William Shakespeare Hamlet Summary

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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet follows the young prince Hamlet home to Denmark to attend his father’s funeral. Hamlet is shocked to find his mother already remarried to his Uncle Claudius, the dead king’s brother.

Hamlet Shakespeare
Hamlet Shakespeare

And Hamlet is even more surprised when his father’s ghost appears and declares that he was murdered. Exact dates are unknown, but scholars agree that Shakespeare published Hamlet between 1601 and 1603. Many believe that Hamlet is the best of Shakespeare’s work and the perfect play.

Hamlet Summary and Analysis

The dramatist’s genius is also evident in his transformation of the play’s literary sources-especially the contemporaneous Ur-Hamlet-into an exceptional tragedy. The Ur-Hamlet, or “original Hamlet,” is a lost play that scholars believe was written mere decades before Shakespeare’s Hamlet, providing much of the dramatic context for the later tragedy.

Numerous sixteenth-century records attest to the existence of the Ur-Hamlet, with some references linking its composition to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. From these sources, Shakespeare created Hamlet, a supremely rich and complex literary work that continues to delight both readers and audiences with its myriad meanings and interpretations.

The play opens with Prince Hamlet depressed over his father’s death and his mother’s decision to marry the new king, Claudius, after only two months. Hamlet goes to the ramparts after Horatio, his confidant, tells him he saw a ghost.

Elizabethan Audience
Elizabethan Audience

That evening, the ghost of King Hamlet tells Hamlet that his brother, Claudius, killed him. Hamlet swears to avenge the murder. Polonius discloses to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude that he suspects Hamlet’s madness stems from his love for Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter.

Hamlet arranges for a play in which the actors perform a scene similar to the actual murder of King Hamlet. Upon seeing the scene, Claudius calls for lights and storms out of the room. Claudius prays and Hamlet hears him confessing to the murder and attempting to absolve himself of sin.

Hamlet refuses to take action since Claudius may go to heaven. Hamlet speaks with Gertrude, and Polonius hides and listens to the conversation from behind a curtain. Hamlet hears Polonius and kills him. Claudius sends Hamlet to England because of the murder.

Facts About William Shakespeare Hamlet

Laertes returns to Elsinore after hearing of his father’s death, and Claudius tells him to blame Hamlet. Hamlet returns, and Claudius advises Laertes to duel with Hamlet. Claudius plans to have Laertes kill Hamlet with a poisoned tip sword.

To ensure Hamlet’s death, Claudius intends to present Hamlet with a poisoned goblet of wine. Gertrude tells Claudius and Laertes that Ophelia drowned in a creek.

William Shakespeare Hamlet Summary

The duel begins and Hamlet scores two hits. Gertrude grabs the poisoned goblet and drinks to Hamlet’s fortune. Laertes manages to wound Hamlet, but in the scuffle, they exchange swords and Hamlet injures Laertes.

Gertrude falls and says Claudius poisoned her. Laertes tells Hamlet he will die as well, and Claudius planned everything. Hamlet stabs Claudius and kills him.

Hamlet Character

The most enduring thing about Hamlet, which keeps the play vibrant for every age, is that no key to understanding the play exists. Viewers can validate all interpretations, justify every answer, and substantiate all possibilities. The fierce debate over Hamlet’s meaning, the title character’s mystery, his mystique,

Characters in Hamlet
Characters in Hamlet

how his life relates to modern man, what his relationships can teach us about human interaction, and more, will forever attend any examination of the play. So long as unanswerable questions persist, the play will captivate us. However, some points of reference to which most critics, actors, directors, and academic interpreters agree do exist.

Hamlet Summary Act

One given is that, from the start, Hamlet has a clear imperative to act on his medieval blood feud: to avenge his father’s death by killing King Claudius. His emotions tear him in two.

On the one hand, he possesses the basic male need to assert his manhood and to right grave wrongs.  On the other, his Christian, moral knowledge tells him that murder constitutes a sin no matter what the cause.

William Shakespeare during Elizabethan Era

Hamlet represents the polar opposite of his uncle/father King Claudius. Claudius personifies the Machiavellian villain: he justifies his wrongdoing by aggrandizing the ends his evil produces.

He recognizes his own evil and acknowledges his doomed status. Knowing that he will assuredly descend into Hell makes Claudius no less eager to commit crime after crime in order to keep his ill-won spoils.

William Shakespeare Hamlet Summary

The desire to resist hating him moves the audience, and the fact that he is so conversant with his inability to seek absolution keeps him from being one-dimensional.

Rather than hate him, we root for his conversion, hoping that he will confess and show contrition. He does not, and we become less and less forgiving. Hamlet is Claudius’ antithesis.

Hamlet, Shakespeare
Hamlet, Shakespeare

The Prince knows he owes a debt to his father’s commands and to the old order which dictates that he must commit a sinful act.

But his fear that the action is wrong paralyzes him. Though the end would justify Hamlet’s very existence, it would not justify his defiance of the commandment against murder.

Hamlet Characters

The most important characters of Hamlet are:

  • Hamlet
  • Ophelia
  • Gertrude
  • Claudius
  • Horatio
  • Polonius
  • Laertes
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  • Hamlet’s father’s ghost

Who is Ophelia in Hamlet?

Ophelia in the play is the tragic heroine. She is Hamlet’s lover but is rejected by him. Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes, both of who join the conspiracy of Claudius to kill Hamlet. But Ophelia being a virtuous woman resists that.

Ophelia

However, when her father is murdered by Hamlet, she slowly descends into madness and kills herself by drowning in the river. The scene of Ophelia drowning in the water while still singing in the fit of her madness became famous. The famous grave-digging scene where Hamlets tries to resurrect Ophelia from her grave is also extremely famous and loved by the audience through ages.

How does Gertrude die?

Gertrude is one of the pivotal characters of Hamlet around which Hamlet’s desire for revenge revolve, although she is imparted little role in the play. She is viewed as mostly passive in the first part of the play but the concluding scene, she realizes the potential of her character.

She deliberately disobeys Claudius and drinks the poisoned wine, while crying “the drink! the drink! I am poisoned.” Her action clearly blames Claudius providing Hamlet with a definite purpose for his revenge.

Hamlet Themes

The themes of Hamlet are more complicated and deeper than any other revenge plays written before it. That is probably because the act of revenge we expect to see from Hamlet continuously keeps getting postponed throughtout the play while he tries to become more and more sure about what he is doing.

Hamlet killing Polonius
Hamlet killing Polonius

Hence, while Hamlet appears to be a play about indecisiveness, it is actually about gaining more knowledge about human actions. It raises many questions that were previously ignored by other playwrights, such as – What is a ghost? Can a ghost mislead someone? Is the ghost itself sure about the cause of its death?

Shakespeare also moves into more relatable matter – How can we determine the cause of a death which has no witness? Can someone’s (here Claudius) true nature be understood by merely observing him (as Hamlet does)? Is it possible to know anything about afterlife?

How Does Hamlet Die?

The famous last scene of Hamlet is where most characters including Hamlet dies. Laertes, the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia kills Hamlet with a poisoned sword to take revenge of his father and sister’s death. However, Hanlet is also successful in killing Laetes and they both die in the battle ground.

What Happens in the End of Hamlet?

At the end of the play, a duel takes place between Hamlet and Laertes and both the characters die trying to avenge their own father’s death. Gertrude and Claudius also die at the end.

Hamlet Character Chart
Hamlet Character Chart

What is the Main Message of Hamlet?

Hamlet is a revenge tragedy which results into the death of the hero who tries to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet’s tragedy is caused by his own obsession with revenge and, therefore, the play asserts that revenge, whether just or unjust is always deadly and shall result into more and more violence.

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