'Hamlet' Summary

Table of Contents

William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet takes place in Elsinore, Denmark after the death of King Hamlet. The tragedy tells the story of Prince Hamlet's moral struggle after his father’s ghost tells him that Claudius, Prince Hamlet's uncle, murdered the king.

Act I

The play begins on a cold night with the changing of the guard. King Hamlet has died, and his brother Claudius has taken the throne. However, for the past two nights, the guards (Francisco and Bernardo) have seen a restless ghost resembling the old king wandering the castle grounds. They inform Hamlet’s friend Horatio of what they've seen.

The next morning, the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude, the wife of the late king, takes place. When the room clears, Hamlet soliloquizes on his disgust at their union, which he views as a betrayal of his father at best and, at worst, incest. Horatio and the guards enter and tell Hamlet to meet the ghost that night.

Meanwhile, Laertes, the son of the king's advisor Polonius, is getting ready for school. He says goodbye to his sister Ophelia, who is romantically interested in Hamlet. Polonius enters and lectures Laertes extensively on how to behave at school. Both father and son then warn Ophelia about Hamlet; in response, Ophelia promises to no longer see him.

That night, Hamlet meets the ghost, who claims to be the ghost of the king—Hamlet's father. The ghost says that he was murdered by Claudius, that Claudius put poison in his ear while he slept, and that Gertrude slept with Claudius even before his death. The ghost orders Hamlet to avenge the murder, but not to punish his mother. Hamlet agrees. Later, he informs Horatio and Marcellus, one of the guards, that he will pretend to be mad until he can get his revenge.

Act II

Polonius sends a spy, Reynaldo, to France to keep an eye on Laertes. Ophelia enters and tells Polonius that Hamlet entered her room in a mad state, grabbing her wrists and staring wildly into her eyes. She also adds that she has cut off all contact with Hamlet. Polonius, certain that Hamlet is madly in love with Ophelia and that it was Ophelia's rejection that put him in this state, decides to meet the king to concoct a plan to spy on Hamlet in conversation with Ophelia. Meanwhile, Gertrude has asked Hamlet’s school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to try to figure out the cause of his madness. Hamlet is suspicious of them, and he evades their questions.

Soon, a theatre troupe arrives, and Hamlet requests that the following night they perform a certain play, The Murder of Gonzago, with a few passages inserted written by Hamlet. Alone on stage, Hamlet voices his frustration about his own indecisiveness. He decides he must figure out if the ghost is truly his father or if it is a specter leading him to sin without reason. Because the play depicts of a king who kills his brother and marries his sister-in-law, Hamlet believes that the performance scheduled for the next night will make Claudius show his guilt.


Polonius and Claudius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia as she returns the gifts he gave her. They become confused when Hamlet spurns her, telling her to go to a nunnery. Claudius concludes that the cause of Hamlet's madness is not his love for Ophelia, and decides that he should send Hamlet away to England, unless Gertrude can figure out the true cause.

During the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, Claudius stops the action just after the scene in which poison is poured into the king's ear. Hamlet tells Horatio he is now certain that Claudius murdered his father.

In the next scene, Claudius attempts to pray in church, but his guilt prevents him from doing so. Hamlet enters and readies himself to kill Claudius, but stops when he realizes that Claudius might go to heaven if he is killed while praying.

Gertrude and Hamlet have a bitter fight in her bedchamber. When Hamlet hears a noise behind the tapestry, he stabs the intruder: it is Polonius, who dies. The ghost appears again, rebuking Hamlet for his harsh words against his mother. Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, becomes certain that Hamlet is mad. Hamlet drags Polonius’s body offstage.

Act IV

Hamlet jokes with Claudius about killing Polonius; Claudius, fearing for his own life, orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to bring Hamlet to England. Claudius has prepared letters telling the English king to kill Hamlet when he arrives.

Gertrude is told that Ophelia has gone mad with the news of her father’s death. Ophelia enters, sings a number of strange songs, and speaks of her father’s death, insinuating that her brother Laertes will get revenge. Soon, Laertes enters and demands Polonius. When Claudius tells Laertes that Polonius he is dead, Ophelia enters with a bundle of flowers, each one symbolic. Laertes, upset by his sister’s state, promises to listen to Claudius’s explanation.

A messenger approaches Horatio with a letter from Hamlet. The letter explains that Hamlet snuck onto a pirate vessel that attacked them; after they parted, the pirates mercifully agreed to take him back to Denmark in return for some favors. Meanwhile, Claudius has convinced Laertes to join him against Hamlet.

A messenger arrives with a letter for Claudius from Hamlet, announcing his return. Quickly, Claudius and Laertes plot how to kill Hamlet without upsetting Gertrude or the people of Denmark, with whom Hamlet is popular. The two men agree to arrange a duel. Laertes acquires a poison blade, and Claudius plans to give Hamlet a poisoned goblet. Gertrude then enters with news that Ophelia has drowned, reigniting Laertes’s anger.

Act V

While digging Ophelia’s grave, two gravediggers discuss her apparent suicide. Hamlet and Horatio enter, and a gravedigger introduces him to a skull: Yorick, the old king’s jester whom Hamlet loved. Hamlet considers the nature of death.

The funeral procession interrupts Hamlet; Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes are among the entourage. Laertes jumps into his sister’s grave and demands to be buried alive. Hamlet reveals himself and brawls with Laertes, exclaiming that he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers could. After Hamlet’s exit, Claudius reminds Laertes of their plan to kill Hamlet.

Hamlet explains to Horatio that he read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letters, rewrote one demanding the beheading of his former friends, and swapped the letters before escaping on the pirate ship. Osric, a courtier, interrupts with news of Laertes’s duel. At the court, Laertes takes up the poisoned blade. After the first point, Hamlet refuses the poisoned drink from Claudius, from which Gertrude then takes a sip. While Hamlet is unguarded, Laertes wounds him; they grapple and Hamlet wounds Laertes with his own poisoned blade. Just then, Gertrude collapses, exclaiming she has been poisoned. Laertes confesses the plan he shared with Claudius, and Hamlet wounds Claudius with the poisoned blade, killing him. Laertes asks for Hamlet’s forgiveness, and dies.

Hamlet asks Horatio to explain his story and declares Fortinbras the next king of Denmark, then dies. Fortinbras enters, and Horatio promises to tell the story of Hamlet. Fortinbras agrees to hear it, declaring that Hamlet will be buried as a soldier.

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Rockefeller, Lily. "'Hamlet' Summary." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/hamlet-summary-4587985. Rockefeller, Lily. (2020, January 29). 'Hamlet' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hamlet-summary-4587985 Rockefeller, Lily. "'Hamlet' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hamlet-summary-4587985 (accessed January 28, 2023).