48 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Hamlet

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1609

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

First performed in 1609, Hamlet is one of the best-known and most influential works of the playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616). This summary refers to the 2001 Pelican edition of the play.

Plot Summary

On a dark night, sentinels see a ghost stalking the battlements of Elsinore Castle, the royal seat of Denmark. It is the dead king, who has returned to tell his son Hamlet to avenge him. He was murdered by his brother, Claudius, who then married his wife, Gertrude, and claimed the throne. The young prince, already deep in mourning and disgusted by his mother’s speedy remarriage to his uncle, takes this visitation to heart. Swearing his friend Horatio to secrecy, he decides that, in order to find a way to kill Claudius, he will pretend to be mad.

Meanwhile, the king’s councilor, the pompous Polonius, and his son Laertes are trying to persuade his daughter Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s declarations of affection. They fear that Hamlet’s love is fleeting, and that Ophelia will lose her honor to him. Ophelia listens to their warnings and agrees to stop spending so much time with Hamlet.

When Hamlet turns up pretending to be mad, the court goes into a frenzy to find out what’s wrong with him. Claudius and Gertrude summon his schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him and send Ophelia to confront him. When Hamlet is alone, he is deeply depressed; he contemplates suicide and struggles with his doubt about whether the ghost was really his father or a devilish apparition. He becomes paranoid and mistrustful, pushing Ophelia away and seeing double-dealing everywhere.

Nevertheless, he and Horatio devise a plan to test Claudius’s guilt. They hire a company of actors to perform a play that resembles the story of the king’s murder, hoping to reveal Claudius’s guilty conscience. Indeed, Claudius is overwhelmed at the performance, and runs away. Hamlet then confronts his mother with the story of the murder and again sees the ghost of his father, though the ghost is not visible to Gertrude. Polonius is in the room at the time, eavesdropping, and Hamlet, believing him to be Claudius, stabs him to death through the tapestry he is hiding behind.

Claudius arranges to send Hamlet away to England, under the guise of damage control. He arranges for the King of England to kill Hamlet as a diplomatic favor. Hamlet discovers the orders, however, and alters them so that they condemn, instead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are accompanying him to England. The ship is attacked by pirates, and in the confusion Hamlet escapes and returns to Denmark. 

Claudius recruits Laertes, who wants to avenge the death of his father, to kill Hamlet through a duel with poisoned swords, with poisoned wine as a backup plan. Meanwhile, Ophelia driven mad over her father’s death and Hamlet’s cruelty, is found drowned. Hamlet learns of her death only at her funeral, where he and Laertes fight over who loved her better. Laertes agrees to go through with Claudius’s plot.

Claudius tells Hamlet that he’s laid a heavy wager on him in a civilized swordfight against Laertes, and despite Horatio’s warnings, Hamlet agrees to the fight. During the duel, Gertrude accidentally drinks poisoned wine meant for Hamlet and dies; Hamlet and Laertes are both wounded with the poisoned blade. Laertes confesses the whole plan and begs for Hamlet’s forgiveness. Hamlet kills Claudius and dies in Horatio’s arms. 

Horatio is the only one left when Fortinbras, the King of Norway, arrives at court from a military victory. He swears to tell the story of how the Danish royal family met its end.

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