamlet that the Ghost poured poison into King’s ear in his sleep.

Hamlet then behaves in a mad manner so that he can observe the conversations and interactions within the castle but gets even more confused and begins to question the trustworthiness of the Ghost. What in case the ghost is an evil scheme sent to trick him into murder? Hamlet is in agony as he thinks of himself as a coward and cannot stop thinking, words hold great importance to the reflective Hamlet but his world only prizes actions.

To test the truth behind ghost’s tale, Hamlet enlists a group of players to perform a modified version of a play known as The Murder of Gonzago. Hamlet has modified the play to include a scene where the murder as described by the ghost is recreated; he calls the modified play as ‘The Mousetrap’. The staged murder scene reveals that Claudius is conscience-stricken upon watching the play; he leaves the room saying that his vision is unclear and he cannot breathe properly. Hamlet then resolves to murder Claudius now that he’s convinced of his villainy, but notes that ‘conscience does make cowards of us all’.

Due to his reluctance to kill Claudius, Hamlet results in the death of six other people. The first death is of Polonius who is stabbed by Hamlet through a wall-hanging while the old man is spying on Hamlet and Gertrude in the private chamber of Queen. Hamlet is punished for this act as he is exiled to England by Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being school acquaintances of Hamlet had previously been called by Claudius from Germany to Denmark to spy on Hamlet. They are now instructed by Claudius to hand over Hamlet to the King of England for execution but Hamlet realises the plot and instead makes arrangements such that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up being hanged.

Ophelia is morose after her father’s death and erratic behaviour of Hamlet and drowns in a sad state singing love songs. Laertes who has returned from France in order to avenge the death of his father now watches his sister Ophelia slowly succumb to madness. He vows that he will punish Hamlet for Ophelia’s death at her funeral after exchanging blows with Hamlet over who loved Ophelia best.

Laertes then plots along with Claudius so that he can kill Hamlet but drops his poisoned sword amidst the sword fight. Hamlet grabs the poisoned sword proceeding to cut Laertes with it; before dying Laertes confesses that the sword was poisoned and Hamlet will die as well shortly. Horatio points out to Hamlet at this time “The Queen falls.” Gertrude had drunk a toast to her son thinking that her son is the one winning the fight from a poisoned cup which Claudius had kept for Hamlet. Following this, the queen dies. A dying Laertes further confesses his contribution in the plot and explains how the death of Gertrude is on the hands of Claudius. Hamlet is infuriated beyond measure and stabs Claudius using the poisoned sword before pouring down the remaining poisoned wine down his throat.

Before dying, Hamlet declares that after his death the throne shall be taken by Prince Fortinbras of Norway whose father had been killed by King Hamlet in the past. He then asks his friend Horatio to accurately explain the truth of events which led to this bloodbath and breathes his last breath releasing himself from the chains of words by saying “The rest is silence.” The play ends with Prince Fortinbras ordering a funeral with full military honours for Prince Hamlet as his first act as the King of Denmark.

Hamlet Characters

Hamlet is a rich piece of literature and can be easily counted among the top works of Shakespeare. This tragedy has been revered by enthusiasts of classical plays and has often been quoted by people. The fame of Shakespeare includes his ability to detail characters in varying shades of grey. The characters of Hamlet are thus highly regarded by literature fans.

The major characters of Hamlet are:

Hamlet: Being the title character, he is the protagonist of the play. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and around 30 years of age when the play begins. Hamlet’s mother is Queen Gertrude and he is the son of King Hamlet who has passed away recently, his uncle Claudius is presently the king. The character of Hamlet is that of a melancholy and bitter man who is also very cynical. His heart his filled with hatred towards his scheming uncle and he is disgusted by the sexuality of his mother. Hamlet is a thoughtful man who often reflects upon different situations and has studied from the University of Wittenberg. Although at most times Hamlet is shown to be of hesitant and indecisive nature, sometimes he can be impulsive and rash in his actions.

Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius and a beautiful young woman, Ophelia is the love of Hamlet’s life. Ophelia is a sweet natured girl filled with innocence who obeys her father and brother (Laertes) at all times. She gives in to the schemes of Polonius for spying on Hamlet. She remains maidenlike even as she slowly descends into madness and finally succumbs to death by drowning.

Claudius: He is the present King of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle. Being the antagonist of the play, Claudius plays a villainous role of an ambitious and calculating politician. He is driven by the need of sexual pleasures and a lust for power but at times he also shows guilt and humanity. His love for Gertrude is also sincere.

Gertrude: She is the Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet. She has been married to Claudius recently. Although she is portrayed as a shallow and weak woman who is more inclined towards affection and status, her love for Hamlet runs deep even though she does not share his urgency for righteousness or truth.

The other important characters in Hamlet are:

Horatio: A colleague of Hamlet at the University of Wittenberg, he is a close friend to Hamlet. Horatio remains helpful to Hamlet and maintains his loyalty towards him throughout the play. Horatio is the one who tells the story of Hamlet after his death.

Polonius: Father to Laertes and Ophelia, Polonius is Lord Chamberlain in the court of Claudius. He is a pompous man with conniving schemes.

Laertes: He is the son of Polonius and remains in France for the most part of the play. His nature is the exact opposite of Hamlet as he is quick to action and a passionate person.

The Ghost: He is a spectre of Hamlet’s father and claims to have been murdered by Claudius. Though he calls upon Hamlet to avenge him, the identity of the ghost is not confirmed. Hamlet speculates that the ghost could be an evil trick to persuade and deceive him into committing a murder.

There are many other characters in Hamlets who hold their own special places in the play. Since Shakespeare was the master of literature, each character has been defined and detailed with serene beauty and requires reading the play to understand them properly.

Hamlet Topics

Hamlet is a play that was written by William Shakespeare. It adopts the context of the Kingdom of Denmark. The play pays attention majorly to Prince Hamlet’s quest to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet’s uncle-Claudius is responsible for his father’s death in a bid to take over the throne. Some of the main characters are Ophelia, Claudius and Polonius.

The topics discussed in this play are as follows:

The topic of Suicide in Hamlet

This is a topic that has been greatly accorded attention in this play. The writer is trying to understand the human perception about suicide. The question of why human beings fail to commit suicide despite possessing the power to do so is manifested by Hamlet. In fact, he wonders why human beings choose to surpass all the challenges and injustices in their odyssey of life yet they have the option of suicide.

The topic of Political dynamics in Hamlet

This play is a manifestation of the political landscape and the issues surrounding Denmark. With the untimely death of the king, there appears to be no hope for redemption for the kingdom. Political instability is likely especially that the king was murdered by his own brother and Prince Hamlet is on a mission to seek revenge for it.

The topic of Relationships in Hamlet

Hamlet wallows in a state of confusion about love. He conveys an attitude of mistrust when it comes to love issues. This has been propagated by his mother-Gertrude who has failed to honour his father’s memory. Hamlet goes through several trials and tribulations in his life as he mourns the death of his father. He is frustrated by his mother’s actions of remarrying a short while after his father passes on. His mother’s actions make him believe that she did not have any love at all for his father. The thought of it breeds fear in him.

The topic of Women in Hamlet

Gertrude and Ophelia are the only two female characters in this play. Hamlet feels that these two men have undermined the trust he has for them. In his mad state, he thinks the two have conspired against him.

The topic of Madness in Hamlet

Hamlet demonstrates an intensified degree of insanity throughout this play. He does it with so much skill that anyone who reads the play perceives him to be mad in reality. The temptation to think that Hamlet is actually mad is evident as the play unfolds more. This is so because his life is encircled by so many unpleasant issues that he has to cope with. Hamlet’s decision to switch from his sanity nature to a state of madness is deliberate. It is a strategy that he endorses in order to conceal his true intentions to his adversaries. It is a tactic he incorporates so well through his tone of language to divert the attention of his foes. The main reason he does so is to investigate the death of his father. He aspires to find out how Claudius is connected to it as well.

Hamlet Quotes

Hamlet is a rich and eloquent play filled with a myriad of amazing and awe-filling quotes. While some people claim that every sentence of the play is a quote in itself, there are certainly some which have garnered more fame. Some of these quotes are:

The Queen falls 

By Horatio: As Laertes falls to the ground during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes; the Queen drinks a toast to Hamlet from the poisoned cup. As she falls to the ground, Horatio diverts Hamlet’s attention to her through this sentence.

The rest is silence.

By Hamlet: These are the last words of Hamlet to his loyal friend Horatio as he draws his final breath releasing himself from the burden of words and expression.

Conscience doth make a coward of us all.

By Hamlet: When Hamlet has finally discerned the evil and villainous nature of his Uncle Claudius, he decides to kill him. But in his reluctance to commit murder he states his thoughts through this sentence.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

By Polonius. These words are spoken by Polonius as he points out that even though the behaviour of Hamlet appears to be mad, what he is saying makes sense.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

By Hamlet: When Hamlet is talking to the Ghost of his father, Horatio walks in despite being advised against and is surprised at seeing the ghost. Hamlet then speaks these words to him.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

By Polonius. As Hamlet continues to act mad, Polonius tries to convince Gertrude that her son has gone crazy.

Listen to many, speak to a few.

By Hamlet. When he’s trying to tell how people should hear what everyone is saying but tell their thoughts to only the trusted ones.

I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.

By Gertrude. When Gertrude picks up the poisoned cup to drink a toast to Hamlet, Claudius tells her not to do so. She responds with these words and drinks the wine.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

By Hamlet. While talking to his school chums Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet asks them why they are in Denmark referring to it as a prison. When his friends sat that Denmark is not a prison to them, he uses these words to state the difference in their thoughts.

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

By Hamlet. He uses these words to describe his uncle Claudius when his suspicions about him are confirmed and he is told by his father’s ghost that Claudius poisoned him.

Hamlet Outline

Act – 1:

The spectre of King Hamlet appears. Claudius crowns himself as the king and marries his brother’s wife i.e. Queen Gertrude. Laertes tells that he intends to return back to France.

Hamlet is depressed about his father’s death and does not like the marriage. He also suspects foul play as he is the rightful heir to sit on the throne. Laertes tries to warn Ophelia regarding Hamlet and tells her that Hamlet may just be toying with her.

Hamlet meets the ghost of his father who claims to have been poisoned by his brother Claudius.

Act – 2:

Polonius spies on Hamlet and tries to know about his relation to Ophelia. Polonius concludes that Hamlet is mad due to his love.

Denmark faces troubles with Norway. The Prince Fortinbras seeks revenge for the murder of his father which was committed by King Hamlet.

Guildenstern & Rosencrantz who are school acquaintances of Hamlet are called to Denmark from Germany for spying on him but Hamlet does not put his trust in them.

Hamlet enlists a troupe of players to re-enact the murder of his father in front of his uncle Claudius. He calls the modified play as ‘The Mousetrap’.

Act – 3:

Hamlet contemplates between revenge and suicide, “to be or not to be”. He pretends to be insane with Ophelia.

Claudius leaves the room upon seeing the re-enactment of King Hamlet’s murder saying that his vision is unclear and he is not able to breathe properly. He looks disturbed and shows symptoms of guilt.

Hamlet is convinced that Claudius murdered his father and wants revenge. He comes upon Claudius as he is trying to pray but decides to not kill him in that instance.

Hamlet reprimands his mother for her remarriage and stabs Polonius through a wall hanging as he is spying on them.

Act – 4:

Claudius punishes Hamlet by sending him to England on exile. He sends Guildenstern and Rosencrantz with him carrying secret documents with instructions to deliver Hamlet to the English King for execution.

Laertes returns to Denmark from France. He is looking to avenge the death of his father.

Hamlet reflects on his actions which were fueled with a craving for revenge and compares them to war.

Ophelia descends into madness and drowns in a river surrounded by flower garlands which she had gathered.

Claudius plots with Laertes to kill Hamlet through a duel between Laertes and Hamlet.

Act – 5:

Hamlet discovers the scheme of Claudius for his execution and arranges for Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to be hanged instead. He returns to see that Ophelia has been buried and then confronts Laertes at the grave. They both exchange blows over who loved Ophelia the most and Laertes vows to punish Hamlet for Ophelia’s death.

The duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes uses an untapped and poisoned sword to fight Hamlet; Claudius has a poisoned cup of wine for Hamlet in case Laertes fails to kill him. Laertes drops the sword; Hamlet picks it up and stabs Laertes with it. Gertrude drinks a toast to Hamlet from the poisoned cup; the Queen dies. Laertes reveals the plot to Hamlet and states that Gertrude’s death is on Claudius’ head.

Hamlet kills Claudius and instructs his friend Horatio to tell people about the events which led to this bloodbath. Hamlet then announces that the throne will go to Prince Fortinbras who orders for a funeral with full military honours for Hamlet as his first step after taking the throne.

Hamlet Questions

Hamlet is hailed as one of the influential plays in English literature. Known to be the most filmed after the story of Cinderella. It has produced one of the deepest and complicated of Shakespeare’s characters – Hamlet himself. Hamlet is the story of a son’s quest to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle, Claudius.

There are many topics that surface in the story of Hamlet which is the root of the many Hamlet questions raised:

  1. The meaning of death to different characters in the play
  2. The ability of one to commit suicide
  3. Sanity versus insanity
  4. Action versus inaction
  5. Appearance and reality

Scholars have explored Hamlet questions from every angle. These are a few of the most important Hamlet questions raised: 

Why does it take so long for Hamlet to avenge his father?

Hamlet is a character of immense depth and is a masterpiece in itself. Shakespeare took his time to create and develop this character. Throughout the play. Hamlet struggles with the concept of death. This is in the form of death itself and death by suicide. Hamlet’s father’s death is a traumatic event. It can be said that the state of disarray that Hamlet finds himself in is due to the death of his father. His father’s ghost could hence be a creation of his own imagination.

Hamlet himself doubts the credibility of his father’s ghost. I believe that he somewhere in his mind realises that these thoughts have bloomed from trauma. The result of inaction when it comes to killing his uncle who took his father’s life.

What is the purpose of the play within a play?

The theme of appearance versus reality spans across the array of Shakespeare’s work.

The play within a play would be paramount to the likeness of reality to appearance and vice versa. This could be taken even further in that the play in the play demonstrates a truth that real life hides. In real life, it is not known that Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle) killed Hamlet’s father.

The play could also be what Hamlet had created in his mind because in the play his mother does not remarry.

The purpose of the play within a play is to demonstrate the mesh of real life with appearance. Life is a lot like a play.

Is Hamlet insane or is he pretending to be?

In the play, Hamlet resolves to feign insanity. Some believe that as the play progresses, he does indeed lose his sanity and is no longer pretending.

There are fragments that give to and against this viewpoint.

Hamlet sees his father’s ghost. When he has the conversation with his mother in her chambers, he is the only one who can see this ghost.

Hamlet also has a directed sense of purpose and tends to think deep before committing murder. This suggests that he remains sane. Given the circumstances, Hamlet seems to zone in and out of sanity in dealing with the death of his father.

At the end of the play. Hamlet asks his friend to live and tell his story. What then is the story of Hamlet?

This part of the play places the audience in a state of mental conflict. It is difficult to determine if the play was thus reported from the perspective of Hamlet. Was the entire play a creation of what his friend thought had happened? Is the play what actually happened? This sees Shakespeare’s theme through of appearance versus reality. We will never know what the true story of Hamlet actually is…

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