“infobox Book “
name Hamlet
image caption Cambridge School of Shakespeare Edition
author William Shakespeare
country England
language English
genre Shakespearean Tragedy
publisher Cambridge University Press
release date 1609
media type Play
pages 289

Summary of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is one of the bard’s most acclaimed plays, is the tale of Prince Hamlet of Denmark, the son of old King Hamlet. As the play begins Hamlet is summoned back home to Denmark from Germany where he has been studying. The reason for his return to Denmark is that his father has just died. However, instead of the younger Hamlet being made king in succession to his father, he is shocked to learn that is uncle, Claudius, the dead king’s brother, has quickly married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, and then had himself proclaimed as King of Denmark. Prince Hamlet is immediately suspicious of both his uncle and his mother and believes there has been some foul action on their part to murder his father. The play revolves around Hamlet’s efforts to uncover the truth, but is also a meditation on the psychology of Prince Hamlet and his disillusionment with the world.

As the play progresses, Prince Hamlet’s suspicions are confirmed when he is visited by the ghost of his deceased father at Elsinore Castle. Old King Hamlet tells his son that he is unable to rest in peace in death because he was murdered most foully by his own brother. Claudius, the dead King Hamlet explains, killed him by pouring poison into his ear while he slept. Until such time as this act is avenged the old king must wander through Purgatory. He therefor requests his son to avenge his death, but to spare his former wife, Gertrude.

Hamlet is now conflicted. He questions his own sanity and thought processes. For instance, might the appearance of his father’s ghost just be a symptom of his own madness? What if the ghost was an agent of the devil or some other evil sent to trick him into killing his own uncle? He contemplates the existential ramifications of all of this in a famous soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play, where Hamlet asks, “To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer, The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep, No more; and by a sleep, to say we end.” Effectively Hamlet is questioning whether he would be better dead himself than to try to work out what has happened to his father and what action he needs to take in response.

All these matters confound Hamlet in such a way that he eventually decides to take action to test the truth of the ghost of his father’s words. In order to do so he hires a troupe of players or actors and actresses to perform a play entitled The Murder of Gonzago at the castle. However, he takes the original play and edits certain sections to include scenes which recreate Claudius’s possible pouring of poison into the old king’s ear. Then, when the play is performed in front of the court, Prince Hamlet witnesses his uncle Claudius becoming uncomfortable at the scene where the poison is poured into the ear of the sleeping king. He realises from the reaction that what the ghost of his father told him was true and he resolves to kill his uncle.

There follow many months of conspiracy. Hamlet delays killing Claudius, while Claudius is ever more suspicious of his nephew and dispatches him to England under the supervision of two of his old school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet in turn discovers this plot and has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed before Claudius’s plot succeeds. There is a great amount of further emotional discord, including the descent into madness of Ophelia, a potential future wife of Hamlet’s, who drowns.

Anguished by these events, Ophelia’s brother Laertes confronts Hamlet and attacks him with a poisoned sword. He cuts Hamlet, following which Laertes drops the sword. Hamlet then retrieves it and stabs Laertes. At this point Laertes reveals that the blade was poisoned and states that Hamlet will also die soon. In a morbid series of events which then follow, Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, drinks from a poisoned chalice which Claudius had intended to offer Hamlet. He begins to falter and die, at which point Hamlet kills Claudius by stabbing him too with the poisoned blade of Laertes. Thus, Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes all lie dead at the end of affairs. Before he dies, Hamlet declares to those present at court that Prince Fortinbras of Norway should succeed as King of Denmark. Hamlet dies in the arms of his friend Horatio, with the famous words, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, being uttered.


Prince Hamlet

Prince Hamlet is the son of Queen Gertrude and the recently deceased King Hamlet, and nephew and stepson of the new King Claudius. Hamlet has a reflective personality and struggles with philosophical questions and moral doubt.

King Claudius

Claudius is the former King Hamlet’s brother. He has recently become King after marrying his widowed sister-in-law, Gertrude. Claudius has a scheming, political personality and is very concerned with eliminating threats within the kingdom.

Queen Gertrude

Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, has recently married Claudius, about two months after the death of her former husband King Hamlet. She has a weak personality and is easily dominated by Claudius.


Polonius is Claudius’ councilor, and father to Ophelia and Laertes. He is a pompous and meddling, and known for his wordy speeches.


Horatio is Hamlet’s friend, who remains loyal to him to the end. Yet there has been a critical interpretation of this character suggesting links to himself and Polonius, that his loyalty has a much deeper meaning.


Ophelia is daughter to Polonius and sister to Laertes. In the past, she has been Hamlet’s love interest, possibly lover. She is submissive to Polonius and reserved towards Hamlet.


Laertes is the son of Polonius, and the brother of Ophelia, to whom he is very close. He has a brash, assertive personality, which is contrasted to Hamlet’s thoughtful nature.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two acquaintances of Hamlet’s, enlisted by the King and Queen to watch him. They are both fawningly loyal to King Claudius, but somewhat foolish. Their personalities are almost interchangeable.


Fortinbras is a Norwegian prince. Previous to the events of the play, King Hamlet had killed his father, and seized some of Norway’s land. Fortinbras is initially determined to make war against Denmark to avenge his father’s death.

Important Quotes

“To be or not to be? that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.”

“Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now, and if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Summary of Scenes

Act I scene i

Characters: Barnardo, Francisco, Horatio, Marcellus, Ghost

Barnardo and Francisco are two sentinels, keeping watch outside Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Barnardo arrives at midnight to relieve Francisco of his watch. Just as Francisco leaves, Marcellus and Horatio arrive. Marcellus is another guard, and Horatio is a friend of Hamlet’s.

Barnardo welcomes them, and the three of them begin discussing a “dreaded sight,” which Marcellus and Barnardo have seen twice. Horatio is accompanying them.

Their anxious whispers are cut short as the ghost appears before them. Horatio addresses the ghost, commanding it to speak, but instead it disappears. Horatio and Marcellus are stunned by the ghost’s resemblance to Hamlet’s father, the former King Hamlet of Denmark. They suggest that perhaps the appearance of the ghost predicts the occurrence of a terrible event.

At this point, the ghost reappears. Once again, Horatio begs the ghost to speak. However, his speech is interrupted by a crowing rooster, which signals the coming of morning. The ghost disappears without saying a word. The three decide to tell Hamlet, reasoning that the ghost may choose to speak to him.

Act I scene ii

Characters: Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet, Cornelius, Voltemand, Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo

King Claudius addresses his court. He expresses his sadness about the recent death of his brother, the former king. At the same time, he rejoices in his new marriage to Queen Gertrude, his former sister-in-law, now wife.

He also briefs the court on mounting tension with Norway, where Prince Fortinbras is plotting to recover lands previously claimed by King Hamlet. He dispatches two courtiers, Cornelius and Voltemand, to travel to Norway and alert Norway’s king, Fortinbras’ aged uncle.

Laertes, the son of Claudius’ Chamberlain Polonius, approaches the throne and asks for permission to return to France, now that the coronation has passed. Polonius and Claudius both grant permission.

Now Claudius’ attention is directed toward Hamlet. Hamlet’s dark mood is in stark contrast to Claudius’ excessive cheerfulness. Both Claudius and Gertrude urge Hamlet to let his mourning pass. Claudius tells Hamlet to accept that burying one’s parents is simply a part of life, and encourages Hamlet to think of him as a father. They ask him not to return to Wittenberg, where he had been studying, and he agrees to stay.

Everyone leaves. Left alone, Hamlet reflects on the futility of life, and the inevitability of death. He’s confused by the way his mother remarried so willingly, when she seemed so in love with his father.

Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo enter. Hamlet is surprised to see Horatio, a friend from Wittenberg. Horatio tells Hamlet that he may have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet pledges to watch with them that night in case the ghost reappears, and asks them to keep the event a secret.

Act I scene iii

Characters: Laertes, Ophelia, Polonius

Laertes is packing to return to France, while talking with his sister, Ophelia. He cautions her against a relationship with Hamlet, telling her that although Hamlet may love her now, his position will interfere with their relationship. She agrees to keep his words in mind.

Polonius enters to say goodbye to his son. He launches into a long speech of advice on how Laertes should behave himself while away. Laertes says goodbye, and leaves.

Polonius asks Ophelia what she and Laertes were discussing. When she tells him it was about Prince Hamlet, Polonius begins questioning her. While Ophelia protests that Hamlet’s feelings toward her are honorable, Polonius disagrees. He tells her to stay away from Hamlet, and she promises to obey.

Act I scene iv

Characters: Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, Ghost

Horatio and Marcellus are once again keeping watch outside the castle, now accompanied by Hamlet. Sounds of revelry emanate from the castle, as King Claudius celebrates his new position. Hamlet expresses harsh criticisms of this tradition, declaring that it gives the Danes a bad reputation.

The ghost appears. Stunned, Hamlet begs the ghost to speak to him. Silently, the ghost beckons for him to follow. Horatio and Marcellus tell Hamlet not to follow, afraid that the ghost will lead him toward harm. Saying that he does not value his life or fear death, Hamlet follows the ghost anyway, exiting the scene. Horatio and Marcellus decide to follow.

Act I scene v

Characters: Hamlet, Ghost, Horatio, Marcellus

Alone with Hamlet, the ghost begins to speak, confirming that he is Hamlet’s father. To Hamlet’s shock, the ghost reveals that he has been murdered and asks Hamlet to avenge him. He explains the sinister circumstances of his death: while King Hamlet was sleeping in the orchard, Hamlet’s uncle – now King Claudius – crept up and poured poison into the King’s ears, killing him while he slept. Claudius then seduced Hamlet’s mother into their incestuous relationship. The ghost asks Hamlet to be merciful toward Hamlet’s mother, leaving her to her own conscience; however, he requests that Hamlet exact revenge against the scheming Claudius.

The ghost disappears. Emotionally, Hamlet swears to hold the memory of the ghost’s words above all else.

At this point, Horatio and Marcellus arrive, breathlessly inquiring what happened. Hamlet refuses to say, but asks them to swear that they will keep the events of that night secret. They promise they will. Hamlet tells them that in the future, he may begin acting strangely and even pretend to be crazy. He warns them not to reveal what they know.

Act II scene i

Characters: Polonius, Reynaldo, Ophelia

Polonius is instructing his servant, Reynaldo, who he is sending to Paris to spy on Laertes. After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters. She is clearly upset, and Polonius asks what’s wrong. She tells him that Hamlet approached her, acting troubled. He grabbed her by the arm and stared, but did not speak. Polonius infers that perhaps Hamlet has been driven crazy with his denied love for Ophelia. Since this would explain Hamlet’s strange behavior recently, he decides to go tell the king.

Act II scene ii

Characters: Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, Voltemand, Cornelius, Hamlet

King Claudius and Queen Gertrude welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two friends of Hamlet’s who have been summoned to the castle. They ask them to try and cheer Hamlet up, or at least discover what’s bothering him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern promise to do what they can.

Polonius enters. He announces that the ambassadors to Norway have returned. He also says that he may have discovered the cause of Hamlet’s behavior. The King is anxious to hear about this, but first they must speak with the returned messengers, who have an interesting story to tell.

Apparently, when the King of Norway discovered Fortinbras’ desire to attack Denmark, he summoned him to the castle and reprimanded him. Fortinbras apologized, and promised not to attack Denmark. The old king was so happy to hear this that he gave Fortinbras a large sum of money to build an army, telling him to go attack Poland instead. He also asked that Fortinbras be given safe passage through Denmark, on his way to Poland.

King Cladius is pleased. Polonius returns to the subject of Hamlet. Polonius admits that he forbade Ophelia from returning Hamlet’s feelings. He suggests that perhaps the cause of Hamlet’s recent insanity is his denied love for Ophelia. He proposes that they arrange a chance meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius hide behind a curtain to observe their conversation.

Just then Hamlet enters the room. Claudius and Gertrude leave, and Hamlet and Polonius are left alone together. Hamlet stays in character, pretending to be crazy; however, his ravings are punctuated with witty remarks about Polonius’ age and self-importance.

Polonius hurriedly leaves, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. Hamlet greets them pleasantly, asking the reason for their visit. First, they say they only want to see him, but after Hamlet presses them, they admit that Gertrude and Claudius summoned them. They tell Hamlet that although he may be depressed, he will enjoy the performance of a troupe of actors, just arrived at the castle.

Polonius returns and announces the arrival of the actors. Hamlet welcomes them, and then asks them to perform a favorite speech of his, a historical tale about the fall of Troy. They do so, and Hamlet is extremely moved.

Everyone leaves. Left alone, Hamlet reflects on the authenticity of emotion shown by the players, even about a fictional event. He compares this to his own inability to act to avenge the death of his father.

He reveals his plan for the players. He will instruct them to perform a drama very similar to the circumstances in which his father was killed. If he observes Claudius looking guilty, he will have definitive proof that Claudius did murder his father.

Act III scene i

Characters: Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern

The King and Queen are questioning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in hopes that they’ve discovered the cause of Hamlet’s insanity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report that they have not; however, Hamlet is looking forward to seeing a performance from the recently arrived players. The King and Queen agree to attend the performance to help cheer up Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave. The King asks Gertrude to leave also, as he and Polonius have arranged to spy on Hamlet through Ophelia.

Polonius directs Ophelia to walk through the atrium, holding a book. Polonius and Claudius then hide, as Hamlet approaches.

Hamlet enters, talking to himself. Opening his speech with the famous words, “To be or not to be,” he broods over the painful experiences of life. He concludes that everyone would commit suicide if they were not afraid of what would happen after death.

At this point, he acknowledges Ophelia. But instead of being affectionate to her, he is harsh and cold. He tells her that he never really loved her. He rails against her, and women in general. Then he leaves.

Ophelia is heartbroken. The King and Polonius enter again. The King is convinced that Hamlet’s insanity is not the result of love; he decides that Hamlet is dangerous, and should be sent to England, hopefully to recover. Polonius still thinks that Hamlet’s behavior is the result of denied love, and resolves to spy on Hamlet in Gertrude’s bedroom, while Gertrude questions Hamlet about his feelings.

Act III scene ii

Characters: Hamlet, Players, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Horatio, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia

Hamlet is giving the actors advice on how to perform his play. Horatio arrives, and Hamlet tells Horatio about his plan to determine the King’s guilt. Hamlet asks Horatio to watch Claudius closely during the play.

Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and assorted other courtiers arrive for the play. Hamlet returns to his pretense of insanity. He sits next to Ophelia, teasing her with a variety of sexual innuendos.

The players enter, and after enacting a brief silent summary of the play, they begin the performance. The player King and player Queen discuss their love for one another. The player Queen pledges her loyalty and leaves the player King to sleep. Lucianus, the player King’s nephew, enters and pours poison in the player King’s ears.

Outraged, Claudius rises suddenly and demands lights, then exits with everyone except for Hamlet and Horatio. Hamlet and Horatio agree that the King’s behavior was very suspicious, and Hamlet concludes that Claudius must be guilty.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter once more. They inform Hamlet that his mother is very upset and wishes to see him.

Act III scene iii

Characters: Claudius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern

Claudius is very upset by the play. He resolves to send Hamlet away to England, where he will no longer be a threat. He instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany Hamlet to England, and they fawningly agree.

Polonius enters. He informs the King that he is about to go hide behind the curtain in Gertrude’s room, in hopes of receiving information from Hamlet’s conversation with her.

Left alone, the King is struck by guilt. He despairs of his terrible offense in murdering his brother, but finds himself unable to repent of his deed, since he’s still enjoying the rewards of his crime. He begins praying.

As he’s praying, Hamlet enters, planning to kill him. But then he has second thoughts. He reasons that if he kills Claudius now, Claudius’ soul will go to heaven, since he has just asked forgiveness for all his sins. Since Hamlet’s father was killed while sleeping, and unable to confess before death, Hamlet decides that this would be too merciful. He leaves, unseen.

Act III scene iv

Characters: Gertrude, Polonius, Hamlet

Polonius hides behind Gertrude’s curtain as Hamlet enters the room. Hamlet asks what’s wrong; his mother tells him that he’s offended his “father”, to which he replies that she is the one who has offended his father. He continues to speak harshly, and she becomes afraid, crying out for help. Polonius makes a noise from behind the curtain. Assuming it to be Claudius, Hamlet reacts impulsively, stabbing the intruder.

Hamlet’s mother is stunned, and Hamlet is also distressed when he discovers that he has killed Polonius. Nevertheless, he continues with his indictment of his mother. He hints that his father has been murdered, but focuses mainly on Getrude’s infidelity by becoming involved with the inferior Claudius.

She expresses remorse over her actions, but he continues to press her. Then the ghost enters, visible only to Hamlet. The ghost reminds Hamlet of his real purpose – avenging his murder by killing Claudius. As they converse, Gertrude becomes even more upset, since Hamlet seems to be talking to the air. However, he assures his mother that he is not crazy.

Hamlet begs his mother to repent, and stay away from Claudius. He also tells her not to reveal what she’s learned to Claudius. She promises to keep it a secret.

Act IV scene i

Characters: Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern

The queen rushes to tell Claudius of the events that have just occurred. He reflects on the difficulty of explaining this murder to the court, and resolves to send the dangerous Hamlet away as quickly as possible. He summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and commands them to go find Hamlet and obtain Polonius’ body.

Act IV scene ii

Characters: Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern

Hamlet has just finished disposing of Polonius’ body when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. They ask him where the body is, but he refuses to tell them. He accuses them of being foolish spies in the service of Claudius. They tell him he must visit Claudius, and the three leave together.

Act IV scene iii

King, Courtiers, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Hamlet

Claudius announces Polonius’ murder to several courtiers. He stresses that although he believes Hamlet should be controlled, it must be done carefully since Hamlet is well-liked. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter with Hamlet. Claudius asks where Polonius is. Hamlet replies “At supper,” joking that Polonius is at the worms’ supper, being eaten by them. He muses on how one’s position in life means nothing after death.

Claudius tells Hamlet that he is to leave for England. Hamlet says goodbye and exits. Left alone, Claudius reflects on his own scheme; he has sent letters to England, ordering the death of Hamlet once he arrives.

Act IV scene iv

Characters: Fortinbras, Norwegian Captain, Hamlet

Fortinbras is marching through Denmark with his army. On the way, he encounters Hamlet (and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) on the way to meet the ship for England.

Hamlet and Fortinbras’ Captain discuss the goals of Fortinbras’ army. The captain tells Hamlet that they are making war to reclaim a small piece of land, which is not actually worth much. Hamlet is stunned that Fortinbras is willing to risk so many men’s lives over something that matters so little. He compares this to his own inability to kill Claudius, despite the fact that his father has been murdered and his mother seduced. He decides to start acting on his vengeful feelings.

Act IV scene v

Characters: Horatio, Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius, Laertes

A courtier reports to Gertrude on Ophelia’s mental state. Ophelia is being driven insane with grief for the loss of her father. Gertrude agrees to speak with her.

Ophelia enters, singing. The queen tries to question her, but she responds with cryptic songs, a clear sign that her father’s murder has driven her insane. Claudius enters, and both Claudius and Gertrude attempt to placate Ophelia. She leaves.

A messenger arrives and alerts the King that Laertes has returned, and is followed by a rebellious mob. Laertes enters, telling the mob to wait outside. He asks Claudius for his father. The King admits that Polonius is dead, but attempts to calm Laertes. He compliments Laertes for wanting to avenge his father’s death, but assures him that he was not the one who killed Polonius.

Ophelia enters again, singing and babbling. Laertes is saddened by her condition, and further convinced to take revenge. When Ophelia exits, the King persuades Laertes to hear his account of the events, promising to reveal who was responsible for Polonius’ death.

Act IV scene vi

Characters: Horatio

Horatio is approached by several sailors, who have brought him a letter from Hamlet. The letter informs him that Hamlet is now on his way back to Denmark after a chance attack by pirates left him a prisoner on a pirate ship. The pirates, however, treated him respectfully, in exchange for an audience with the king. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still on their way to England. The letter requests that Horatio find Hamlet as quickly as possible.

Act IV scene vii

Characters: Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude

Claudius and Laertes discuss the murder of Polonius, which Claudius blames on Hamlet. He explains that he was unable to punish Hamlet because Hamlet’s mother loves him, as does the public.

A letter arrives, informing Claudius that Hamlet has unexpectedly arrived back in Denmark.

Laertes is determined to get his revenge, and Claudius offers to help him. Claudius suggests a plan: when Hamlet returns, they will arrange a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes will exchange his dull fencing sword for a sharp one, so that he can kill Hamlet during the match and make it look like an accident. Laertes agrees, adding that he will also poison the tip of the sword. Claudius suggests a backup plan of a poisoned cup at the match, from which he will offer Hamlet a drink if the poisoned sword fails.

The queen enters, with the tragic news that Ophelia has drowned. Laertes leaves, mourning for Ophelia.

Act V scene i

Characters: Gravediggers, Hamlet, Horatio, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes

Two characters are bantering with one another while one digs a grave. The grave is for Ophelia; the two discuss whether she deserves a Christian funeral when her death appears to be a suicide.

Hamlet and Horatio approach. Hamlet reflects once more on how death makes everyone equal, no matter what his position in life. He asks the gravedigger whose grave it is, but the gravedigger teases him with a series of puns and does not answer.

Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and courtiers arrive, carrying a corpse. Hamlet and Horatio hide, hoping to discover who has died. The accompanying priest refuses to perform all the rites for the corpse, because of the suspicious circumstances of her death. Laertes grows upset and insults the priest, and Hamlet realizes that the corpse is Ophelia.

Struck with sorrow, Hamlet rushes forward, proclaiming his sadness and jumping into the grave with Ophelia’s corpse. Laertes curses him and they begin wrestling. Hamlet insists that he loved Ophelia, so much that “forty thousand brothers” could not have loved her so much. Still declaring his love for Ophelia, he exits.

Claudius takes this opportunity to assure Laertes that vengeance will be coming soon.

Act V scene ii

Characters: Hamlet, Horatio, Osric, Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, Fortinbras

Hamlet is telling Horatio how, while traveling with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he discovered and opened the letter that ordered English authorities to execute him. He replaced this letter with one directing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be put to death instead. He says he doesn’t feel guilty for this action, because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betrayed him. However, he does feel bad about how he behaved toward Laertes, since like himself, Laertes has also lost a father.

A courtier named Osric enters with a message. Obscuring his message in nonsensical flattery, he tells Hamlet that Laertes has arrived in court and that Claudius has arranged a fencing match between them, placing a bet that Hamlet will win. Hamlet noncommittally agrees, and Osric leaves.

Horatio discourages Hamlet from accepting the match, but Hamlet decides to go ahead with it, despite vague misgivings.

Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Osric and assorted courtiers enter.

Hamlet begins by apologizing to Laertes, explaining that his actions were the result of insanity. Laertes says he cannot accept the apology without advice on the matter of honor, but he will accept Hamlet’s love.

The match begins, and Hamlet makes a hit. Claudius drinks to him, then drops a “priceless pearl” – actually the poison – into the cup. Hamlet scores a second hit. The queen moves to drink to his success, and Claudius tries to stop her, but it’s too late.

Laertes and Hamlet continue to fence. In the scuffle, Hamlet seizes Laertes’ sword, and they are both wounded by it. Both are bleeding.

Laertes confesses that he has been killed by his own treachery. At the same time, the queen dies, crying out that the drink was poisoned. Also dying, Laertes unburdens his heart to Hamlet, telling him that they have both been poisoned, due to the treachery of the king. Hamlet then stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword and makes him drink the remains of the poisoned cup. Claudius dies. Laertes asks Hamlet’s forgiveness and dies as well.

Fortinbras’ trumpets sound in the distance. Hamlet says he hopes that the kingdom will become Fortinbras’, and asks Horatio to tell his tragic story. At this, Hamlet dies.

Fortinbras and his attendants enter. He demands to know what has happened. Horatio promises to tell the long, terrible story. Fortinbras mourns the death of the royal family, despite the political possibilities it offers him. He orders Hamlet’s body to be carried out like a soldier’s.

Discussion Topics and Essay Questions

  • The play Hamlet develops the characters of three very similar young men – Laertes, Prince Fortinbras, and Prince Hamlet. Each of these young men has lost or loses a father, and must find a way to avenge his father’s death and reclaim his honor. However, each goes about doing this task in a very different way. Discuss the contrasts and similarities in their situations and personalities. How do Laertes’ and Fortinbras’ actions change our conceptions of Hamlet’s actions? Does the play seem to favor one character’s approach over another?
  • There are many scenes throughout the play that depict one family member giving advice to another. In Act 1 scene ii, Claudius rebukes Hamlet for his moody behavior. In Act 1 scene iii, Laertes counsels Ophelia at great length regarding her relationship with Hamlet. In the same scene, Polonius also gives Laertes a long speech about how he should behave himself at school, and then gives Ophelia more advice on Hamlet. In Act II scene ii, a similar event is alluded to between Prince Fortinbras, and his uncle, the King of Norway. Discuss and analyze these scenes, and others like them. What do these scenes show about father-son, brother-sister, and mother-son relationships? How do these scenes develop the theme of family relationships in general? And how do these scenes factor into the undercurrent of incest running through the play – are they affirmative, or contradictory?
  • In Act III scene i, Hamlet claims to have never loved Ophelia. However, in Act V scene i, he makes a wholly contradictory claim, saying he loves her more than anyone else ever could. Discuss the contrasts between these two passages. Was he lying the first time, the second time, neither, or both? Support your argument with other passages from the play, and suggest some reasons for his startling change in behavior.
  • Ophelia and Gertrude are the only two female characters in the play. There are many similarities between them: they’re both fairly weak personalities, and they are both easily manipulated and dominated by the men in the play. And they both meet tragic ends, spurring the men in the play to further advance the play’s central action. Develop these thoughts and discuss some more of the similarities between them. While their submissive personalities may be partly explained by the culture of the times, there are many Shakespeare plays that depict much stronger, more willful women. Why might Shakespeare have chosen these two women for this particular play? What is the significance of their weak characters and diminished roles?
  • A common aspect of postmodern literature is the development of metafictional themes. “Metafiction” is a kind of fiction which self-referentially deals with the writing and very nature of fiction itself – a fiction about fiction. Metafiction is frequently self-conscious and ironic. However, metafiction has been around for much longer than postmodernism. Hamlet is a great example. Discuss Act II scene iii, and the presentation of The Mousetrap, in terms of the concept of metafiction. Pay special attention to Hamlet’s lengthy speech of advice to the players on how to be good actors, and the audience’s running commentary on the events of The Mousetrap. Describe the layers of irony inherent in these scenes. How might Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences have responded to these meta-dramatic intrusions? Are there contemporary works with similar methods to which you can compare this one?

Extreme Summary

Danish King is murdered, son dithers but takes revenge.

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