Hamlet Summary

William Shakespeare


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Hamlet Summary

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Hamlet by William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the most important and best plays ever written. The reasons for this, aside from Shakespeare’s mastery of the English language, are that it’s considered psychologically accurate, especially for a play dealing with madness, and the main story is simple. Hamlet is about a young man who is pressed to avenge his father’s murder and procrastinates. Finally, though, his actions bring about other deaths and tragedies. That character’s name is Hamlet, and by the end of the play, even he is dead. Corruption and the transience of life are major themes of the play.

Hamlet begins near midnight on the battlement of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. After a changing of the guard, the guard Horatio discovers there has been a ghost visiting the castle. The ghost is presumed to be that of the late king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. As Hamlet is a good friend of Horatio’s, he decides the best thing to do is to bring Hamlet to see the ghost.

Since Hamlet’s father died, his brother, Claudius, has been sitting on the throne, having since married Gertrude who is Hamlet’s mother. At court, Claudius conducts several matters of business, including dealing with the Prince of Norway and the military threat he poses. He also allows Laertes, one of his courtiers, to return to France. Then he demands Hamlet tell him why he still mourns, to which Hamlet replies that there is much for him to mourn. Due to his state of grief, Gertrude suggests Hamlet stay at court instead of returning to school, and Hamlet agrees.

After the court leaves with Claudius, Hamlet is left alone. He reveals to the audience his reasons for mourning. In addition to his father’s death, Hamlet is upset that his mother married Claudius, and so soon. In the midst of his musings, Horatio arrives and tells Hamlet about the ghost. Hamlet watches for the ghost and, when it appears, he recognizes the ghost as his father. His father’s ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him in order to marry Gertrude and take the throne. He demands that Hamlet avenge his murder. The ghost leaves and Hamlet warns Horatio that he might seem to lose his mind, though it is only to do what he must.

As Hamlet seems to descend into madness, members of the court grow concerned. Foremost among them is Ophelia, sister to Laertes and daughter of Polonius. Ophelia loves Hamlet, but fears his madness and that love suffers. Claudius has also noticed Hamlet’s apparent madness, and brings his friends to court to try to figure out the source for Hamlet’s odd behavior. Meanwhile, Hamlet is making theater arrangements. He is planning for a play to be performed before Claudius that references Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father, and his overall corruption in usurping the throne.

Claudius watches part of the play. Disturbed by the references, he leaves to pray, hoping to be forgiven. Hamlet follows, intending to kill Claudius, but changes his mind for the time being claiming that he cannot kill a man who is seeking forgiveness. Instead, he goes to his mother and confronts her about marrying Claudius so soon after the late king has died. Polonius has followed and is listening in on their conversation; Hamlet kills him before seeing his father’s ghost once more, who has come to re-center Hamlet on his purpose. Gertrude sees this and decides that her son has really gone mad.

Claudius convinces Hamlet’s friends that they have to take him out of Denmark to England, and there they must execute him. They agree, but Hamlet catches onto this plot and escapes. He returns to Denmark where he finds that Ophelia went mad, his leaving her and her father’s death prompting her suicide. Laertes has returned since the death of his father and sister, and he and Hamlet decide they must duel. Claudius convinces Laertes that he must kill Hamlet during the duel. However, Laertes is killed instead. Claudius and Gertrude also die, and finally Hamlet dies, but not before he tells his friend Horatio that he is giving the kingdom of Denmark to the Prince of Norway.

William Shakespeare wrote three main types of plays: comedies, tragedies, and histories. Hamlet falls into he tragedy category, evident by the numerous deaths that take place for fictional characters. In contrast, comedies written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries tend to end with weddings. Shakespeare’s history plays chronicle the events of history—for example, Henry VIII (co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher) was centered on the actions of an actual monarch, King Henry VIII, who ruled in the early to mid-sixteenth century in England.