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Plot Summary: Hamlet
EXPLORING Shakespeare. 2003. Lexile Measure: 1020L.
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Act 1

The play opens shortly after midnight on the battlements of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Three guards—Barnardo, Francisco, and Marcellus—have asked Prince Hamlet's friend Horatio to stand watch with them; they report that a Ghost in the shape of Prince Hamlet's father, the late King Hamlet, walks the battlements at night. The Ghost appears twice, but does not speak. Horatio speculates that the Ghost's appearance is a bad omen for Denmark's future. He also reveals that Denmark is preparing for war: King Fortinbras of Norway was killed by King Hamlet in single combat, and now his son, Prince Fortinbras, is threatening to invade in order to regain territories subsequently taken by Denmark.

The next day, the current King of Denmark, the late king's brother Claudius, holds court. Claudius thanks the assembled courtiers for helping him succeed to the throne and for permitting his marriage to Gertrude, the late king's wife and the mother of Prince Hamlet. The king dispatches two ambassadors, Voltemand and Cornelius, to Norway to address the conflict with Fortinbras. Claudius next turns his attention to Hamlet, who has recently returned to Denmark from his studies at the University of Wittenberg. Claudius and Gertrude chide Hamlet for expressing excessive melancholy over his father's death. Once alone, Hamlet describes the depth of his grief and his disgust at his mother's marriage to Claudius so soon after his father's death. Horatio then enters and tells Hamlet about the Ghost, and Hamlet decides to stand watch with the guards that night.

Meanwhile, Laertes, the son of the Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, is preparing to return to his studies in Paris.

Click here for the media record of Laertes and Polonius Give Advice (I. iii. 1-135) In parting, he warns his sister, Ophelia, to be wary of Prince Hamlet's amorous advances, pointing out that the marriage of a prince is a matter of state policy rather than personal affection and urging her to guard both her heart and her chastity. When Polonius enters, he gives Laertes some last-minute advice; upon learning of his daughter's relationship with Hamlet, he forbids her to see him again.

Hamlet Meets the Ghost (I. iv. 13-63) That night, the Ghost appears to Hamlet. After telling Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius, the Ghost demands that Hamlet take revenge, but instructs him not to harm his mother. Hamlet promises to think of nothing else until his mission is complete. He then swears Horatio and the guards to secrecy, warning Horatio to say nothing of the Ghost even if he, Prince Hamlet, should behave strangely.

Key Scenes

Act 1, scene 2

The second scene of Hamlet introduces most of the major characters, establishes essential facts about each, and illuminates some key relationships between them. The scene opens in the court of Denmark at Elsinore, with the entrance of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Gertrude's son Hamlet, the high-ranking court official Polonius, his son and daughter Laertes and Ophelia, as well as Cornelius, Voltemand, and other courtiers and attendants. Claudius is the first to speak. His initial words concern his brother, the recently deceased King Hamlet, and the facts of his own hasty and unusual marriage with King Hamlet's widow, Gertrude. He sends Cornelius and Voltemandto Norway on a diplomatic mission involving issues dating back to King Hamlet's reign. Laertes, who had come for Claudius's coronation, expresses his wish to return to France. After Polonius assures the king that he approves, Claudius grants permission.

Both Claudius and Gertrude tell Hamlet that he is grieving unreasonably for his father. Gertrude points out that a parent's death is an expected event, and Claudius comments that it is "unmanly" to express deep sorrow for a long period. Claudius notes that Hamlet is next in line to the throne of Denmark, and asks that he not return to school in Wittenberg, but that he instead remain at court. Gertrude too implores Hamlet to stay; he addresses his assent to her alone.

Left by himself, Hamlet expresses deep unhappiness over his father's death and his mother's remarriage. Two palace guards, Marcellus and Barnardo, and Hamlet's friend Horatio, newly arrived at court, enter and tell him they have seen a ghost resembling King Hamlet. Hamlet questions them about the apparition, asks them to tell no one else of the sighting, and agrees to watch for the ghost with them that night. He speculates that the specter of the dead king in armor means that something is terribly wrong.

Famous Quotes


Therefore our sometime sister, now our Queen....Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy....With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage....Taken to wife.


Thou know'st 'tis common: all that lives must die....


Frailty, thy name is woman....

Act 2

The first scene opens with Polonius sending a servant, Reynaldo, to gather information on Laertes' behavior in Paris. Ophelia enters and tells Polonius she has been frightened by Hamlet's bizarre behavior. Polonius concludes that the Prince has gone mad because Ophelia has rejected his advances. Meanwhile, Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet's former school fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and ask them to determine the reason for Hamlet's increasingly odd behavior. Claudius's ambassadors return from Norway with news that the current king of Norway, Fortinbras's uncle, has restrained Prince Fortinbras from attacking Denmark. Instead, Fortinbras is requesting free passage through Denmark on his way to invade Poland. When the ambassadors exit, Polonius shares his explanation for Hamlet's behavior with the king and queen. Claudius and Polonius agree to spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia in order to test Polonius's theory. Hamlet talks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but evades their questions. He then welcomes a troupe of traveling actors and arranges for them to present before Claudius and the court a play about regicide that resembles King Hamlet's murder. Act II ends with a soliloquy in which Hamlet reproaches himself for his delay in exacting revenge. He expresses doubt as to the Ghost's veracity and voices his intention to use Claudius's reaction to the play to determine the king's guilt.

Key Scenes

Act 2, scene 2

Claudius and Gertrude greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, longtime friends of Hamlet, and ask them to determine the reasons for Hamlet's recent strange behavior. Hamlet said (in Act I, scene v) that he plans to feign madness in certain situations, but so far his erratic behavior has taken place offstage. Voltemand and Cornelius, sent by Claudius as ambassadors to Norway in Act I, scene ii, return and report that the Norwegian king has ordered his nephew Fortinbras to break off aggressions against Denmark. Fortinbras requests safe passage through Denmark to march against Poland.

Polonius tells the King and Queen that he believes Hamlet is mad because of unrequited love for Ophelia. Gertrude says that Hamlet has ample cause for distress in his father's death and her speedy remarriage, but Claudius agrees to test Polonius's theory by arranging to secretly witness a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlet and Polonius speak together briefly. For the first time, the audience observes Hamlet's assumption of lunacy: he engages in witty yet bitter wordplay and mocks the old courtier. Polonius exits, directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet. The Prince greets his old friends warmly. They question him about his state of mind, with many broad hints that he might be angry because of thwarted ambition to take the throne. Hamlet forces them to admit that the King and Queen sent for them to probe his state of mind. He reveals nothing except that he is distracted and does not know why.

Click here for the media record of Hamlet Describes His Melancholy (II. ii. 292-310) Hamlet is pleased to learn from them that a troupe of traveling actors is coming to Elsinore. He asks the players to perform a play called The Murder of Gonzago the following night, with additional dialog supplied by Hamlet.

Click here for the media record of Hamlet Conceives His "Mousetrap" (II. ii. 543-601) The scene concludes with a soliloquy. Hamlet berates himself for not having yet avenged his father's death, denounces Claudius, and determines to test the truth of the Ghost's claims by observing the King's reaction to a murder scene in The Murder of Gonzago.

Famous Quotes


More matter, with less art.


I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.


What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god....


I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.


What's Hecuba to him, or he to her, / That he should weep for her?


The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

Act 3

The next day Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia as the prince abuses her with violent denunciations of women and marriage. After Hamlet storms away, Claudius reveals his intention to send Hamlet away on a diplomatic mission to England. Polonius, however, recommends that Gertrude first try to reason with her son. Later, the players present their play before the royal court. Claudius abruptly leaves the performance, convincing Hamlet of his guilt. Alone in his chamber, Claudius tries to pray but despairs of forgiveness. Hamlet discovers his uncle kneeling in prayer and is poised to kill him, but then restrains himself, reasoning that if Claudius is killed in a state of repentance his soul will be saved. Hamlet then meets with Gertrude in her chamber, where he denounces her so violently that Polonius—who is hidden behind a curtain—calls for help. In a rage, Hamlet thrusts his sword through the curtain and kills Polonius. The prince continues to berate his mother until the Ghost appears to him and reminds him of his mission. Hamlet implores Gertrude to repent of her sins; he then leaves, dragging out Polonius's body.

Key Scenes

Act 3, scene 1

Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are present. The King and Queen question Hamlet's friends about their meeting with him. The two somewhat inaccurately report on the encounter, and note that Hamlet hopes the King and Queen will join him to watch a play that evening. Claudius asks Gertrude to leave him and Polonius alone to secretly observe an encounter that they have arranged between Hamlet and Ophelia. Gertrude tells Ophelia that she hopes Hamlet may find happiness with her, and Ophelia echoes the sentiment. In an aside, heard by the audience but not the other characters, Claudius reveals that he is hiding an ugly secret, but he does not divulge it.

Click here for the media record of "To be..." and the "Nunnery" Scene (III. i. 56-163) Hamlet enters and delivers a soliloquy in which he speculates on the nature of existence and his own life. When he sees Ophelia, they begin a conversation that quickly escalates into Hamlet's angry denunciation of her, himself, the nature of women, and the institution of marriage. He then leaves. Ophelia expresses her belief that Hamlet is insane. Claudius says that while Hamlet is clearly disturbed, he does not seem to be insane. He plans to send the Prince to England on an ostensible diplomatic mission, stating that the voyage and a sojourn in another country will help calm him. Polonius does not abandon his theory of madness for unrequited love, and recommends that Gertrude speak privately to Hamlet about his erratic behavior that night after the play.

Famous 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. To die—to sleep, / No more....


Get thee to a nunnery. Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?


Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

Act 3, scene 2

Hamlet enters with several of the traveling players who have come to the court. He instructs them in performance issues. Horatio enters. Hamlet commends Horatio's reliability and urges his friend to watch closely Claudius's reaction to a scene in the play that duplicates what the Ghost claims are the circumstances of his murder by Claudius.

Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and other courtiers and attendants enter. Hamlet teases Polonius about having acted in college, and declines Gertrude's request that he sit with her, seating himself instead at Ophelia's feet. He makes angry and sexually suggestive remarks to her throughout the performance. The play opens with a dumb-show, or pantomime of the action to follow. A king and queen behave lovingly toward one another. When the king sleeps, he is poisoned by a man who then woos and wins the queen. The play proper follows, with dialog in rhymed couplets. Hamlet occasionally comments on the action. As the players enact the poisoning scene, with Hamlet narrating, Claudius rises, calls for light, and exits.

Hamlet and Horatio discuss Claudius's reaction and Hamlet declares that he believes the Ghost's claim wholly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter to tell Hamlet that Gertrude wants to speak with him; in an exchange with them, Hamlet accuses them of lying and of attempting to manipulate him. Polonius also brings Gertrude's summons to Hamlet.

Famous Quotes


Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue....


Give me that man / That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him / In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts, / As I do thee.

Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i'th' Capitol.
Brutus killed me.
Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf


That's a fair thought to lie between maid's legs.

Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play?
Gertrude: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.


You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery....

Act 3, scene 4

Polonius tells Gertrude that Hamlet is coming to speak with her. He urges her to tell him frankly that his behavior has been unacceptable and that she has been protecting him from the consequences of his erratic actions.

Click here for the media record of The "Closet" Scene (III. iv. 1-158) Polonius hides behind a tapestry, and Hamlet enters. Gertrude begins to reprimand her son, who replies that he has come to tell her of her own offenses. Gertrude calls for help, and Polonius echoes her. Hamlet stabs and kills him through the tapestry. Gertrude expresses shock and dismay, and Hamlet asks if the hidden figure was the King. Hamlet discovers the identity of his victim, and as Gertrude continues to lament the killing, Hamlet compares his crime to that of regicide. He forces Gertrude to listen as he rages against her decision to remarry, describing his father in glowing terms and Claudius as vile. He expresses the conviction that a woman of Gertrude's age should have better judgment than to marry such an inferior man; further, that at her age she should not even experience physical desire, hence it is especially wrong of her to have marital relations with Claudius. Gertrude begs Hamlet to stop talking, admitting that she sees some error in her ways. Hamlet continues, calling Claudius a murderer and accusing him of obtaining the crown by dishonest means.

The Ghost appears, reminds Hamlet that he has not yet done what he promised, and urges him to comfort Gertrude. Because she cannot see or hear the apparition, Gertrude is convinced that Hamlet is insane as he speaks with and refers to the Ghost. Hamlet insists that he is as sane as she. He instructs her to confess her sins, stop sleeping with Claudius, and above all, not to tell Claudius that Hamlet is feigning madness. He admits regret for Polonius's death, but assumes it is God's will that he bear the sin of murder. Hamlet reminds Gertrude that he is to be sent to England accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he states he suspects of being part of a plot against him. He maintains that he will outsmart them, and exits, dragging Polonius's corpse.

Famous Quotes

Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.


You cannot call it love; for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble / And waits upon the judgment....


But look, amazement on thy mother sits. / O step between her and her fighting soul....


O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain.


This counsellor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave.

Act 4

Gertrude informs Claudius that the prince has killed Polonius. Following a face-to-face encounter, the king orders Hamlet to leave immediately for England in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to whom he gives a sealed letter authorizing the prince's execution upon his arrival there. As he prepares to board ship, Hamlet observes Fortinbras's army encamped nearby. In a long soliloquy, Hamlet compares himself unfavorably with the assembled soldiers, who are willing to die "for a fantasy and trick of fame" while he still hesitates to act despite compelling cause. He resolves henceforth to think only of revenge.

Soon thereafter, Ophelia goes mad; she appears before the king and queen talking disjointedly and singing bawdy songs. Laertes arrives from France, furiously demanding an explanation for his father's death; his grief and anger mount when he discovers Ophelia's insanity. While Claudius tries to placate the enraged youth, sailors arrive bearing letters from Hamlet. In a note to Horatio, Hamlet reveals that he was captured by pirates on the way to England but has been able to bargain for his release. Hamlet's letter to Claudius announces his imminent return to Elsinore. The king and Laertes devise a plot to kill Hamlet: Laertes will challenge the prince to a fencing match and arm himself with an "unbated" foil—one that has not been blunted—which he will also dip in poison. Gertrude then enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned.

Act 5

Hamlet and Horatio meet in a graveyard near Elsinore. Hamlet's discovery of the skull of the late court jester, Yorick, leads to a discussion with a gravedigger about death. A funeral procession approaches, and Hamlet and Horatio conceal themselves. When Hamlet realizes that it is Ophelia who is being interred, he reveals himself and claims that his love for her was greater than Laertes', whereupon Hamlet and Laertes scuffle over the grave. Later, Hamlet tells Horatio that he discovered Claudius's plot to have him killed in England and that he switched the king's letter with one ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. Osric, a courtier, delivers Laertes' challenge to a fencing match. Hamlet accepts, although he admits to Horatio that he has a troubling premonition about the match.

During the match, Claudius poisons a cup of wine intended for Hamlet. When the prince declines to drink, Gertrude drinks from the cup herself. As the match continues, Laertes wounds the prince with the tainted rapier; Hamlet responds with a furious attack during which the two men exchange foils, and the prince in turn wounds Laertes with the poisoned weapon. Gertrude collapses, calling out as she dies that the wine is poisoned. Laertes in turn confesses to the poisoning of the rapier. Hamlet turns on Claudius, first stabbing him, then forcing him to drink the remainder of the poisoned wine. The king dies, quickly followed by Laertes, who first forgives Hamlet for Polonius's death and begs forgiveness for his own actions, which Hamlet grants. Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story to the world. Martial noises are heard in the distance, indicating Fortinbras's return through Denmark from his successful conquest of Poland. Hamlet nominates Fortinbras his successor to the throne of Denmark, then dies. Fortinbras enters; Horatio promises to tell him how the catastrophe came about, and Fortinbras orders Hamlet's burial with full military honors.

Key Scenes

Act 5, scene 1

As the scene opens, a gravedigger and his companion are preparing a grave and discussing the propriety of burying a suspected suicide in consecrated ground. Hamlet and Horatio enter after the gravedigger has sent his companion to buy liquor and is singing while he digs.

Click here for the media record of Hamlet in the Graveyard (V. i. 87-189) Hamlet speaks with Horatio and then the gravedigger about the nature of mortality while contemplating the bones that have been uncovered. The gravedigger identifies one skull as that of Yorick, King Hamlet's jester, a companion of Hamlet's childhood. Hamlet and Horatio withdraw when they see a funeral procession, including the King, Queen, and Laertes, approaching. Laertes expresses anger toward the priest who refuses to perform the complete funeral service for a possible suicide victim. On learning that it is Ophelia who has died, Hamlet steps forward, insisting that his love for Ophelia was greater than that of her brother. Hamlet and Laertes fight, while Gertrude identifies Hamlet's madness as the cause of his actions. He leaves, and Claudius sends Horatio after him. Claudius then speaks privately to Laertes, reminding him that the two of them have devised a plan to kill Hamlet.

Famous Quotes

Hamlet: Has this fellow no feeling of his business a sings in
Horatio: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.


That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once.


This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the King's jester.
Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.....
Where be your gibes now, your gambols,
your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were
wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock
your own grinning?


What is he whose grief / Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow / Conjures the wand'ring stars and makes them stand / Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I / Hamlet the Dane.

Act 5, scene 2

Hamlet tells Horatio that while aboard ship going to England, he discovered that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying sealed orders for his death. Hamlet changed the orders, calling for their executions instead. During a pirate raid, Hamlet boarded the attacking ship and convinced the attackers to return him to Denmark. Hamlet and Horatio note that Hamlet must act against Claudius before knowledge of these events reach the Danish court.

Osric, a courtier, brings Hamlet a challenge to a fencing match with Laertes on which the King has placed a large bet. Claudius and Laertes have conspired to poison Laertes's fencing foil and a cup of wine that will be offered to Hamlet. Hamlet agrees to the match, and the court assembles to watch. Hamlet asks Laertes to forgive him for acts which he claims were the result of madness, and Laertes proffers a conditional acceptance of Hamlet's apology. During the match, Hamlet refuses the cup, and Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine. Once Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned foil, Claudius tries to stop the match, but it continues. The combatants accidentally exchange weapons, and Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned foil. Gertrude collapses and tells Hamlet she has been poisoned, then dies. Realizing he too is doomed, Laertes confesses the poisoning plot to Hamlet and exchanges forgiveness with him before dying. Hamlet wounds Claudius with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink the remainder of the poisoned wine. Weakening, he charges Horatio to give a full account of everything that has happened. Prince Fortinbras of Norway, returning victorious from his war against Poland, passes through the court. Hamlet proposes that Fortinbras be named King of Denmark, and dies. English ambassadors enter to report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Fortinbras decrees that Hamlet's body lie in state.

Famous Quotes


A hit, a very palpable hit.


I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.


Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane, / Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? / Follow my mother.


If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.


Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Hamlet: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and son of Gertrude and the late King Hamlet of Denmark, is the title character of Hamlet. When the play opens, he is distraught over his father's recent death, his mother's remarriage to his father's brother Claudius, and the ascension of Claudius to the throne of Denmark. Hamlet's distress turns to rage when a Ghost appears in the shape of his dead father and tells Hamlet that Claudius poisoned him. Hamlet vows to avenge his father's murder. Hamlet's erratic behavior as he contemplates acting against Claudius prompts the King and his councillor, Polonius, to employ devious methods to discover the reason for his apparent madness. To this end, Claudius and Gertrude summon to Elsinore two of Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and ask them to find out what is troubling the Prince. Hamlet sees through this ploy, and throughout the play treats Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even Claudius with witty contempt. Meanwhile, in several melancholy soliloquies which include reflections on mortality, suicide, honor, and the apparent futility of life, Hamlet berates himself for his long delay in taking revenge.

Hamlet's pretended insanity includes bizarre behavior towards Polonius's daughter Ophelia, whom he once courted. This convinces Polonius, who had ordered Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet, that the Prince has gone mad out of unrequited love. Claudius and Polonius spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia during which Hamlet implies that he never loved Ophelia and makes several derogatory comments about women and the nature of marriage. (This scene is often called the "nunnery" scene because Hamlet repeatedly tells Ophelia to "get thee to a nunnery"; "nunnery" was often used in Elizabethan slang to mean a house of prostitution.) Unconvinced that love is at the root of Hamlet's disturbing conduct, Claudius decides to send him to England. In the meantime, doubting whether the Ghost is truly his father's spirit and can thus be trusted, Hamlet arranges for a troupe of traveling actors to perform a play that closely resembles the circumstances of the murder as recounted by the Ghost. Claudius's perturbed reaction to the performance convinces Hamlet that the Ghost's allegations are true. During a meeting with his mother during which he violently denounces her relationship with his uncle, Hamlet fatally stabs Polonius, who has been eavesdropping behind a curtain; apparently, the Prince has mistaken him for Claudius. Alarmed by Hamlet's behavior, Claudius sends him off to England immediately, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission but in reality with the intention of having him killed there.

Hamlet manages to escape this plot and returns to Denmark. He finds that Ophelia has gone mad and drowned, an apparent suicide. Claudius convinces Ophelia's brother, Laertes, that Hamlet is responsible for the deaths of both his father and his sister. Learning that Hamlet has returned to Denmark, Claudius persuades Laertes to take revenge by killing Hamlet during a fencing match in which Laertes will use a rapier that has not been blunted and that is tainted with poison. To make doubly sure of Hamlet's death, Claudius prepares a goblet of poisoned wine, which he plans to offer to Hamlet if the Prince appears to be winning. During the match, both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded with the poisoned sword, and the Queen drinks from the cup intended for Hamlet. As the Queen dies, she warns Hamlet that the wine is poisoned. Laertes then reveals the plot against Hamlet, and Hamlet finally takes his revenge, first stabbing Claudius, then forcing him to drink from the poisoned cup. Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness before both die.

Hamlet is one of the most controversial and most widely discussed characters in English literature. Scores of critics have debated the reasons for his actions, the playwright's view of his character, and the meaning of his tragedy. The primary focus of the debate has been the reason for Hamlet's long delay in carrying out his vow of revenge. An early view which survived into the twentieth century was expressed by the English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who saw Hamlet as a man paralyzed by his own intelligence and introverted nature. In an essay dated 1811, Coleridge attributed Hamlet's delay to "great, enormous, intellectual activity, and a consequent proportional aversion to real action." A more recent expression of this view can be found in an essay by noted Shakespeare critic A. C. Bradley, who pointed out that throughout the play Hamlet expends far more time and energy in his melancholy philosophical musings than in advancing his revenge.

A psychoanalytical approach that became popular in the mid-twentieth century suggested that in creating the character of HamletShakespeare anticipated by some three hundred years Sigmund Freud's concept of the Oedipus complex. In this view, first expounded by Ernest Jones in 1949, Hamlet has never recovered from his natural childhood jealousy of his father. In support of this position, Jones pointed to the Prince's obsession with his mother's sexual relationship with Claudius, which has plunged him into depression even before he learns of his father's murder and which throughout the play distracts him from his task of taking revenge against his uncle. By in effect carrying out Hamlet's repressed childhood wish to kill his father and to possess his mother, Jones argued, Claudius revives Hamlet's repressed memories of forbidden childhood thoughts, making "the thought of incest and parricide combined" so unbearable that Hamlet finds himself incapable of taking action.

Yet another view is represented by a 1956 essay by Edgar Johnson. Johnson took issue both with the early view of Hamlet as a Romantic hero immobilized by his own intellect and with the psychoanalytical approach proposed by Jones. Johnson stressed the importance of discrepancies between appearance and reality in the play. He also emphasized contrasts between the way Hamlet handles his task of revenge and the attitudes of Fortinbras and Laertes, two other sons who also seek revenge for perceived wrongs done to their fathers. Hamlet's "dilemma," Johnson concluded, is "to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice, for the welfare of the State, to weed the unweeded garden of Denmark and set right the time that is out of joint."

Gertrude: Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, is the widow of the late King Hamlet and the mother of Prince Hamlet, who is the title character of the play. We learn early in the play that Gertrude has recently married the new king, Claudius, who is the brother of the late king and thus Prince Hamlet's uncle.

Although Gertrude has relatively few lines in Hamlet, she is central to the action, since Hamlet's disgust at her marriage to Claudius is one of the main subjects of his agonized reflections in the course of the play. Hamlet is upset both because Gertrude has remarried so quickly—less than two months after his father's death—and because she has chosen to marry Claudius. Not only does Hamlet consider Claudius inferior to his father in every respect, but in Shakespeare's time, it was considered a form of incest for a widow to marry her brother-in-law.

We first meet Gertrude in Act I, scene ii, where she urges Hamlet not to mourn his father's death excessively. In the soliloquy that follows, Hamlet expresses a general weariness and disgust with life, which he links directly to his feelings about his mother's marriage. "Frailty, thy name is woman!" he exclaims, expressing dismay at Gertrude's behavior.

Later in Act I, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father. The Ghost accuses Claudius of murdering him and bitterly denounces his brother for seducing Gertrude. Critics continue to dispute whether the Ghost's words mean that Gertrude had an adulterous relationship with Claudius beforeKing Hamlet's death, or whether he is referring to their relationship after his death. While demanding that Hamlet avenge his murder, the Ghost orders him not to harm Gertrude.

While Gertrude says relatively little, some of her comments are insightful and to the point. She cuts short a lengthy explanation from the long-winded Polonius by urging him to produce "more matter with less art" (Act II, scene ii). Later, during the performance by the players, the player Queen makes a long and passionate declaration of devotion to her husband; Gertrude observes, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (Act III, scene ii). Also much quoted is her comment as she scatters flowers on Ophelia's grave: "Sweets to the sweet, farewell!" (Act V, scene i).

Gertrude's most dramatic moments come in the highly emotional "closet scene" (Act III, scene iv), which takes place in her private chamber or "closet." Acting on Claudius's instructions, the Queen calls Hamlet to her chamber, where Polonius is listening behind a curtain. The Queen begins by scolding Hamlet for offending Claudius. Hamlet responds by accusing her of marrying Claudius out of purely sexual desire. Hearing Polonius behind the curtain, Hamlet stabs him through the curtain and kills him, apparently mistaking him for Claudius. He then reveals to Gertrude his belief that Claudius killed his father. Hamlet's tirade against the Queen is cut short when the Ghost (who is invisible to Gertrude) again appears to Hamlet and reminds him of his mission of revenge. Toward the end of the scene, Gertrude expresses remorse for her behavior. Her lines, however, do not make clear whether she already knew or, indeed, believes that Claudius murdered Hamlet's father, and whether she thinks Hamlet is sane or mad. Stage and film productions of the play have interpreted these questions in many different ways.

Although Gertrude does not subsequently abandon Claudius, neither does she reveal to him Hamlet's suspicions. She dies in the final scene of the play, when she drinks from a cup of poisoned wine prepared by Claudius and intended for Hamlet. In her dying words she tells Hamlet that the wine is poisoned.

Critics generally regard Gertrude as weak-willed, highly dependent on Claudius and easily manipulated by him. A statement of this view can be found in a 1964 article by Baldwin Maxwell, in which the critic points out that Gertrude repeatedly turns to others for guidance and that most of her speeches merely repeat ideas voiced by Claudius. Some critics, however, such as Carolyn Heilbrun in an article first published in 1957, take a more positive view of her character, arguing that her pointed remarks reveal a perceptive intelligence.

The Ghost (of Hamlet's Father): The Ghost of Hamlet's father appears in four scenes of the play and precipitates much of the action. Before the play begins, King Hamlet of Denmark has been found dead. His brother Claudius has become king and has married the widowed queen, Gertrude. Prince Hamlet, grieving the loss of his father and his mother's hasty and incestuous (by Elizabethan standards) remarriage, has descended into a deep melancholy. Moreover, on two consecutive nights the Ghost has appeared in armor to palace guards on the battlements of the castle. The two guards have told no one about the Ghost except Hamlet's friend Horatio, who has agreed to stand guard with them to see if the Ghost appears again.

In Act I, scene i, the Ghost appears to the two guards and Horatio. Horatio commands the Ghost to speak, but it "stalks away." It then reappears and seems about to speak to Horatio, but when a cock crows, signalling daybreak, it vanishes. Horatio resolves to tell Prince Hamlet about the sighting. Hamlet is startled by Horatio's story and decides to watch for the Ghost himself.

In Act I, scene iv, the Ghost reappears and beckons Hamlet to withdraw privately with it. When they are alone (scene v), the Ghost tells Hamlet that it is the spirit of Hamlet's father, murdered by Claudius. The Ghost denounces Claudius for seducing Gertrude and calls for Hamlet to avenge his death but not to harm Gertrude. The Ghost then vanishes, saying as his last words "Remember me." When Horatio and Marcellus appear, Hamlet repeatedly orders them to swear that they will not reveal what they have seen. The voice of the Ghost is heard several times repeating the word "Swear."

Hamlet vows vengeance, but later expresses doubt about the Ghost's identity, speculating that it could be a devil appearing in his father's form to tempt him to sin. This reaction characterizes his attitude toward the Ghost until the play scene (Act III, scene ii). Hamlet's own uncertainty is mirrored in the critical debate about the nature of the Ghost. While most critics agree that Shakespeare intended audiences to accept the apparition as the Ghost of Hamlet's father, Kenneth Muir, in an essay from 1963, lists other possible explanations of the Ghost that Shakespearean audiences might have entertained: "a ghost could be either an illusion, 'a phantom seen as a portent of danger to the state', a spirit come from the grave because of something left undone, a spirit come from purgatory by divine permission, or a devil disguised as a dead person in order to lure the living into mortal sin." Muir maintains that "all these theories are tested in the course of the play", with Hamlet finally deciding, on the basis of Claudius's reaction to the production of "The Mousetrap," that the Ghost is truly his father come from purgatory to seek vengeance. Despite Hamlet's own certainty, some critics argue that the Ghost is in fact a devil whose object is to lure Hamlet to his own demise by arousing his passion for vengeance. In this view, expressed in an essay by Eleanor Prosser in 1971, Hamlet is not a classic example of an Elizabethan revenge play, but rather Shakespeare's attempt to condemn the very idea of revenge. Another interpretation is that the Ghost is a hallucination seen by only a few characters.

The Ghost makes a final appearance in Act III, scene iv, shortly after Hamlet stabs Polonius, who has been secretly listening to a confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude. The Ghost reminds Hamlet that he is sworn to vengeance, and as they talk Hamlet expresses his shameful regret that he has not yet acted against Claudius. The Ghost then draws Hamlet's attention to Gertrude's "amazement" and urges him to assist her in her moral struggle. Gertrude claims to neither see nor hear the Ghost, and this supports the critical interpretation that the apparition Hamlet describes to her is a symptom of his madness. Gertrude's apparent inability to see the Ghost has led some critics to suggest that Shakespeare wanted his audience, too, to interpret the Ghost as a hallucination. Most critics, however, agree with the view that prevailed during the first three centuries after the writing of Hamlet, which George Santayana summed up in an essay dated 1908: " Shakespeare was evidently content to take the Ghost literally, and expected his audience naturally to do the same."

Ophelia: Ophelia is the sister of Laertes and the daughter of the king's councillor, Polonius. As Act I, scene iii, opens, Ophelia has apparently confided to her brother that Prince Hamlet has declared his love for her. Laertes, who is saying goodbye to his sister as he leaves for France, warns Ophelia not to take Hamlet's professions of love seriously. Pointing out that the weddings of princes are usually arranged for reasons of state rather than for love, he cautions her to guard her virginity. Ophelia promises to take his words to heart but also urges her brother to follow his own advice and to avoid "the primrose path of dalliance." Polonius enters and adds his warnings to those of Laertes. He orders Ophelia not to spend time with Hamlet or even to talk to him. Ophelia promises to obey.

Ophelia next appears in Act II, scene i, when she tells Polonius that Hamlet has frightened her by entering her room and behaving in a bizarre manner. Convinced that Ophelia's refusal to speak to Hamlet has caused the prince to lose his mind, Polonius hurries to Claudius and Gertrude, who have also noted Hamlet's odd behavior and are in the process of instructing Hamlet's old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out the reason for it. Polonius and Claudius arrange to spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia so that they can determine if love for Ophelia is really the cause of his apparent madness. This meeting occurs in Act III, scene i, and follows Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Ophelia greets Hamlet and tries to return his gifts to her. Hamlet denies having given her anything and subjects her to several vehement and disjointed statements questioning the falseness of women and the nature of marriage. He tells Ophelia that he "did love [her] once"; to her response, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so," he answers: "You should not have believed me." Because Hamlet repeatedly charges Ophelia to "Get thee to a nunnery," with the possible double meaning of "brothel," this scene is often referred to as the "nunnery scene." Although Polonius continues to believe that unrequited love has caused Hamlet's madness, Claudius is not convinced, and resolves to send Hamlet to England.

During the play "The Mousetrap," Hamlet sits next to Ophelia and responds to her attempts at conversation with angry and sexually suggestive remarks. When Ophelia next appears, in Act IV, scene v, Hamlet has killed her father and has himself been sent away to England, and Ophelia has gone mad. She comes before the king and queen singing snatches of songs about death, love, and sexual betrayal. She exits briefly, then returns after the arrival of Laertes and distributes various herbs and wildflowers with symbolic meanings. Two scenes later, Gertrude interrupts a meeting between Claudius and Laertes with the news that Ophelia has drowned, an apparent suicide. Blaming Hamlet for the deaths of both his father and his sister, Laertes plots with Claudius to obtain revenge by killing Hamlet.

At the beginning of Act V, two gravediggers discuss the appropriateness of Ophelia being given "Christian burial" even though her death is believed to have been suicide. Hamlet, who has escaped his uncle's plot to have him killed in England and has returned unexpectedly to Denmark, enters with Horatio. Unaware of Ophelia's death, he engages a gravedigger and Horatio in a discussion of mortality. As the funeral procession approaches, Hamlet and Horatio hide. When Laertes shows his grief by leaping into the grave, Hamlet, realizing that the funeral is Ophelia's, follows suit, claiming that his own love for Ophelia was far greater than Laertes'. The two men grapple and have to be separated by the other mourners.

Ophelia is sometimes seen as an excessively weak character; first, because she obeys her father so unquestioningly, even to the point of helping him to spy on Hamlet, and second, because she loses her mind. Several critics, however, have defended both Shakespeare's choice of making Ophelia the character that she is, and Ophelia's behavior within the play. A. C. Bradley, a prominent early twentieth-century critic, pointed out that in the dramatic interests of the play Ophelia could not be made so strong a character as to distract the audience's attention from the central character, Hamlet. Bradley cited the youth, inexperience, and innocence of Ophelia, as well as the nearly absolute authority of fathers over daughters in Elizabethan times, as ample reason for her obedience to Polonius. He also points out that she apparently agrees to let her father and Claudius spy on her meeting with Hamlet out of a belief that they are sincerely interested in helping him recover from madness. Both Bradley and a later critic, Theodore Lidz, have argued that Ophelia's situation in the play is one that might realistically drive any young, sensitive woman mad. Not only does her suitor kill her father—an action that her brother will feel obliged to avenge—but she has been led to believe that this horrific situation has been created by her own behavior toward Hamlet. Lidz also suggested that there are parallels between the reasons for Ophelia's madness and the source of Hamlet's emotional distress. The father of each character, he pointed out, has been murdered in circumstances that implicate another person whom that character loves deeply: in Ophelia's case, Hamlet, and in Hamlet's case, his mother.

Barnardo: Danish soldier on guard at the castle of Elsinore. Barnardo and Marcellus first see the Ghost and report the event to Horatio, who joins them on the night watch during the spirit's third visit.

Claudius: Hamlet's uncle. After he murders his brother, King Hamlet, Claudius replaces him as ruler of Denmark and marries the widowed queen, Gertrude. In several scenes, Claudius is shown to be a reasonably effectual ruler, conducting state business with skill and dispatch. In Act III, scene iii, after he has witnessed his own crime recreated in the "Mousetrap" play, Claudius tries to pray for forgiveness but acknowledges to himself that he is not truly penitent because he still enjoys "those effects for which I did the murther: / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen." When Claudius suspects that Hamlet has discovered his guilt, he plots to kill the prince.

Cornelius: Danish courtier sent as an ambassador to the court of Norway.

Fortinbras: Prince of Norway whose father was killed by King Hamlet in single combat. He threatens to invade Denmark in order to regain Norwegian territories forfeited to Denmark. When Claudius achieves a diplomatic resolution to the issue, Fortinbras leads the army he initially directed at Denmark across Danish territory to invade Poland. At the end of the play, the dying Hamlet names Fortinbras as his choice to rule Denmark. Fortinbras's resolute and straightforward leadership is often seen as a contrast to Hamlet's hesitation and soul-searching.

Francisco: Danish soldier on guard at the castle of Elsinore. His companions Barnardo and Marcellus first see the Ghost and report the event to Horatio, who joins them on the night watch during the spirit's third visit.

Gravediggers: A jocular gravedigger and his companion, a clown (peasants who serve as the play's comic relief), who dig Ophelia's grave. The gravedigger engages Hamlet in a conversation about the nature of mortality. His humorous and matter-of-fact attitude balances the complexity of Hamlet's soul-searching.

Guildenstern: With Rosencrantz, a longtime friend of Hamlet. The two are initially enlisted by Claudius and Gertrude to discover the source of the prince's erratic behavior. Hamlet, however, immediately suspects that they were summoned for this purpose, and his exchanges with them contain pointed comments regarding their opportunistic willingness to betray him in the king's service. Claudius uses them without their knowledge in a plot to deliver Hamlet to his death. Hamlet discovers Claudius's plot and has them killed in his place.

Horatio: A former fellow-student and loyal friend of Prince Hamlet. Horatio enjoys the absolute trust of those who know him: it is Horatio to whom the guards appeal to witness the appearance of the Ghost, it is Horatio who brings the Prince news of the Ghost, and it is Horatio whom Hamlet first seeks out after uncovering and escaping Claudius's attempt to have him killed in England. In Act III, scene ii, Hamlet professes his faith in his friend with a speech enumerating Horatio's qualities of judiciousness, patience, and equanimity. As Hamlet plots to avenge his father's murder, Horatio becomes his sole confidant. As Hamlet is dying, Horatio attempts to commit suicide, but the prince prevents him and charges Horatio to "Report me and my cause aright" and "draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story."

Laertes: Polonius's son. He wrathfully returns from France after Prince Hamlet kills Polonius. Claudius persuades him to take part in a plot in which he will poison the prince during a fencing match. During the match he has second thoughts about his role in the plot but he persists nonetheless, fatally wounding Hamlet and also meeting his own demise. While he is dying Laertes reveals the plot to Hamlet and begs his forgiveness, while also forgiving the prince for Polonius's death.

Marcellus: Danish soldier on guard at the castle of Elsinore. Barnardo and Marcellus first see the Ghost and report the event to Horatio, who joins them on the night watch during the spirit's third visit.

Osric: Foppish courtier who acts as the King's messenger and as umpire of the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes.

Players: A troupe of traveling actors already known to Hamlet. They arrive at Elsinore to perform for the Danish court, and Hamlet employs them to enact a play that mirrors the circumstances of his father's murder.

Polonius: Laertes's and Ophelia's father; an elderly and long-winded courtier and chief counselor in the Danish court. Polonius betrays a propensity for hypocrisy and spying: his first major speech, to his departing son Laertes, is a lengthy diatribe on, among other things, the virtue of being close-mouthed and discreet. Polonius sends a servant to spy on Laertes in France and report on his conduct, and he arranges for himself and Claudius to secretly observe an encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia. Polonius wrongly assumes that Prince Hamlet has gone mad for love of Ophelia. He dies when Hamlet stabs him through the curtain behind which he is eavesdropping on a confrontation between Hamlet and Queen Gertrude.

Priest: Priest who officiates at the funeral of Ophelia. Laertes castigates him for suggesting that Ophelia may have committed suicide.

Reynaldo: Courtier whom Polonius instructs and sends to Paris to observe and report on Laertes's conduct.

Rosencrantz: With Guildenstern, a longtime friend of Hamlet. The two are initially enlisted by Claudius and Gertrude to discover the source of the prince's erratic behavior. Hamlet, however, immediately suspects that they were summoned for this purpose, and his exchanges with them contain pointed comments regarding their opportunistic willingness to betray him in the king's service. Claudius uses them without their knowledge in a plot to deliver Hamlet to his death. Hamlet discovers Claudius's plot and has them killed in his place.

Voltemand: Danish courtier sent as an ambassador to the court of Norway.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Plot Summary: Hamlet." EXPLORING Shakespeare, Gale, 2003. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 22 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2115300001