Hamlet summary

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
by William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
Type of Work:
Tragic drama
Elsinore, Denmark; c. 1200
Principal Characters
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and son of the former king The Ghost, Hamlet\'s dead father
Gertrude, Hamlet\'s mother, and Queen of Denmark
Claudius, Hamlet\'s uncle and new stepfather, and now, King of Denmark
Polonius, Claudius\'chief counselor
Laertes, Polonius\' son
Ophelia, Polonius\' obedient daughter
Horatio, Hamlet\'s faithful friend
Story Overveiw
Prince Hamlet bitterly opposed the marriage of his mother, Gertrude, to Claudius, her own brother-in-law, so soon after her husband\'s death. Moreover, Hamlet had a strange suspicion that the new king - his stepfather and former uncle - had somehow plotted his father\'s mysterious demise, and he refused to cease mourning his natural father, now two months dead.

As Hamlet languished in resentfulness, he was approached by his close friend Horatio, who revealed that for three nights now castle guards had seen the former king stalking the parapets as a ghost. He persuaded the prince that his father must have some message of importance to impart, and thus Hamlet should wait with him that night for the ghost to appear again.

The bloody apparition was indeed the image of Hamiet\'s father. In horror, the son listened with Horatio as the dead king described how his brother Claudius had seduced Gertrude, and how the two of them together had arranged for his murder, while claiming that a serpent had injected the fatal poison.

Hamlet was appalled - though not entirely surprised - at this revelation. But he was even more shaken when the ghost made a desperate plea: he ordered Hamlet to avenge his death by killing Claudius, but cautioned that Gertrude must be spared; heaven alone should punish her for her sins.

Now, Hamlet considered himself an intellectual, not a soldier or a man of action. This charge to exact revenge posed a real dilemma in the prince\'s mind. He swore Horatio to secrecy concerning the ghost and continued for the next few days to fret on what he must do.

Filled with suppressed anger toward both his mother and Claudius, and torn between doing his duty in honor and carrying out a most distasteful and bloody task, Hamlet began to act more and more erratic. Ophelia, his lady friend and the daughter of the new king\'s most trusted counselor, Polonius, reported Hamlet\'s eccentric behavior to her father. Polonius insisted that Hamlet had become demented, and cautioned Ophelia to keep her distance. He then reported Hamlet\'s bizarre turn to the king and queen.

Perceiving Hamlet as a possible threat to the throne, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius hired two dull-witted courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildeiistern, to spy on the prince, to learn whether he in fact coveted their power or was merely mad. But Hamlet, within minutes, recognized the charade and the motives behind it, and caustically mockcd them. And shortly, it seemed to Hamlet that everyone - including Ophelia was a spy and an informant for King Claudius and Queen Gertrude.

By now the prince was dashed by doubts and worries. He began to wonder if his father\'s ghost had really appeared; maybe it had been a vision from the devil instead. After all, the thought of murdering Claudius, vile and hated though he was, still repelled Hamlet. But soon he struck upon an idea: a company of traveling actors visited Elsinore, and Hamlet persuaded them to perform a murder scene that was actually a reenactment of the death of the old king. He was sure that if Claudius and Gertrude had in fact killed his father, their guilt would play on their faces and show in their actions.

The play proceeded. Sure enough, Claudius became so unnerved both by the drama and by Hamlet\'s sly, taunting comments, that he stormed from the performance, with Gertrude close behind.

Gertrude immediately sent for her insolent son. When he visited her in her room to discuss the matter, Polonius was hidden behind a curtain, listening. Soon the exchange between mother and son grew more heated and violent. When Polonius cried out for the guards, Hamlet, thinking he was Claudius, stabbed through the curtain and killed him. Amid this confusion, the ghost of Hamlet\'s father once more appeared (invisible to Gertrude) and again reminded his son of his original commission: to kill Claudius.