Hamlet Plot Summary

Scene From Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'
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William Shakespeare's famous work "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" is a tragedy set across five acts written around the year 1600. More than just a revenge play, "Hamlet" deals with questions about life and existence, sanity, love, death, and betrayal. It is one of the most quoted works of literature in the world, and since 1960 it has been translated into 75 languages (including Klingon).

The Action Begins Otherworldly

As the play begins, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is visited by a mysterious ghost resembling his recently-deceased father the king. The ghost tells Hamlet that his father was murdered by Claudius, the king’s brother, who then took the throne and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. The ghost encourages Hamlet to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius.

The task before Hamlet weighs heavily upon him. Is the ghost evil, trying to tempt him to do something that will send his soul to hell for eternity? Hamlet questions whether the specter is to be believed. Hamlet’s uncertainty, anguish, and grief are what makes the character so believable. He is arguably one of literature’s most psychologically complex characters. He is slow to take action, but when he does it is rash and violent. We can see this in the famous “​curtain scene” when Hamlet kills Polonius.

Hamlet’s Love

Polonius’ daughter Ophelia is in love with Hamlet, but their relationship has broken down since Hamlet learned of his father’s death. Ophelia is instructed by Polonius and Laertes to spurn Hamlet’s advances. Ultimately, Ophelia commits suicide as a result of Hamlet’s confusing behavior toward her and the death of her father.

A Play Within a Play

In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet organizes actors to re-enact his father’s murder at the hands of Claudius in order to gauge Claudius’ reaction. He confronts his mother about his father’s murder and hears someone behind the arras. Believing it to be Claudius, Hamlet stabs the man with his sword. It transpires that he has actually killed Polonius.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Claudius realizes that Hamlet is out to get him and professes that Hamlet is mad. Claudius arranges for Hamlet to be shipped to England with his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been informing the king about Hamlet’s state of mind.

Claudius has secretly sent orders for Hamlet to be killed on arrival in England, but Hamlet escapes from the ship and swaps his death order for a letter ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

To Be or Not to Be …

Hamlet arrives back in Denmark just as Ophelia is being buried, which prompts him to contemplate life, death, and the frailty of the human condition. The performance of this soliloquy is a big part of how any actor portraying Hamlet is judged by critics.  

Tragic Ending

Laertes returns from France to avenge the death of Polonius, his father. Claudius plots with him to make Hamlet’s death appear accidental and encourages him to anoint his sword with poison. He also puts a cup of poison aside, in case the sword is unsuccessful.

In the action, the swords are swapped and Laertes is mortally wounded with the poisoned sword after striking Hamlet with it. He forgives Hamlet before he dies.

Gertrude dies by accidentally drinking the cup of poison. Hamlet stabs Claudius and forces him to drink the rest of the poisoned drink. Hamlet's revenge is finally complete. In his dying moments, he bequeaths the throne to Fortinbras and prevents Horatio's suicide by imploring him to stay alive to tell the tale.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet Plot Summary." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-happens-in-hamlet-2984980. Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). Hamlet Plot Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-happens-in-hamlet-2984980 Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet Plot Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-happens-in-hamlet-2984980 (accessed June 4, 2023).