A ghost appears to the night watchmen outside the royal castle in Elsinore, Denmark. It does not speak until its third appearance, and then it only speaks when alone with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The ghost very much resembles Hamlet's recently deceased father, the former King Hamlet - and he claims to be such - but Hamlet is not sure whether to trust the apparition or not. The ghost reveals a harrowing story of murder committed by Claudius, the King's brother who promptly assumes the throne after Hamlet Senior's death. Swearing himself to revenge, Hamlet is understandably irate to learn of his father's untimely murder, but as of yet he remains uncertain of the ghost's credibility. He resolves to put on an "antic disposition" - to act like a madman - in hopes of confirming Claudius' guilt or innocence, and then in order to take necessary action.
Further complicating the situation is Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, who has remarried shortly after her husband's death; Hamlet's anger at her haste is only magnified by her (in his mind) "poor" choice: none other than his father's brother, Claudius! That makes Hamlet both son and nephew to Claudius, the new King of Denmark, the same party guilty of his father's blood. Hamlet meanwhile becomes romantically involved with Ophelia, daughter to the King's advisor named Polonius. Both Polonius and his son, Laertes, counsel Ophelia to resist Hamlet's advances. She does.
It is not long before everyone at court has noticed a considerable change in Hamlet's behavior - he is no longer merely melancholic, but now his words quite often fail to make sense. The King and Queen attempt to figure out what ails him by employing two of his old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as spies. Polonius, thinking he has discovered the root of Hamlet's sorrow, reports to the King and Queen of Hamlet's unrequited love for his own daughter, Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude are skeptical, and after witnessing a cruel exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia, they are certain Polonius is dead wrong. Something else, still unknown, plagues the young Hamlet. In the most famous soliloquy of all drama ("To be, or not to be, that is the question"), Hamlet wonders whether he is not better off dead; and while he decides against committing suicide, he wonders whether he is not better off taking no action at all. Eventually he comes to realize it is his duty to revenge his father, like it or not, and so he summons up stamina and courage to do the dark deed.
In the meantime a host of players have arrived at Elsinore, and they agree to stage a piece called The Murder of Gonzago (alternatively called The Mousetrap) at Hamlet's behest. Hamlet is still looking for confirmation of Claudius' guilt, for he still hasn't made a decision on the ghost's trustworthiness; he sees this play-within-the-play as the perfect opportunity to "catch the conscience of the King." When a scene is played before Claudius that too strikingly resembles his own murder of Hamlet Senior, the King flees the performance in horror. Hamlet is thereby instantly convinced of Claudius' guilt and the ghost's honesty. His mother, distraught at what the play has done to her husband, calls for Hamlet to reprimand him. En route to his mother, Hamlet encounters the King alone, apparently at prayer; Hamlet decides it is not yet high time to kill the King because he would have made a final reckoning and thus go to heaven, not hell. Next Hamlet and Gertrude talk in her chamber, but before long they are interrupted by a voice behind the curtain. Hoping to strike Claudius dead, Hamlet stabs blindly with his sword and soon learns he has instead killed Polonius. He then continues to converse with his mother, telling her how shameful and adulterous her marriage to Claudius is.
As a consequence of Polonius' murder, Hamlet is sent away to England by Claudius in the hope he will recover his wits there. Claudius also argues it is for Hamlet's own good, to protect him against the public outrage over Polonius' death, but in fact it is Claudius' own attempt at self-defense against a possible betrayal by Hamlet: Claudius knows Hamlet knows that Claudius killed his brother, Hamlet's father. Furthermore, Claudius knows he cannot rest safely until Hamlet is dead, so he ships Hamlet off with a sealed letter to the King of England calling for Hamlet's execution. In the meantime, Laertes has learned of his father's death and returns from his studies in France to confront the King about it. Claudius diplomatically redirects Laertes' rage at Hamlet, promising that justice (in the form of revenge) will be done soon enough. Shortly thereafter the court learns of Ophelia's unexpected death by drowning, most likely a suicide. Laertes is further incensed. Word then comes that Hamlet will be arriving back in Elsinore the following day, a puzzling piece of news to Claudius because he had assumed Hamlet was in England awaiting decapitation. Hamlet has somehow escaped.
Hamlet arrives just in time for Ophelia's funeral. There he scuffles with Laertes, protesting that he loved Ophelia more than Laertes ever did; they nearly come to blows before being separated and sent away. Claudius calms Laertes, reassuring him that they will soon be able to implement their plan against Hamlet. The previous night they devised a scheme to secure Hamlet's death that will involve a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet. Laertes will secretly use a sharp blade instead of a blunted one - and he will douse the tip with a poisonous potion - so that he can "accidentally" scratch Hamlet during the match and thus bring about his death. The King concocts a backup plan with a poisonous drink which, if need be, Hamlet would unknowingly swallow during a rest in the match.
The next day arrives and the proposed fencing match is accepted by Hamlet. Everything proceeds on course until Gertrude, drinking to Hamlet's health, inadvertently gulps down the poison intended for her son. Laertes, aware all is about to be spoiled, quickly stabs Hamlet; Hamlet, outraged, manages to get Laertes' sword and wounds him as well. The Queen, crying foul play, dies. Laertes points his finger at Claudius, whom Hamlet then promptly stabs to death. Hamlet and Laertes reconcile before their own inevitable deaths. Horatio, Hamlet's close friend, is the only survivor of this slaughterhouse eight, and so he must bear testimony of Claudius' treachery to the world. Denmark, now kingless, passes into the hands of Fortinbras, a valiant soldier from Norway whom Hamlet greatly admired.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7