'Hamlet' Overview

Understanding and interpreting Shakespeare's classic revenge tragedy

L: Title page of the second quarto of Hamlet, printed 1604. R: Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, with Yorick's skull. Photographed by James Lafayette between 1885-1900.
L: Title page of the second quarto of Hamlet, printed 1604. R: Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, with Yorick's skull. Photographed by James Lafayette between 1885-1900.

L: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons. R: Public Domain / Library of Congress.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is one of William Shakespeare’s best-known works and one of the most widely-read plays in the English language. Estimated to have been written between 1599 and 1602, Hamlet was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays at the time of its release, and has remained hugely influential since its creation.

Fast Facts: Hamlet

  • Full Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Year Published: Between 1599 and 1602
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Type of Work: Play
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Appearance vs. Reality; Revenge and Action vs. Inaction; Death, Guilt, and the Afterlife
  • Major Characters: Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude, Fortinbras, Horatio, The Ghost, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern
  • Fun Fact: Shakespeare’s son, who died at age 11, was named Hamnet; he may have been an inspiration for the tragic character Hamlet.

Plot Summary

Hamlet is the story of the events that take place after the king of Denmark is found dead. His son, Hamlet, is visited by the king's ghost, who tells him that Hamlet’s uncle Claudius was the murderer. Hamlet resolves to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death, but he struggles with the morality of his decision and finds himself unable to act.

To fool Claudius into thinking he knows nothing about the murder, Hamlet pretends to be insane; however, Hamlet’s actual mental state becomes less and less certain throughout the play. Meanwhile, when Claudius begins to realize Hamlet knows more than he lets on, he plots to kill him. Hamlet, though, is smart; much of the play depicts his brilliant wordplay and cunning outmaneuvers of the king’s courtiers—until, of course, the play’s tragic ending, which sees most of the royal family killed.

Major Characters

Hamlet. The protagonist of the story, Hamlet is the prince of Denmark and the son of the murdered king. Possessing a melancholy and depressive disposition, he struggles throughout the play with his inability to act on his desire for revenge.

Claudius. The current king of Denmark and the brother of the king, Hamlet's late father. Claudius murdered the former king and married his wife Gertrude, stealing Hamlet’s right to succeed his father.

Polonius. The father of Ophelia and Laertes and advisor to the king. Obsequious, pedantic, and scheming, Polonius is killed by Hamlet.

Ophelia. Hamlet’s love interest and Polonius’s daughter. She aims to please her father and is deeply troubled by Hamlet’s madness, but goes mad herself by the end of the play.

Laertes. Polonius’s son. He is a man of action, in direct contrast to Hamlet, and is ready to take his revenge as soon as he discovers Hamlet’s hand in the destruction of his father and sister.

Gertrude. The queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother, and Claudius’s wife. She was married to the old king, but was unfaithful to him with Claudius.

Fortinbras. The prince of Norway, who eventually becomes king of Denmark after Hamlet's death.

Horatio. Hamlet’s best friend from university, who serves as a foil to Hamlet.

The Ghost. Hamlet’s dead father, the former king of Denmark.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s childhood friends, whom Hamlet outwits at every turn.

Major Themes

Appearance vs. Reality. Is the ghost really Hamlet’s dead father? Is Claudius lying? Hamlet must continually grapple with his inability to trust his own interpretation of events, which keeps him in a state of inaction.

Death, Guilt, and the Afterlife. Hamlet frequently wonders about the mystery of death. Tied to these thoughts is always the question of guilt, and whether or not his soul—or the soul of another, like Claudius—will wind up in heaven or hell.

Revenge and Action vs. Inaction. Although the play is about revenge, Hamlet continually delays the act. Connected to this theme is the question of the afterlife, doubts about which seem to stay Hamlet’s hand.

Literary Style

Hamlet has had remarkable literary significance from its first performance, which is estimated to have taken place between 1599 and 1602, influencing writers as varied as John Milton, Johann Wilhelm von Goethe, George Eliot, and David Foster Wallace. It is a tragedy, a genre with roots in classical Greek theatre; however, Shakespeare ignores Aristotle’s injunction for a play to focus primarily on action, not character. Instead, the play follows the twists and turns of Hamlet’s moral struggle much more through soliloquies than plot.

The play was written during the reign of Elizabeth I. There are numerous early versions of the play still in existence; each, however, has different lines, so it is the job of the editor to decide which version to publish, and accounts for the many explanatory notes in editions of Shakespeare.

About the Author

William Shakespeare is arguably the highest-regarded writer in the English language. Although his exact date of birth is unknown, he was baptized in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564 and married Anne Hathaway at age 18. Sometime between the ages of 20 and 30, Shakespeare moved to London to start his career in theatre. He worked as an actor and a writer, as well as a part-time owner of the theatre troupe the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. Since little information about commoners was retained at the time, not much is known about Shakespeare, leading to ongoing questions about his life, his inspiration, and the authorship of his plays.

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Rockefeller, Lily. "'Hamlet' Overview." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/hamlet-study-guide-4587756. Rockefeller, Lily. (2020, August 28). 'Hamlet' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hamlet-study-guide-4587756 Rockefeller, Lily. "'Hamlet' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hamlet-study-guide-4587756 (accessed June 7, 2023).