Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary



Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary


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Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary


A Summary of What Happens in

The Tragedy of Hamlet by William Shakespeare


Key Characters:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Claudius, King of Denmark, and Hamlet’s uncle

Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother, and wife of Claudius

Polonius, advisor to Claudius

Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter and beloved by Hamlet

Laertes, Polonius’ son

Fortinbras, Prince of Norway

Horatio, close friend to Hamlet

Rosencrantz, disloyal friend to Hamlet

Guildenstern, disloyal friend to Hamlet


Your first impression when reading Hamlet may be that it is just a bunch of famous quotes strung together, but Shakespeare manages to fit a lot of play around the famous quotes making Hamlet one of his longest plays. The role of Hamlet has the most lines of any character in his plays. Of special interest are several of Hamlet’s soliloquies – his speeches to himself and to the audience, taking you inside his mind and revealing his thoughts and feelings. Hamlet has more soliloquies than most other characters, which tells you much about him. Hamlet is more than the great Dane; he’s also the great Brain – thinking, analyzing, plotting, and planning. As you will find out, though, life requires more than great ideas; it also requires action, something that Hamlet figures out too late.


Act 1

-A ghost is bothering the night watch

-Prince Fortinbras and his Norwegian army are bothering Denmark

-Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, is bothering Hamlet.

-Hamlet should have succeeded his late father to Denmark’s throne but Claudius intervened and took the crown for himself.

-To make matters worse, Claudius married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.

-Hamlet is displeased with both matters and doesn’t hide it

-You meet the king’s advisor, Polonius and his children, Laertes and Ophelia. Lateres dropped in for a visit to celebrate the new king’s coronation and wedding. Now he is returning to school. His father, Polonius overflows with advice to his son, some of which is helpful.

-It turns out the ghost is Hamlet’s late father, once King of Denmark, also named Hamlet (or Old Hamlet). Old Hamlet tells a sordid tale of how Claudius murdered him to get the throne. Even worse, the murder prevented Old Hamlet from receiving the last rites. Hence his current predicament – being a ghost. Instead of going straight to Heaven, he must remain in purgatory, haunting the Earth by night and suffering fiery privations by day.  The ghost of Old Hamlet demands revenge.

-Young Hamlet vows to get even with his uncle. He isn’t sure what he’ll do but his plan is to pretend to be crazy. It doesn’t seem like much of a plan but it distracts his enemies and gives him time to think and plan.


Act 2

-Polonius is always meddling in the affairs of others. He even sends a spy to check out how his son is behaving. Suddenly, his daughter Ophelia interrupts him. She reports that Hamlet is acting peculiar – he burst into her chamber, grabbed her, and stared at her without saying anything. This isn’t what princes are supposed to do, so Polonius runs off to report this news to the king, Claudius. Polonius is quick to offer advice to others, but never heeds his own words, especially, “brevity is the soul of wit” (2.2.90).

-Claudius called for two of Hamlet’s school chums – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – to speak to Hamlet and try to understand the root of Hamlet’s madness. Polonius thinks that he already knows: unrequited love for Ophelia. To Polonius’thinking, that explains Hamlet’s strange behaviour in Ophelia’s chamber.

-Polonius wants to prove his contention to Claudius and Gertrude. He proposes they hide while he accosts Hamlet to sound him out. Hamlet continues to act up but even Polonius figures out that there is more to Hamlet’s madness than meets the eye.

-Polonius brings news to Hamlet: Itinerant actors have arrived. Polonius hopes that the diversion will take Hamlet’s mind off whatever is bothering him. Hamlet welcomes the actors and invites them to perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago for the court, but with some small modifications that Hamlet will supply. His plan is for the play to unmask the murderer of his father, Old Hamlet. He says, “The plays the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” speaking of catching Claudius’ conscience for the murder of Old Hamlet (2.2.606-7).


Act 3

-In his famous, “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.56-89), Hamlet wonders whether he might have been better off if he simply hadn’t been born. Perhaps he would be better off killing himself, but the church expressly forbids suicide. Besides, death—“the undiscovered country”(3.1.79)—may well be worse than life.

-In public, Hamlet continues to act crazy. He insults Ophelia, which seems to argue against Polonius’ theory about unrequited love.

-Hamlet’s big plan though, is the play. He asks his friend Horatio to pay particular attention to the king. Hamlet has modified the play to re-enact his father’s murder. His plan works, and the play strikes home. The guilt-ridden Claudius runs from the room, crying for light.

-Hamlet has the proof he needs but still he hesitates. He sees Claudius praying, but he doesn’t strike because he wants Claudius’ soul to suffer as his father has suffered. He wants Claudius to die unshriven (without confession & absolution), so he passes up the opportunity.

-Hamlet reveals his father’s murder to his mother, but in an over-eager manner, saying, “I must be cruel only to be kind” (3.4.180). Polonius, hiding behind a curtain cries for help. Hamlet kills him, taking action, hoping that it was the king, Claudius. Gertrude is horrified by all she witnesses but doesn’t know what to do. Suddenly Hamlet acts even more peculiar than usual. He sees and hears the ghost, but Gertrude, his mother, cannot.

-The ghost chides Hamlet for his lack of action but to Gertrude, it seems that Hamlet speaks to thin air.

-Gertrude reports Hamlet’s actions to the king, Claudius, as well as the murder of Polonius and his bizarre behaviour. Claudius ships Hamlet off to England: perhaps a sea voyage will do Hamlet some good. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accompany him.


Act 4

-Now it’s Ophelia’s turn to go crazy. Grief for her father’s death and for Hamlet’s madness has taken a toll on her young mind. Her brother, Laertes, returns. He received the news of his father’s death and now wants to kill Hamlet in revenge. His grief doubles when he sees his sister’s madness.

-News comes that Hamlet has returned from England. Claudius is surprised and disturbed, but doesn’t explain why. He and Laertes prepare for Hamlet’s return by plotting against Hamlet’s life. In the midst of their machinations, Gertrude brings sad news: Ophelia, in her madness, has drowned herself.


Act 5

-Hamlet meets his friend Horatio and explains the circumstances of his return from England. On board the ship, he learned that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carried a letter to the King of England, asking him to kill Hamlet. hamlet altered the letter to have the king kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, instead. Hamlet escaped and made his way back to Denmark.

-Hamlet and Horatio are interrupted by Ophelia’s burial. Hamlet and Laertes have a mourning contest, vying to see who loved her and misses her more. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel. Horatio cautions Hamlet that Laertes is a skilled fencer. Hamlet feels ready to face Laertes. More important, he has come to terms with life, the universe, and everything. If his destiny is to die, so be it, for he will die someday no matter what. Hamlet theorizes, “If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all” (5.2.220-21). This is Hamlet’s tragic lesson: Life is what happens when you are busy making plans. He spent the entire play making plans, and it didn’t do him any good. Now is the time to stop planning and just get on with life. Or death. Whatever.

-What Hamlet doesn’t know is that Laertes plans on cheating. The fencing match is to be a sporting match with bated (dull) blades. Laertes, though, secretly substitutes a sharp blade. Just to be safe, he poisons the tip of his blade. To be extra, extra sure, Claudius has his own poison for Hamlet.

-Laertes’ plans go awry when he is unable to score any touch on Hamlet. Finally, in desperation, he attacks Hamlet during a break. Hamlet feels the sharp point and forces Laertes to swap rapiers. Using the poisoned rapier, Hamlet attacks Laertes. (Hamlet doesn’t know about the poison yet; he just thinks that the rapier is illegally sharpened).

-Claudius has poisoned Hamlet’s drink, but Gertrude accidentally drinks it instead. Gertrude dies from the poison, identifying the drink as the source.

-Laertes falls and succumbs to the poisoned blade. As he dies, he accuses the king.

-Now that Hamlet knows that the rapier is poisoned, he stabs the king with it and just to be sure, forces Claudius to drink the poisoned drink, too. The poison from Laertes’ rapier slowly works its way through Hamlet’s system and he dies in Horatio’s arms.

-The English ambassadors arrive to report that Denmark’s wishes have been fulfilled and that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras  also shows up., returning from Poland. The ruling family of Denmark is dead, which leaves Fortinbras of Norway in charge. He takes over, restoring proper order to the throne of Denmark. As Hamlet says, “The rest is silence” (5.2.365).


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Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary

The Tragedy of Hamlet, a play by William Shakespeare

Ms. Lukowski’s Scene-by-Scene Summary

More accurate than SparkNotes or CliffNotes


THEMES Revenge, Deterioration of Psyche and Royalty, Fate, Madness, Inherited Sin




Scene 1 –  Elsinore, Denmark; watch platform outside of castle

  • Bernardo takes over for Francisco at his post.
  • Enter Marcellus and Horatio, exit Francisco.
  • Ghost of late King Hamlet appears.
  • At war with Norway, King Hamlet slays Fortinbras and wins his lands.  However, the young Fortinbras wants to take back his father’s land, assumes Denmark weak due to KH’s passing.
  • Horatio alludes to fall of Rome, bad omen, foreshadowing of things to come.
  • Ghosts appear for four reasons: to reveal a secret, to utter a warning, to reveal concealed treasure, and to reveal the manner of its death.
  • Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus resolve to tell Hamlet about the ghost out of loyalty and love for their friend.


Scene 2 – room in castle

  • King Claudius, the late King Hamlet’s brother, has taken over as King of Denmark.
  • King Claudius has married Queen Gertrude, his former sister-in-law.
  • Claudius sends servants Cornelius and Voltemand to young Fortinbras’ uncle in Norway in hopes that the uncle will stop F. from waging war.
  • Laertes is leaving for France and has been given blessing from his father Polonius.
  • KC and QG tell Hamlet he acts as though he is the only one affected by death of his father.  KC says that Hamlet’s mourning is not submissive to divine will and shows childish/foolish opposition to heaven.
  • KC asks Hamlet not to go back to school in Wittenberg and Hamlet vows to try to obey.
  • Hamlet’s First Soliloquy – see notes
  • Horatio, Bernardo, Marcellus tell Hamlet of father’s ghost, verify likeness.
  • Hamlet fears father here to reveal a crime and decides to join men tonight on watch.


Scene 3 – room in Polonius’ house

  • Laertes and Ophelia are saying goodbye.
  • Laertes warns his sister to stay away from Hamlet who has an impetuous nature.  He tells her stay out of the range of temptation that even the most modest maidens can fall victim to.  Ophelia promises to remember advice until L. says she can forget.
  • Polonius offers goodbye and advice to son, understated clothes in France.
  • Polonius asks Ophelia what promise she made her brother.  P orders Oph to stay away from Hamlet, she cannot trust his words and affection.  She submits.


Scene 4 – The platform

  • Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus keep watch for ghost.
  • Flourish of trumpets, KC stays up late to revel, dance, and toast to his health.
  • Hamlet tells Horatio this “tradition” is not often observed and shows the lack of manner and good origin in some men.  Basically, Hamlet is saying KC’s behavior is not approving of royalty and beneath Hamlet.
  • Ghost beckons Hamlet, wants to speak to him alone
  • Horatio warns not to go alone in case it “draws you into madness” (foreshadowing??)


Scene 5

  • Ghost calls on son to avenge his death, bound to hear, bound to revenge
  • KC killed KC with poison in the ear, hebenon – poisonous plant causes leprosy
  • Hamlet adopts “Adieu, adieu, adieu, Remember Me!” as life motto, thinks of nothing but avenging father’s death… KH Ghost says not to hurt mother.
  • Horatio and Marc. want to know news, but Hamlet will not reveal identity
  • While attempting to verify the ghost’s story he warns his friends he will pretend to be mad… confusion to set in???????
  • Ghost and Hamlet make Horatio and Marc. swear not to tell anyone about ghost.




Scene 1 – room in Polonius’ home

  • Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to France to give money and notes to his son, Laertes… Polonius also asks him to spy on Laertes behavior: simply observe but do not interfere.
  • Ophelia enters to tell her father that Hamlet ran into her room, grabbed her by the wrists, stared at her and sighed deeply before walking out again.  He looked disheveled, unkempt.
  • Polonius believes that Hamlet is suicidal and going mad because Ophelia has refused to see him and denied his letters.  Polonius says he was mistaken about Hamlet’s intentions. 
  • Polonius tells Ophelia they must tell King Claudius in order to make sure that Hamlet does not continue to grieve and hurt himself.


Scene 2 – room in castle

  • Claudius and Gertrude have sent for Hamlet’s friends (courtiers) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to determine what ails Hamlet and cheer him up.
  • Polonius tells Claudius he believes he knows what ails Hamlet, but first will present messengers back from Norway.  Gertrude still believes H’s distemper (emotional upset) is from his father’s death and the overhasty marriage between she and Claudius.
  • Voltemand and Cornelius return from Norway: Fortibras’ uncle believed he was preparing to attack Poland but investigated and found out his nephew was rallying against Denmark.  He ordered Fortibras to stop and F. vowed in front of uncle to stop assault.  Norway asks for safe passage through Denmark to attack Poland (Shakespeare mistakenly writes it that Denmark is between Poland and Norway).
  • Polonius tells King and Queen that Hamlet is mad and reads letter he sent Ophelia stating his love for her.  Ophelia reported all correspondences and attentions to her father, as requested.
  • Hamlet has classic case of madness due to love-sick: begins with melancholy à loss of appetite, sleeplessness, physical weakness, mental aberrations à then insanity.
  • Polonius and Claudius decide to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia to determine if true.
  • Lines 170-225, exchange between Polonius and Hamlet.  Reason in madness… discuss.
  • Hamlet talks with R/G – they say they are doing neither poorly nor well, indifferent.
  • Hamlet compares Denmark to one of the grimmest prisons of the world – the feeling of imprisonment was also consistent with signs of melancholy at this time
  • Hamlet asks R/G to reveal the purpose of their visit, tells them he knows the king and queen sent for them.
  • R/G tell him a group of actors has arrived.  They do not play in the city due to the group of young boys/actors as competition.  Historical reference to rivalry at the time of Shakespeare.
  • Polonius enters to tells Hamlet of players (actors).  Hamlet tries to ignore him, then calls him Jephthah – biblical judge who sacrificed his daughter.  Hamlet keeps referring to daughter.
  • Hamlet requests players to perform a speech: Aeneas’ tale to Dido (hero of Aeneid speaking queen of Carthage who he loves) about Priam’s death (king of Troy).  Discusses how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, avenged his father’s death by killing Priam.
  • Polonius keeps interrupting speech, claims too long.  Hamlet finally agrees and sends players with Polonius to be properly lodged for the evening.
  • Hamlet asks first player if they know “The Murder of Gonzago” and asks if they will act out the play and perform a 12-16 line speech if he were to insert it.  Player agrees, all exit but H.
  • Ends with Hamlet’s soliloquy #3




Scene 1 – a room in the castle

  • The king and queen meet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, ask about Hamlet, R&G tell them that Hamlet’s is enjoying the actors. 
  • Polonius tells the K&Q that Hamlet wants them to join him and view the play tonight, Claudius agrees and tells R&G to encourage Hamlet’s interest in the actors.
  • Claudius and Polonius send away Gertrude because they are going to send Ophelia to meet Hamlet and spy on them.
  • Soliloquy #4 – to be or not to be
  • Hamlet and Ophelia talk, “get thee to a nunnery!” Tells her to marry a fool because wise men know she will cheat on him… he loved her once, he never loved her. 
  • Ophelia’s soliloquy – Hamlet is sad and ruined by madness.  She now sees his noble reasoning but it is a harsh tune.  “Woe is me” – is it he or she that is ruined by his madness?
  • Claudius reveals that Hamlet is not in love, but he also does not seem to be mad.  KC decides to send H back to England in hopes that the change in scenery will lift his spirits.
  • Polonius believes grief started with neglected love.  Suggests QG talk to Hamlet alone to determine what causes his grief (Polonius will listen in) and if QG cannot get an answer from Hamlet then they will send H to England.


Scene 2 – a hall in the castle

  • Hamlet gives the First Player directions on how to smoothly read the inserted speech
  • Polonius confirms K&G will watch, R&G agree to help prepare
  • Hamlet has let Horatio in on his plan and asks Horatio to watch KC’s reaction
  • “No, nor mine now” (103) – words, once spoken, no longer belong to the speaker.
  • Hamlet denies G to sit by Ophelia during performance, makes suggestive comments
  • Pre-play performance created by Hamlet depicts murder of KH but goes unnoticed, exchange with Ophelia has more sexual innuendo.
  • Player King and Queen: discuss if she would marry as a widow, she vows to ever be wife.
  • Hamlet inquires how the queen likes the play… king finds it offensive.  The Mousetrap –designed to trap the king, and Hamlet tells him only guilty people will feel pain by this plot.
  • KC rises when the poisoning scene occurs and leaves.  Note: king poisoned by NEPHEW***
  • Hamlet comments to Horatio that this performance would get him a job with a company if his fortune were to turn.  Observed the king to be a pajock: contemptible fellow or peacock.
  • R&G tell Hamlet that QG requests to see him.  R asks why he no longer loves them.  H says his wit is diseased (333), accuses them of playing him (375)  Weasel/whale/camel comments.
  • Soliloquy #5 (404-415): the witching time, speak cruelly to QG but not unnaturally (no kill)


Scene 3 – a room in the castle

  • KC orders R&G to take Hamlet with them to England because madness puts KC in danger.
  • Polonius informs KC he is to spy on Hamlet and QG
  • Claudius’ soliloquy (36-72): O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven... (cannot be forgiven)
  • Hamlet steals in to kill Claudius, soliloquy #6.  [King is praying and Hamlet says that revenge would not be send KC to heaven since his father did not have chance to repent.  Decides to kill KC in the midst of sin.  Ironic because King says “Words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go” – he is not forgiven/repentant.]


Scene 4 – The Queen’s closet

  • Polonius hiding in closet, queen agrees to reprimand Hamlet
  • Hamlet confronts QG, she cries for help and P. moves behind curtain, Hamlet kills him (not realizing it is Polonius) and tells her this is almost as bad as marrying her husband’s brother.
  • Discovers P. and calls him a fool, did not mean to kill him, mistook him for KC
  • Rebukes QG for her crime and she realizes what she has done
  • Ghost enters, Hamlet talks to it and appears mad, QG cannot see it.




Scene 1 – a room in the castle

  • QG tells KC of Hamlet’s behavior and killing of Polonius (mistook him for a rat)
  • KC tells R&G to find Hamlet and bring Polonius’ body to the chapel


Scene 2 – another room in the castle

  • R&G talk to Hamlet but H will not reveal where the body is located, tells them they are sponges soaking up the king’s demands, to be used and discarded.
  • Hamlet requests to see R&G.


Scene 3 –another room in the castle

  • KC – Hamlet is “loved of the distracted multitude” but strong law must be used.
  • R&G bring Hamlet to KC, Hamlet won’t reveal where body is:: he’s at supper with the worms, makes quip at KC about searching for him in heaven/hell, P is up stairs in lobby.
  • KC sends Hamlet to England… sent mandates that Hamlet must die.


Scene 4 – plain in Denmark

  • Fortinbras sends a captain to meet with the king and receive an escort across the kingdom\
  • Hamlet finds out from the Captain that Fortibras is going to attack a garrison in Poland on piece of land that has no profit in it but name
  • R&G urge Hamlet to go, he agrees but asks them to go a little before him: Soliloquy!


Scene 5 – Elsinore, a room in the castle

  • Gentlemen implores Gertrude to speak to Ophelia who seems to have gone mad also, she speaks of her father and she makes no sense when she speaks
  • Horatio encourages QG to talk to Ophelia, Ophelia sings songs to QG and KC, tells them she is sending for her brother
  • KC sends Horatio to watch Ophelia, fears she’s gone mad due to P’s death and H’s leaving
  • Laertes enters with the Danes, since it is an elective monarchy they want Laertes to be king
  • Ophelia enters and Laertes witnesses her madness
  • Laertes agrees to continue searching for answers, despite dishonor of father given funeral without proper burial


Scene 6 – another room in the castle

  • Horatio receives letter from Ham: captured by pirates.  Allows messengers to see KC.


Scene 7 – another room in the castle

  • Claudius tells Laertes that he did not pursue criminal action against Hamlet on behalf of Gertrude and because the public adores Hamlet and they would see his chains as adornments
  • Laertes wants revenge for Polonius’ death and Ophelia’s madness
  • KC receives letter from Hamlet saying that he is “naked” (lacking all) and alone.  KC is surprised Hamlet alive and Laertes will use this opportunity to seek his revenge.
  • Laertes is an expert swordsman – KC & L plan to encourage a dual between L & Hamlet.  L decides to poison the tip of his sword so that Hamlet will die undoubtedly.  As back up, C will have poured a poisoned glass of wine for Hamlet to drink in the case that he wins.
  • QG announces that Ophelia has drowned… Laertes upset and will allow these tears to overcome his anger for now.
  • KC tells QG that it took a great deal to calm L’s anger (which we know KC fueled).




Scene 1 – a churchyard

  • Two clowns (rustic, ill-bred) are burying Ophelia.  Discuss her possible suicide, but coroner determined that her death was accidental and thus she can have a Christian burial.  They believe it is simply because she is a gentlewoman that she is determined to have not committed suicide.
  • Men have discussion – was Adam a gentleman?  Joke, gravemaker is the strongest builder.
  • Hamlet and Horatio come across the singing grave-maker.
  • Hamlet holds skull of dead court jester Yorick.  Reveals memories of Hamlet’s childhood and his preoccupation with death.  We are dust and to dust we shall return… even Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
  • Funeral procession enters.  Hamlet notes the funeral rites are incomplete indicating that the person must have committed suicide.  Hamlet and Horatio hide.
  • Laertes argues with priest who says Ophelia should not be given a proper funeral, profanes the dead.  Gertrude scatters flowers on Ophelia’s grave.  Laertes jumps in and holds dead sister… incest motif.  Hamlet approaches and jumps into grave also.  Men fight and Hamlet proclaims his overwhelming love for Ophelia.
  • Claudius reminds Laertes to be patient, they will have revenge soon.


Scene 2 – a hall in the castle

  • Hamlet tells Horatio that he discovered orders with R&G to give the king of England that Hamlet should be executed/beheaded.  He wrote in his fairest penmanship a new order to kill the bearers of the order (R&G).  Hamlet says their death is not near his conscience as it was necessary and deserved when they got involved.
  • Osric informs Hamlet that Claudius has bet Laertes that Hamlet would win a duel against L.  Hamlet agrees to the duel.
  • Horatio has misgivings about the duel and tells Hamlet he will lose the wager.  Hamlet disregards his warning and says let the cards fall as they may.
  • Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for wronging him (“that I have show my arrow o’er the house/and hurt my brother”) but he claims that it was his “madness” that committed the wrongs and Hamlet himself is in the faction that was wronged by his own madness.
  • Laertes says he is satisfied in regards to his feelings, but in terms of his honor there is no reconciling the damage.
  • The king offers drink up for Hamlet.  The queen drinks of the cup after Hamlet’s second bout and Claudius cannot stop her.  Laertes then hits Hamlet.  In a scuffle they exchange rapiers and Hamlet wounds Laertes.  The queen then falls down.  Horatio and Osric ask why both men bleed, Laertes responds it is of his own treachery.
  • Claudius says QG swoons to see the men bleed but she reveals she was poisoned and dies.
  • Hamlet orders the door be locked to seek out the villain.
  • Laertes falls and admits to the plan.  He implicates the king in the plan, too.
  • Hamlet stabs KC when hears the foils are poisoned, and makes KC drink poison.  KC dies.
  • Laertes exchanges forgiveness with Hamlet and dies.
  • Hamlet asks Horatio to tell the truth of his story.
  • Fortibras approaching and Hamlet tells Horatio that his vote is for Fortibras to rule.  H dies.
  • Fortibras and English ambassadors arrive to see bloody scene.  Tell of R&G’s death.
  • Horatio asks that they set up bodies on the platform for him to inform Denmark of the events that have taken place.



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Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare



The play opens with the ghost of King Hamlet (Prince Hamlet’s father) appearing before the men at watch on the platform.  The men decide to tell Prince Hamlet.



Hamlet, the King of Denmark, has recently died.  His wife, Gertrude, has married the King’s brother, Claudius, thereby preventing the 30 year-old Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (who has been at school) from becoming king.  Hamlet is furious with his mother and uncle for marrying so soon as it implicates them in an affair.  He also is angry that his mother is involved sexually with his uncle, as it seems incestuous and unnatural.  In addition, she has, in effect, chosen her brother-in-law to be king, over her son, Hamlet, who is old enough that it is time for him to become King.  Gertrude is relatively young; she has perhaps had an affair with Claudius and married him within weeks of King Hamlet’s death and has enabled Claudius to snatch the throne from her son, Hamlet.


In the first scene at court, Gertrude questions Hamlet’s black clothing and somber attitude. She questions how long Hamlet intends to “act out his grief.”  Of course, Gertrude knows Hamlet is furious with her.  Her new marriage allows her to continue as Queen of Denmark, whereas, had Hamlet come to the throne, she would have become simply the mother of the King – not so prestigious.  She is aware what she has done to Hamlet, but she wants everybody to be happy.


Also in the first scene at court, Claudius, recognizing that Hamlet is a threat to his throne, scolds Hamlet for grieving so deeply for his father’s death (actually telling Hamlet his tears are “womanish”), then refusing to let him go back to school at Wittenberg.  Finally, as an attempt to pacify Hamlet, Claudius tells Hamlet that he is next in line to the throne.  Actually, if Claudius has children, they would all be in line ahead of Hamlet.  Claudius offers this olive branch to pacify Hamlet.  (However, there may not be a clear line of succession, in any case.)



Hamlet leaves court to contemplate his unhappy and depressing circumstances. After his men come to tell him of the Ghost of King Hamlet, Hamlet plans to speak to the ghost if possible.  Ultimately, Hamlet finds out from the Ghost of King Hamlet that Claudius murdered the King so that he could marry Gertrude and steal the throne.  Hamlet promises revenge.



Everyone in court is spying on everyone else, including Hamlet; King Claudius has guards with him at all times; justifying your actions to the people requires some type of legitimate proof if you intend to become the next king.  Ghosts are not great evidence, and, in fact, can sometimes be untruthful.  Hamlet has to be careful about whom he should trust.



At various times, Hamlet plans to do the following to establish Claudius’ guilt: to act as if he is mad (insane) and to present a play about the murder of a king to the court to check Claudius’ reaction.



Denmark is rotten to the core because of the corruption, incest, and murder, making it weak.  Norway is healthy and strong.  Fortinbras, the Norwegian Prince, attacks Denmark’s borders to gain back land lost under King Hamlet’s rule.  Fortinbras serves as one of the foils (contrasts) to Hamlet, who does not act aggressively. 


Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia, an important court family, parallel and contrast with Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet.  They love one another, and Laertes is allowed to go back to school after the funeral.  Hamlet loves Ophelia, but her father orders her to stay away from Hamlet as he is “too high” a position to marry her.  Ophelia consents to her father’s request and returns all Hamlet’s gifts.  She also allows Polonius to spy on her and Hamlet when she does this, which is a major betrayal to Hamlet.  Hamlet discovers this and turns against Ophelia, treating her harshly and rudely.


Hamlet pretends to be mad; Ophelia truly becomes mad. 



Hamlet tests people to see whose side they are on: 


First, Hamlet tests Horatio, a school friend, when he meets with him.  Horatio says he has come for the funeral of the king and Hamlet replies that he thinks Horatio came for the wedding.  Horatio does not deny to Hamlet that the marriage came too close to the funeral and thereby passes the test of honesty.


Second, Hamlet tests Ophelia.  When Hamlet realizes Polonius is spying on him and Ophelia while they talk, he asks Ophelia where her father is.  She replies that he is at “home,” thereby failing the test of honesty.  Hamlet turns against her.


Third, Hamlet tests Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two school chums, by asking them if the king sent for them to visit with Hamlet (which he did).  They lie and say they do not know what he is talking about.  They fail the test also, eventually paying with their lives for their dishonesty and stupidity.



First, he hopes to control Hamlet.  When he sees that is not working, he sends him to England with a secret message for England to put the Prince to death.  Second, when Hamlet returns, Claudius helps Laertes plan Hamlet’s death during a duel where Laertes revenges his father’s and Ophelia’s deaths.  First, Claudius and Laertes remove the safety tip from the foil, then they poison the foil, then Claudius plans to put poison in a drink that he will offer Hamlet during the duel.



She is young, probably only 14-15 years older than Hamlet.  She is guilty of adultery though not of murder.  She loves Hamlet; Claudius must hide his plans to kill Hamlet from her.


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Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary



The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. Set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet, Claudius's brother and Prince Hamlet's father, and then succeeding to the throne and taking as his wife Gertrude, the old king's widow and Prince Hamlet's mother. The play vividly portrays both true and feigned madness – from overwhelming grief to seething rage – and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.

Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play and among the most powerful and influential tragedies in the English language, with a story capable of "seemingly endless retelling and adaptation by others."[1] The play was one of Shakespeare's most popular works during his lifetime[2] and still ranks among his most-performed.


 Plot Overview

On a dark winter night, a ghost walks the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Discovered first by a pair of watchmen, then by the scholar Horatio, the ghost resembles the recently deceased King Hamlet, whose brother Claudius has inherited the throne and married the king’s widow, Queen Gertrude. When Horatio and the watchmen bring Prince Hamlet, the son of Gertrude and the dead king, to see the ghost, it speaks to him, declaring ominously that it is indeed his father’s spirit, and that he was murdered by none other than Claudius. Ordering Hamlet to seek revenge on the man who usurped his throne and married his wife, the ghost disappears with the dawn.

Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his father’s death, but, because he is contemplative and thoughtful by nature, he delays, entering into a deep melancholy and even apparent madness. Claudius and Gertrude worry about the prince’s erratic behavior and attempt to discover its cause. They employ a pair of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch him. When Polonius, the pompous Lord Chamberlain, suggests that Hamlet may be mad with love for his daughter, Ophelia, Claudius agrees to spy on Hamlet in conversation with the girl. But though Hamlet certainly seems mad, he does not seem to love Ophelia: he orders her to enter a nunnery and declares that he wishes to ban marriages.

A group of traveling actors comes to Elsinore, and Hamlet seizes upon an idea to test his uncle’s guilt. He will have the players perform a scene closely resembling the sequence by which Hamlet imagines his uncle to have murdered his father, so that if Claudius is guilty, he will surely react. When the moment of the murder arrives in the theater, Claudius leaps up and leaves the room. Hamlet and Horatio agree that this proves his guilt. Hamlet goes to kill Claudius but finds him praying. Since he believes that killing Claudius while in prayer would send Claudius’s soul to heaven, Hamlet considers that it would be an inadequate revenge and decides to wait. Claudius, now frightened of Hamlet’s madness and fearing for his own safety, orders that Hamlet be sent to England at once.

Hamlet goes to confront his mother, in whose bedchamber Polonius has hidden behind a tapestry. Hearing a noise from behind the tapestry, Hamlet believes the king is hiding there. He draws his sword and stabs through the fabric, killing Polonius. For this crime, he is immediately dispatched to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Claudius’s plan for Hamlet includes more than banishment, as he has given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sealed orders for the King of England demanding that Hamlet be put to death.

In the aftermath of her father’s death, Ophelia goes mad with grief and drowns in the river. Polonius’s son, Laertes, who has been staying in France, returns to Denmark in a rage. Claudius convinces him that Hamlet is to blame for his father’s and sister’s deaths. When Horatio and the king receive letters from Hamlet indicating that the prince has returned to Denmark after pirates attacked his ship en route to England, Claudius concocts a plan to use Laertes’ desire for revenge to secure Hamlet’s death. Laertes will fence with Hamlet in innocent sport, but Claudius will poison Laertes’ blade so that if he draws blood, Hamlet will die. As a backup plan, the king decides to poison a goblet, which he will give Hamlet to drink should Hamlet score the first or second hits of the match. Hamlet returns to the vicinity of Elsinore just as Ophelia’s funeral is taking place. Stricken with grief, he attacks Laertes and declares that he had in fact always loved Ophelia. Back at the castle, he tells Horatio that he believes one must be prepared to die, since death can come at any moment. A foolish courtier named Osric arrives on Claudius’s orders to arrange the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes.

The sword-fighting begins. Hamlet scores the first hit, but declines to drink from the king’s proffered goblet. Instead, Gertrude takes a drink from it and is swiftly killed by the poison. Laertes succeeds in wounding Hamlet, though Hamlet does not die of the poison immediately. First, Laertes is cut by his own sword’s blade, and, after revealing to Hamlet that Claudius is responsible for the queen’s death, he dies from the blade’s poison. Hamlet then stabs Claudius through with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink down the rest of the poisoned wine. Claudius dies, and Hamlet dies immediately after achieving his revenge.

At this moment, a Norwegian prince named Fortinbras, who has led an army to Denmark and attacked Poland earlier in the play, enters with ambassadors from England, who report that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras is stunned by the gruesome sight of the entire royal family lying sprawled on the floor dead. He moves to take power of the kingdom. Horatio, fulfilling Hamlet’s last request, tells him Hamlet’s tragic story. Fortinbras orders that Hamlet be carried away in a manner befitting a fallen soldier.


 Character List

Hamlet - The Prince of Denmark, the title character, and the protagonist. About thirty years old at the start of the play, Hamlet is the son of Queen Gertrude and the late King Hamlet, and the nephew of the present king, Claudius. Hamlet is melancholy, bitter, and cynical, full of hatred for his uncle’s scheming and disgust for his mother’s sexuality. A reflective and thoughtful young man who has studied at the University of Wittenberg, Hamlet is often indecisive and hesitant, but at other times prone to rash and impulsive acts.

Claudius - The King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle, and the play’s antagonist. The villain of the play, Claudius is a calculating, ambitious politician, driven by his sexual appetites and his lust for power, but he occasionally shows signs of guilt and human feeling—his love for Gertrude, for instance, seems sincere.

Gertrude - The Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother, recently married to Claudius. Gertrude loves Hamlet deeply, but she is a shallow, weak woman who seeks affection and status more urgently than moral rectitude or truth.

Polonius - The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’s court, a pompous, conniving old man. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia.

Horatio - Hamlet’s close friend, who studied with the prince at the university in Wittenberg. Horatio is loyal and helpful to Hamlet throughout the play. After Hamlet’s death, Horatio remains alive to tell Hamlet’s story.

Ophelia - Polonius’s daughter, a beautiful young woman with whom Hamlet has been in love. Ophelia is a sweet and innocent young girl, who obeys her father and her brother, Laertes. Dependent on men to tell her how to behave, she gives in to Polonius’s schemes to spy on Hamlet. Even in her lapse into madness and death, she remains maidenly, singing songs about flowers and finally drowning in the river amid the flower garlands she had gathered.

Laertes - Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother, a young man who spends much of the play in France. Passionate and quick to action, Laertes is clearly a foil for the reflective Hamlet.

Fortinbras - The young Prince of Norway, whose father the king (also named Fortinbras) was killed by Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet). Now Fortinbras wishes to attack Denmark to avenge his father’s honor, making him another foil for Prince Hamlet.

The Ghost - The specter of Hamlet’s recently deceased father. The ghost, who claims to have been murdered by Claudius, calls upon Hamlet to avenge him. However, it is not entirely certain whether the ghost is what it appears to be, or whether it is something else. Hamlet speculates that the ghost might be a devil sent to deceive him and tempt him into murder, and the question of what the ghost is or where it comes from is never definitively resolved.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - Two slightly bumbling courtiers, former friends of Hamlet from Wittenberg, who are summoned by Claudius and Gertrude to discover the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior.

Osric - The foolish courtier who summons Hamlet to his duel with Laertes.

Voltimand and Cornelius - Courtiers whom Claudius sends to Norway to persuade the king to prevent Fortinbras from attacking.

Marcellus and Bernardo - The officers who first see the ghost walking the ramparts of Elsinore and who summon Horatio to witness it. Marcellus is present when Hamlet first encounters the ghost.

Francisco - A soldier and guardsman at Elsinore.

Reynaldo - Polonius’s servant, who is sent to France by Polonius to check up on and spy on Laertes.


Author Information:

Surviving documents that give us glimpses into the life of William Shakespeare show us a playwright, poet, and actor who grew up in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, spent his professional life in London, and returned to Stratford a wealthy landowner. He was born in April 1564, died in April 1616, and is buried inside the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.


The Impossibility of Certainty

What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it) is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses many questions that other plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost have reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself deluded? Moving to more earthly matters: How can we know for certain the facts about a crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of Hamlet’s mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything about the afterlife?

The Complexity of Action

The Mystery of Death

In the aftermath of his father’s murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over the course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world. And, since death is both the cause and the consequence of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of revenge and justice—Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet initiates Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and Claudius’s death is the end of that quest.

The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. Hamlet’s grief and misery is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he commits suicide, he will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian religion’s prohibition of suicide. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if he or she were not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes complex moral considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.


Incest and Incestuous Desire

The motif of incest runs throughout the play and is frequently alluded to by Hamlet and the ghost, most obviously in conversations about Gertrude and Claudius, the former brother-in-law and sister-in-law who are now married. A subtle motif of incestuous desire can be found in the relationship of Laertes and Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister in suggestively sexual terms and, at her funeral, leaps into her grave to hold her in his arms. However, the strongest overtones of incestuous desire arise in the relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude, in Hamlet’s fixation on Gertrude’s sex life with Claudius and his preoccupation with her in general.

Ears and Hearing

One facet of Hamlet’s exploration of the difficulty of attaining true knowledge is slipperiness of language. Words are used to communicate ideas, but they can also be used to distort the truth, manipulate other people, and serve as tools in corrupt quests for power. Claudius, the shrewd politician, is the most obvious example of a man who manipulates words to enhance his own power. The sinister uses of words are represented by images of ears and hearing, from Claudius’s murder of the king by pouring poison into his ear to Hamlet’s claim to Horatio that “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb” (IV.vi.21). The poison poured in the king’s ear by Claudius is used by the ghost to symbolize the corrosive effect of Claudius’s dishonesty on the health of Denmark. Declaring that the story that he was killed by a snake is a lie, he says that “the whole ear of Denmark” is “Rankly abused. . . .” (I.v.36–38).


Yorick’s Skull

In Hamlet, physical objects are rarely used to represent thematic ideas. One important exception is Yorick’s skull, which Hamlet discovers in the graveyard in the first scene of Act V. As Hamlet speaks to the skull and about the skull of the king’s former jester, he fixates on death’s inevitability and the disintegration of the body. He urges the skull to “get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come”—no one can avoid death (V.i.178–179). He traces the skull’s mouth and says, “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft,” indicating his fascination with the physical consequences of death (V.i.174–175). This latter idea is an important motif throughout the play, as Hamlet frequently makes comments referring to every human body’s eventual decay, noting that Polonius will be eaten by worms, that even kings are eaten by worms, and that dust from the decayed body of Alexander the Great might be used to stop a hole in a beer barrel.


Key Facts

full title · The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

author · William Shakespeare

type of work · Play

genre · Tragedy, revenge tragedy

language · English

time and place written · London, England, early seventeenth century (probably 1600–1602)

date of first publication · 1603, in a pirated quarto edition titled The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet; 1604 in a superior quarto edition

protagonist · The protagonist of Hamlet is Prince Hamlet of Denmark, son of deceased King Hamlet and his wife, Queen Gertrude

major conflict · Hamlet feels a responsibility to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle Claudius, but Claudius is now the king and thus well protected. Moreover, Hamlet struggles with his doubts about whether he can trust the ghost and whether killing Claudius is the appropriate thing to do.

rising action · The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells Hamlet to revenge his murder; Hamlet feigns madness to his intentions; Hamlet stages the mousetrap play; Hamlet passes up the opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying.

climax · When Hamlet stabs Polonius through the arras in Act III, scene iv, he commits himself to overtly violent action and brings himself into unavoidable conflict with the king. Another possible climax comes at the end of Act IV, scene iv, when Hamlet resolves to commit himself fully to violent revenge.

falling action · Hamlet is sent to England to be killed; Hamlet returns to Denmark and confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral; the fencing match; the deaths of the royal family

setting (time) · The late medieval period, though the play’s chronological setting is notoriously imprecise

settings (place) · Denmark

foreshadowing · The ghost, which is taken to foreshadow an ominous future for Denmark

tone · Dark, ironic, melancholy, passionate, contemplative, desperate, violent

themes · The impossibility of certainty; the complexity of action; the mystery of death; the nation as a diseased body

motifs · Incest and incestuous desire; ears and hearing; death and suicide; darkness and the supernatural; misogyny

symbols · The ghost (the spiritual consequences of death); Yorick’s skull (the physical consequences of death)


Important quotes:

1. O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! O fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead!—nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother,
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month,—
Let me not think on’t,—Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month; or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears;—why she, even she,—
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer,—married with mine uncle,
My father’s brother; but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month;
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married:— O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart,—for I must hold my tongue.

2. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy:
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend;
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all,—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

3. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

4. I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

5. To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.






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Hamlet by William Shakespeare summary


-Scene by Scene-






There is a changing of the guards, with Francisco being relieved by Barnardo, who is accompanied by Marcellus and Horatio. The audience is informed about the ghost, however there are two contrasting opinions emanating from the characters on stage and remain unsure about it until it makes its appearance. The appearance of the ghost just raises further questions, as it does not speak and seems to take the form of the deceased King Hamlet. When the ghost leaves, Horatio speaks about the ominous nature of the Ghost’s appearance, and how it is the latest in a series of disturbing events for Denmark. This speech also includes a description of Young Fortinbras (Line 95). The Ghost briefly reappears, and the guards decide to tell Hamlet of its appearances.




Uncertainty and Deception


From the very first line, we already see the uncertainty that us prevalent between the guards because of the ghost which they then speak of. The first line appears to be spoken by the wrong character, the approaching rather than the guard. (Line 1)


Horatio, who acts as the rationalist and sceptic in this scene, at first believes the Ghost is only imitating the form of the king. Although his initial belief that the ghost itself would not appear was proved false, he still feels that it is deceptive, a feeling that continues when he warns Hamlet of the ghost. This causes the audience to doubt the ghost’s true nature. (Line 45)




The nature of death is already explored in this scene, with the mere appearance of the Ghost already causing Horatio to abandon the rationale that he was so reliant upon.




Following the uncertainty seen in the confrontation of the two guards in the first line, Francisco issues the statement that he is ‘sick at heart’, i.e. not quite right. This begins the most common image in the play, of disease and sickness, which is soon applied to the state of Denmark and Hamlet’s mind. (Line 7)


Key Quotes


Barnardo – 1: “Who’s There”


Francisco – 7: “I am sick at heart”


Horatio - 45: “What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,

Together with that fair and warlike form

In which the majesty of buried Denmark

Did sometimes march?”


Horatio – 68: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state”.


Horatio – 95: “Of unimproved mettle hot and full,”






The King addresses his new court following his marriage to Hamlet’s mother, showing both his eloquence and magniloquence. He addresses both political and social matters, appearing a competent King, but his actions are already seen rather negatively by the audience. The only subject he appears unable to resolve is Hamlet’s bitter mood, and both he and Gertrude speak to him before the court, but as is revealed by Hamlet’s subsequent soliloquy, this only serves to antagonise him further. Hamlet’s soliloquy is vital in exposing his innermost thoughts to the audience, and it also already shows the turmoil in his mind due to his mother’s betrayal and father’s death. As the scene ends, Hamlet is met by Marcellus, Barnardo and his old friend Horatio, and informed of the ghost. Hamlet agrees to join the watch, though appears cautious and suspicious. The setting of the scene, in a brightly light Danish court, is a striking contrast to the first, and may even act to unsettle the audience further, following the first scene.






Hamlet, in his soliloquy, focuses on his mother’s betrayal. This is one of the key betrayals in the play, as it has such serious repercussions on the protagonist, and his mental turmoil is already seen here, especially when he denounces womankind because of his mother’s sins. Ophelia, though not introduced in this seen, suffers the impact of Hamlet’s words throughout the play until her death. (Lines 146 and 153)


Uncertainty and Deception


Hamlet, in what is to become an increasingly ironic statement, states his disdain of falsehood and deception. He is already suspicious of his mother’s hasty marriage, and combined with her fraudulent grief he loses faith in his mother because he believes that her relationship to his father was deceptive on her part. This too inspires his loss of trust in womankind. (Line 76)




Hamlet makes his first comment of the play about suicide, with his mentioning of “Self-slaughter”. This begins to play on his mind, and the nature of death itself, especially following his meeting with the ghost, remains at the forefront of his mind, inspiring his mental tumult. (Line 132)


Claudius also mentions death, though tries to draw the crowds attention from it, rather than becoming preoccupied with death like Hamlet. He has reason to do so as well, and even though the audience does not know the truth of his actions at this point, Claudius’ attempts to halt Hamlet’s mourning and the convince the crowds to take joy in his marriage are the strongest pieces of evidence that he did in fact murder his brother, barring the Ghost’s revelations, until he finally confesses. (Lines 12 and 94)




Although there is nothing explicit, though the tension between Claudius and Hamlet is palpable. It is clear that Claudius is vainly attempting to ease the tension by deeming himself a father towards Hamlet, while at the same time criticising him for his grief. Hamlet’s devotion to his father is evident at the end, and one of the finals lines, Hamlet’s suspicions of foul play, show how quickly his mind is willing to resort to his desire to avenge his father. Hamlet also contrasts his views on his uncle and father, showing how much scorn he has for his uncle, appearing to precede his father’s death. (Lines 94 and 140) At this point in the play, Hamlet has no reasons to act, and line 159 shows how he is unwilling to even speak against Claudius.




The disease imagery also comes from Hamlet in this scene, and the application of it is not only to act as an ominous warning about the state of affairs in Denmark, but it also shows how Hamlet’s mind, attitude and views of the world have deteriorated. He also appears sickened his mother’s actions. Although Hamlet’s madness is not quite a theme yet, his grief-stricken mind is the first stage of what later becomes madness. (Lines 129 and 135)


Key Quotes


Claudius - 12: “    With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,

    In equal scale weighing delight and dole”


Claudius – 64: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son”


Hamlet – 76: “Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'”


Claudius – 94: “    'tis unmanly grief;

    It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,

    A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,

    An understanding simple and unschool'd”


Hamlet – 129: “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt”


Hamlet – 135: “’tis an unweeded garden

That grows to see, things rank and gross in nature

Posess it merely”.


Hamlet – 140: “Hyperion to a satyr”


Hamlet - 146: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”


Hamlet – 153: “within a month:

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears

Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,

She married. O, most wicked speed, to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!


Hamlet – 159: “but break my heart,

For I must hold my tongue.”


Hamlet – 179: “the funeral baked meats

    Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”


Hamlet – 253: “All is not well;

I doubt some foul play”






Two of the minor characters from 1.2, Laertes and Ophelia, are here seen in more detail, along with Ophelia. Firstly, we observe the relationship between Ophelia and Laertes, in which the brother advises the sister on hr relationship with Hamlet, which is also introduced in this scene. Secondly, the father and son relationship is detailed, giving us several insights into Polonius’ erratic characterisations, and finally Polonius converses with Ophelia, again on her relationship with Hamlet, but with an entirely less compassionate outlook. It is Polonius’ advice that Ophelia appears to heed in the coming scenes.




Role of Women


The frailty of womankind, the oppression of women and their common roles as victims in Shakespeare’s plays are all touched upon here.


Through Ophelia’s actions, we see her subservience and devout obedience to her father. We also see an aspect of frailty in her character when, despite promising Laertes to keep their discussion between themselves, she immediately informs her father of what they spoke of. Both of these character traits are exploited by Hamlet’s increasingly misogynist mind and inspire his aggressive behaviour towards her in 3.1. The audience does feel a certain amount of sympathy towards her, as her obedience towards her father, her acceptance of advice from both her father and brother, and unwillingness to voice her own feelings and opinions almost makes her seem without any free will. Already, at this early stage in the play, Ophelia is being victimised. (Line 84)




Though there is mention of disease imagery, and corruption most specifically, there is also a contrast in Laertes’ depiction of Ophelia’s youth and innocence. His speech towards her is very much a warning about her relationship with Hamlet, and the corruption it may incur. (Line 40)


Key Quotes


Much of the humour in Hamlet comes from Polonius’ magniloquent language. This was briefly seen in 1.2, but in far more detail here, where the audience can find much humour in his artful hypocrisy (i.e. Line 67) and embellished language.


Laertes – 40: “And in the morn and liquid dew of youth

    Contagious blastments are most imminent.”


Ophelia - 45: “But, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;

Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,

And recks not his own rede.”


Polonius – 67: “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.


Ophelia – 84: “'Tis in my memory lock'd,

And you yourself shall keep the key of it.


    What is't, Ophelia, be hath said to you?



    So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.”


Ophelia – 135: “I shall obey, my lord.”






Once again the play returns to a night setting, as Hamlet joins Horatio and Marcellus on watch. They talk in anticipation of the ghost’s arrival, with Hamlet again mentioning his dislike of Claudius’ manner, and how it gives a poor impression of Denmark. The Ghost then appears, at first Hamlet appears confounded, and unsure as to the Ghosts intentions, however he agrees to follow it, leaving his friends who remain in an uncertain state. The scene leads near seamlessly into 1.5.



Uncertainty and Deception


The Ghost is one of the most uncertain figures in the play, not just because of its unknown origins, but because there is no way of confirmed its true identity. Even upon seeing the Ghost in 1.1 Horatio remains sceptical on whether it is in fact the deceased King. He warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost alone, issuing a particularly notable caution on its ability to incite madness in Hamlet. This means that the audience, despite knowing that Hamlet is apparently feigning an antic disposition, continues to be wary of the Ghost and the truth of its subsequent speech until Claudius confirms, by an aside, that he is guilty of his brother’s murder. (Line 69)




Hamlet also seems to lack a fear of death in this scene, which later he later ponders deeply, when upon being warned that the Ghost may be deceitful, he issues a rebuff claiming that he shouldn’t be fearful, adding that he doesn’t value his life. This may be another incarnation of Hamlet’s depression, because of his father’s death. (Line 65)




The ominous presence means that Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Need I say more? (Line 90)


Key Quotes


There are also several examples of contrasting heaven and hell imagery in this scene and the next, mainly attributed to the ghost and its uncertain presence (Line 40).


Hamlet – 8 & 15: “The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,”


“it is a custom

    More honour'd in the breach than the observance.”


Hamlet – 40: “Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,”


Hamlet – 65: “Why, what should be the fear?

I do not set my life in a pin's fee


Horatio – 69: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff

That beetles o'er his base into the sea,

And there assume some other horrible form,

Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason

And draw you into madness?


Marcellus – 90: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”






The Ghost, now alone with Hamlet and revealed to be his father’s spirit, begins to recount his tale, though at first he recites a stern description of the punishments he suffers for his life – time in purgatory being cleansed of his sins. He then moves on and reveals to Hamlet the circumstances in which he died, by the hand of his brother. Hamlet, shocked by the revelation and spurred on by the ghost, immediately issues his desire to avenge his father’s death. The Ghost departs as Horatio and Marcellus arrive, whom Hamlet swears to secrecy, and imparts upon them his decision to assume a feigned state of madness.




Uncertainty and Deception


One uncertainty, in Hamlet’s mind at first though possibly not the audience’s, is eradicated with the Ghost admitting that he is in fact Hamlet’s father, however two new uncertainties are established. The Ghost claims that he was murdered by Claudius, and although at first Hamlet takes his word for it and is spurred onto revenge, he later amends his opinion and begins to search for further proof. Also, Hamlet’s antic disposition begins to confuse the audience and to blur the lines between authentic and simulated madness. (Line 9, 39 and 169)




Madness is mentioned explicitly twice in this scene, with the Ghost warning Hamlet not to let the revenge taint his mind, and later Hamlet deciding to emulate a state of madness. Already Hamlet’s decision to feign madness can be scrutinised by the audience, who may heed the Ghost’s words as foreshadowing a decline in Hamlet’s mental state. (Lines 84 and 169)




The revenge plot of the play is fully established here, with Hamlet learning of his father’s unnatural murder. However, far from the swift and simple quest for vengeance that Hamlet implies he will undertake, the revenge plot becomes convoluted and confusion as Hamlet falls deeper into a state of madness and turmoil. The Ghost also explicitly commands Hamlet not to take action against his mother, suggesting that she too was corrupted by Claudius – who is described with animal images. (Lines 25, 29 and 84)




The Ghost also strongly implies that Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius preceded the King’s death. This revelation is unsurprising to the audience, who are already suspicious of her due to her hasty marriage, though it is revealed later that she was unaware of Claudius’ role in the King’s death. (Line 46)


Key Quotes


Ghost – 9: “I am thy father's spirit,

    Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,

    And for the day confined to fast in fires,

    Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

    Are burnt and purged away.”


Ghost – 25: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”


Hamlet – 29: “Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift

    As meditation or the thoughts of love,

    May sweep to my revenge.”


Ghost – 39: “The serpent that did sting thy father's life

    Now wears his crown.”


Ghost – 46: “The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen”


Ghost – 84: “But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,

    Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive

    Against thy mother aught”


Hamlet – 105: “O most pernicious woman!

    O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”


Hamlet – 169: “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

    To put an antic disposition on,” - Possibly an aside.






An indeterminate passage of time has occurred between acts 1 and 2, most likely 2 around 2 months. This scene is likely a similar setting to 1.3, and furthers characterises Polonius, Ophelia and their relationship. The scene begins with Polonius alone with Reynaldo, issuing a request for him to spy on his son, in particular watching for any disreputable actions and even fabricating stories of his actions. As Reynaldo leaves a distraught Ophelia enters, and begins to recount to Polonius her recent encounter with a seemingly mad Hamlet, in both appearance and action. Polonius believes this to be a sign of unrequited love, seeing as Ophelia has obeyed Polonius’ requests to snub Hamlet, and proceeds to tell the King.




Uncertainty and Deception


This is the first example of spying in the play, something which Shakespeare uses again later and contributes to Hamlet’s uncertain mental state and paranoia. We also see Polonius’ hypocrisy and seeming indifference towards the feelings of his children as he shows little compassion for Ophelia’s plight, and is even willing to fabricate dishonourable stories about Laertes.  At first this is humorous to the audience, but Polonius soon becomes an unlovable character, which allows his death not to greatly alter the audience’s fondness for the protagonist.


Hamlet’s madness also becomes the subject of uncertainty. Although the audience is expecting an antic disposition, his behaviour is erratic even for that. At this stage, it is entirely possible, as Polonius states, that he is grief stricken with love, as he shows the common Shakespearean symptoms for such an affliction, however it is equally likely that this is part of his façade and a means by which he can convince Ophelia, knowing she will tell her father, and by that means the King of his insanity (However he does not appear to deceive R+G with a false show of madness despite realising that they are spying on him for the king). A third possibility is that his actions are the realization of his newfound disdain towards womankind. (Lines 75, 82 and 84)




As stated, Hamlet’s madness is the focus of much scrutiny from the audience in this scene, however we do not actually see his actions, as they are only recounted by Ophelia. The next scene is more pivotal in the audiences’ eyes as they can observe Hamlet’s actions, which include an unusual conversation with Polonius yet a seemingly ordinary exchange with his friends R+G.


Role of Women


Ophelia’s role is further explored here, as it is revealed that she has obeyed her father and is immediately suffering the consequences. It is already becoming apparent that Ophelia’s role in this play is as a victim, as she still does not show any signs of independence. Shakespeare also seems to be using her as a vessel for hamlet’s emerging madness, tying his antic disposition to his scorn for womankind, with Ophelia acting as the outlet for both of these. (Line 105)


Key Quotes


Ophelia - 75: “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;

    No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,

    Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;

    Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;

    And with a look so piteous in purport

    As if he had been loosed out of hell

    To speak of horrors,”


Polonius - 82: “Mad for thy love?



    My lord, I do not know;

    But truly, I do fear it.”


Ophelia - 84: “He falls to such perusal of my face

    As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;


    He raised a sigh so piteous and profound

    As it did seem to shatter all his bulk

    And end his being: that done, he lets me go:

    And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,

    He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;

    For out o' doors he went without their helps,

    And, to the last, bended their light on me.”



Ophelia - 105: “as you did command,

    I did repel his fetters and denied

    His access to me.”






A long scene with many events. Firstly we are introduced to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have arrived at Elsinore at the King’s request so that they may spy on Hamlet in an attempt to discern the root cause of his madness. As they leave, accepting their task willingly, Polonius enters with news both of Hamlet’s madness and the conflict with Norway. Voltemand and Cornelius recount the news regarding Fortinbras, who has ceased to take action against Denmark at his uncle’s request, and instead is marching his army across Denmark to battle Poland. Following this, Polonius begins to explain how following his conversation with Ophelia, he believes it is their relationship which is causing his lunacy. He reads Claudius a letter written by Hamlet, and Claudius agrees to further investigate by arranging a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. The King and Queen then depart, leaving Polonius alone as Hamlet enters. The two then have a rather unorthodox exchange, in which Hamlet utilises some clever wordplay among otherwise irrelevant metaphors. R+G enter as Polonius leaves, and we see one of our few glimpses of what appears to be a jovial Hamlet engaging in frivolous banter with his friends, however the conversation soon changes direction as Hamlet forces his friends to confess the true nature of their visit. A company of actors arrive, and Hamlet has them perform a specific piece, and he also requests them to perform a play the next day. Finally, the scene ends with a Hamlet soliloquy, in which he examines the inadequacy of his revenge, the validity of the Ghost and his new intention of revealing the truth.




Uncertainty and Deception


In Hamlet’s soliloquy, he mentions his uncertainty as to the nature of the ghost (Line 531) and the fact that he sees the play as a method of confirming his uncle’s guilt. This doubt was not present in the previous scene, and may explain why Hamlet has yet to take action in the months that have followed.


The theme of spying is furthered by Claudius opting to use R+G to spy on Hamlet, and later deciding to stage a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet’s response to this deception is equally intriguing, as he appears very aware of R+G’s ulterior motives for their visit, just as he later becomes aware of Polonius’ presence when he is discoursing with Ophelia. Claudius, however, does not understand Hamlet’s deceptive disposition, and needs to use R+G and Ophelia to spy on him. This separates the hero from the antagonist.




There are numerous contrasts present in Hamlet’s mood and his demeanour, fluctuating between periods of madness when conversing with Polonius, to moments of seeming sanity when talking to R+G. His language shows evidence of this change, and perhaps his wildly erratic moods are in fact the first true sign of madness that Hamlet shows, as it becomes increasingly difficult to discern where the feigned madness ends, with hamlet’s culminating soliloquy showing signs of madness even though he is alone with his thoughts.




One of the central themes of Hamlet’s vendetta is his inability to take action and show the sufficient emotion that his father’s death should have inspired. Hamlet does still appear to have the drive to take revenge on Claudius, but his mind has become convuluted with doubt as to the nature of the ghost, with doubt from other areas, such as Ophelia’s actions towards him and his spying friends no doubt having repercussions on Hamlet’s mental state that manifest themselves on his newborn uncertainties on the nature of the Ghost.




The players are important characters in this scene, as they represent the theme itself. They are able to simulate the emotions that Hamlet desires to show even though they do not have any motivation to, and Hamlet strongly envies this ability. The players will also be put to a notable purpose when their play exposes Claudius’ façade through a simulated reconstruction of the events in which he killed his brother.


Contrary to telling his mother that he knows not seems, Hamlet is possibly the vaguest character in this scene because of his outwardly deceptive and changing nature. He both hides his true emotions and the facts that were imparted onto him by the ghost, and crafts a new personality for himself that is not entirely necessary for his quest for revenge, especially as he apparently has yet to take any action against the king. Both Hamlet and Claudius are hiding important facts and assuming disguises, and it is Hamlet who is struggling to cope with this, requiring the extra protection that his antic disposition gives him, until the play affects Claudius.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both attempt to convince Hamlet that their motives for visiting are genuine, however that do not manage this. As primarily comic characters, their intelligence appears minimal. This does make the audience’s opinions of them difficult to predict, as although they appear concerned with their own welfare by serving the King rather than their friend, they do so because of their own ingrained flaws. Their deaths later in the play are brought about by their own actions, but the audience does still feel occasional sympathy for their suffering.




Hamlet cannot take action until he is certain, but cannot certainly be certain of his certainty. In the time that has elapsed between acts 1 and 2, Hamlet has clearly become less self-confident and is struggling with the secrets he is concealing. This manifests itself in his doubts about the ghost and decision to investigate Claudius further. His use of contrasting heaven and hell imagery to describe the ghost shows his determination to be certain, as he is aware of the consequences of any action he could take if the ghost was not truthful in its tale. The contrast also echoes his antic disposition, showing two extremes.


Key Quotes


Claudius - 5: “Of Hamlet's transformation; so call it,

    Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man

    Resembles that it was. What it should be,

    More than his father's death”


King Claudius - 33: “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.”


Queen Gertrude: “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz:”


Queen Gertrude - 56: “I doubt it is no other but the main;

    His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.”


Voltimand - 68: “On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys;

    Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine

    Makes vow before his uncle never more

    To give the assay of arms against your majesty.”


Queen Gertrude - 95: “More matter, with less art.”


Polonius - 201: “(Aside) Though this be madness, yet there is method

    in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?”


Hamlet - 204: “Into my grave.”


Polonius - 206: “How pregnant sometimes his replies are!”


Hamlet - 245: “there is a kind of confession in your looks”


 Hamlet - 313: “You are welcome: but my

    uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.”


Polonius - 436: “This is too long.”


Hamlet Soliloquy:


518: “That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,

    Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

    Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,

    And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

    A scullion!”


   531:  “I'll observe his looks;

    I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,

    I know my course. The spirit that I have seen

    May be the devil: and the devil hath power

    To assume a pleasing shape”


    539: “the play 's the thing

    Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.”






Claudius concludes his business with Rosecrantz and Guildenstern, still unsure about Hamlet’s madness, they leave and Claudius requests that Gertrude follows suit. She ‘obeys’, but not before briefly confiding in Ophelia her hope that she may reconcile with Hamlet and help suspend his madness. Claudius and Polonius then put into motion their plan to set up a meeting with Hamlet and Ophelia, and hide out of sight as Hamlet enters, beginning his famed soliloquy. Notably, in an aside, Claudius seemingly acknowledges his guilt. For the first time in the play we observe a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia, and Hamlet’s language and state of mind appear erratic, partially through his suspicion that the meeting is staged. He is aggressive towards Ophelia and verbally lambastes her. Hamlet leaves, and the conversation switches back to Claudius and Polonius, with Claudius clearly concerned by his nephew’s behaviour, he decides to send him to England to remove the threat that he presents, while also accepting Polonius’ idea to spy on him while he converses with his mother.




Uncertainty and Deception


Spying, again! Hamlet’s mind is further unsettled, after the betrayal of his two friends and his mother, in this scene Ophelia, her father and Hamlet’s uncle all play pivotal roles in a scheme to determine more about Hamlet’s madness. Even though Ophelia played no part in concocting the scheme, her willingness to take part further damages her relationship with Hamlet when he realizes that he is being spied on. His already frail state of mind, seen in his philosophical soliloquy, is begat by anger and aggression. He appears less and less the typical heroic protagonist.




While not contributing to the overall course of events in the scene, Hamlet’s soliloquy allows the audience vital insights into the mind of the protagonist, particularly how the issue of how to take his revenge has been replaced by an obsessive introspective speech contemplating the nature of death, and Hamlet’s own views on his state of being. The nature of the ghost is still on Hamlet’s mind, however rather than being spurned into action as he first appeared, he seems to have taken a rational approach, similar to Horatio’s, in which he cannot appear sure of the truth of the Ghost’s story. Furthermore, the questions its appearance has raised, and its comments on purgatory and the suffering it is enduring, are leeching on Hamlet’s once rational and noble mind. His madness has almost acted as a temporary window, allowing these thoughts to consume him, feeding off his grief and anger at his mother. His musings on death, however, almost serve to make him more familiar with the subject, as is soon evidenced when he nonchalantly murders Polonius. (Soliloquy)




The passionate lust for vengeance seems to have drifted out of his mind, replaced by ponderous thoughts on life and death. Hamlet’s preoccupation with his conscience is mentioned here, but this becomes difficult to interpret later in the play. He refuses to kill Claudius when he is in prayer, yet kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and shows little remorse for his actions. Coincidentally, as Hamlet’s will for revenge has faded, Claudius’ guilt is revealed, increasing the audiences’ desire to see him suffer for his actions. This could be frustrating for the audience as action is slow in coming, with long speeches, such as the play in the next scene, still to come before any important plot developing events occur.


Role of Women = Paired with Betrayal


Despite being present in the scene, Ophelia rarely speaks when with the King, Queen and her father. One of her few lines of dialogue is in response to Gertrude, who directly addresses her. Intriguingly, for once her response actually expresses her own will, allowing the audience to finally see what Ophelia desires. Despite this, she soon returns to her subservient self, willingly allowing herself to be used in a ploy to deceive Hamlet. Her betrayal, as has already been stated, causes Hamlet much inner suffering especially as his opinion of womankind has already been tarnished by his mother’s infidelity. (Line 37)


The role of Hamlet’s mother can also be questioned, as it appears that she knows of the plot against her son, yet is asked to leave, possibly because of the loyalty she still has towards Hamlet, as is demonstrated later in the play when she discovers Claudius’ actions. She is possibly unwilling to betray her son in the manner that Ophelia is, parheps because she is a stronger willed character.




Hamlet’s earlier claim about his dislike of seeming appears more and more hypocritical as he claims that his proclaimed love for Ophelia was false. This, however, may have been influenced by a number of factors. Firstly, he may actually be showing symptoms of madness, with the line between real and simulated madness becoming ever vaguer. Secondly, Ophelia’s betrayal of Hamlet in this scene may have resulted in Hamlet’s declaration occurring out of spite. (Line 116)


Claudius’ façade begins to show cracks, as he admits his guilt to the audience for the first time. He mentions a heavy “burthen”, suggesting that he too is suffering for the secrets that he is keeping. (Line 48)


Key Quotes


Claudius – 4: “With turbulent and dangerous lunacy”


Guildenstern – 8: “a crafty madness,”


Gertrude – 37: “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish

    That your good beauties be the happy cause

    Of Hamlet's wildness: so shall I hope your virtues

    Will bring him to his wonted way again,


    Madam, I wish it may.”


Claudius – 48: “(Aside) O, 'tis too true!

    How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!


    O heavy burthen!”




    55 - To be, or not to be: that is the question:

    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;


   77 -  the dread of something after death,

    The undiscover'd country from whose bourn

    No traveller returns, puzzles the will


82 - conscience does make cowards of us all


Hamlet – 116: “You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot

    so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of

    it: I loved you not.



    I was the more deceived.”


Hamlet – 128: “Go thy ways to a nunnery.

    Where's your father?



    At home, my lord.”


Ophelia – 133: “O help him, you sweet heavens!”


Hamlet – 138: “wise men know well enough

    what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go,”


Ophelia – 149: “O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!


    O, woe is me,

    To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”


King Claudius – 161: “Love! his affections do not that way tend;

    Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,

    Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,”






A long scene, frequently cut. Noteworthy events include Hamlet’s discussions with Horatio and Ophelia before the play begins, and his resolutions based upon the incidents that occur during the play.






This is present in both the play and the real events. Gertrude’s deceitful nature is question by hamlet when he draws parallels to her hypocrisy in remarrying after the death of his father – provoking further questions in Hamlet’s mind as to whether his mother’s feelings towards his father were ever genuine. The play also manages to expose Claudius’ guilt, with its mirroring of the events by which he murdered King Hamlet. Seeming? Do not get >.<


Uncertainty / Deception


Much of the uncertainty that was present in Hamlet’s mind before this scene commenced is eradicated, with Hamlet eventually concluding by stating his immense trust in the Ghost’s words (Line 278). This seems to spurn him back into action; however he is stopped in the next scene again by the nature of death, and the afterlife, when he discovers Claudius praying. Once again it is Hamlet’s philosophical and ponderous nature that prevents him from acting against the King, ironically when the King’s duplicitous and greedy nature prevents him from praying for forgiveness.




Hamlet’s dichotomous mind is never more evident than in this scene. Hamlet stages a perfectly rational conversation with Horatio, in which his language is as refined as would be expected of a noble Shakespearean protagonist; however this only lasts until the appearance of Claudius, at which point Hamlet immediately assumes his antic disposition and begins spewing illogical jargon. Although there are still questions from the audience as to the state of Hamlet’s mind, this almost acts as a confirmation that Hamlet has not entirely descended into lunacy, and his most outwardly insane comments are merely part of his assumed antic disposition. His rational attitude around Horatio earlier in the scene may also be noted; as Hamlet appears more comfortable when he is in his friends presence, as if he is the only character in the play whose trust is unwavering.


Key Quotes


Hamlet – 86: “They are coming to the play; I must be idle:

    Get you a place.





    How fares our cousin Hamlet?



    Excellent, i' faith; of the chameleon's dish: I eat

    the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so.”


Ophelia – 111: “I think nothing, my lord.”


Gertrude – 224: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”


Claudius – 261: “Give me some light: away!”


Hamlet – 278: “O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a

    thousand pound. Didst perceive?”


Guildenstern – 291: “The king, sir,--



    Ay, sir, what of him?



    Is in his retirement marvellous distempered.”


Guildenstern – 303: “The queen, your mother, in most great affliction of

    spirit, hath sent me to you.”


Hamlet – 386: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none;”






Claudius, clearly fearing Hamlet’s madness and understanding the cause of it, hastens Hamlet’s departure for England with R+G, who continue to serve the King without question, and show no concern for their friend’s ill mind. Polonius enters and reminds the King that he is about to spy on Hamlet in Gertrude’s bedchamber, he then departs, leaving the King alone. This is his first soliloquy, and we see a new side of Claudius, someone obviously troubled by the sins he has committed. Claudius kneels to pray, apparently seeking repentance for his crimes. Hamlet, unbeknownst to Claudius, enters and in his own speech contemplates killing the King, before deciding to spare his life as he is unwilling to send Claudius to heaven when he wants him to suffer for the crimes he has committed. Ironically, the scene ends with Claudius confessing that his prayer was ineffective as was incapable of praying wholeheartedly. Hamlet’s sparing of Claudius’ life is debatable, though he states his reasons; he reasoning can be seen as a manner of procrastinating further, or merely a way of prolonging the play while still allowing a tense scene to be carried out.  






Hamlet still states his desire for revenge as the scene ends, claiming that Claudius is only prolonging his suffering by praying. This is perhaps evidenced by his spontaneous and illogical murder of Polonius in the next scene, which would ratify his statement that the only reasons he refrains from killing Claudius in this scene is so as to send him to hell, or to kill him at a more suitable time (perhaps preserving his own soul by not committing a murder in cold blood). (Lines 84 and 96)


Nature of Death


The audience has been aware of the nature of death preying on Hamlet’s mind since his earlier soliloquies, however it is only at this point when we see the effect that it is having on Claudius, despite this, the effect is not as marked as it perhaps should be – possibly because Claudius has not encountered the Ghost and been informed of the torment that it suffers in the afterlife. This would explain Claudius’ unwillingness to repent despite his apparent understanding of the consequences. Hamlet’s behaviour becomes less logical in the next scene when he shows a callous eye to death, upon killing Polonius, apparently disagreeing with the turmoil it has incurred upon his mind up to this stage in the play.




Purging of the soul, rank offences and sickly days. (Lines 36, 84 and 96)


Nature of Man // Betrayal


Possibly. (Thematic relevance of this questionable? Maybe?) Claudius’ appears to have betrayed his own conscience, or at least he is capable of subduing it, as he has demonstrated so far in the play with his effortless up keeping of his strong façade in the face of such a despicable deed. Even his emotionally turbulent soliloquy shows no of the characteristics of Hamlet’s erratic, agitated, tense and even panic-stricken soliloquies when he seems genuinely angered by himself and his own futile existence. His strength of mind is possibly what allowed him to betray his conscience, even though he refers to the act itself as having a “primal eldest curse upon’t”. His greed-driven nature is also important in this scene, as his enjoyment of the effects of his murder eventually prevents him from repenting.


Key Quotes


Claudius – 36: “O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,

A brother's murder.”


Claudius – 51: “But, O, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?

That cannot be; since I am still possess'd

Of those effects for which I did the murder,

My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.

May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?”


Hamlet – 76: “A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.”


Hamlet – 84: “am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season'd for his passage?”


Hamlet – 96: “This physic [note - prayer] but prolongs thy sickly days.”


Claudius – 97: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”






The Closet Scene – The climactic conclusion of Act 3, in which Hamlet finally arrives into his mothers private room, and immediately begins verbally berating her, unaware that Polonius is hiding behind the arras. As he becomes more aggressive, seemingly disobeying his father’s earlier request, the Queen becomes frightened, triggering a call for help from both her and Polonius. Hearing another voice, Hamlet rashly stabs the figure, only to discover that it is in fact Polonius that he has slain. Notably, in this exchange, it is revealed that the Queen was hitherto unaware of her previous husband’s murder by Claudius. Hamlet, discovering this, begins to detail her sins to her, prompting an elicitation of guilt and remorse, and a clear change in Gertrude’s loyalties following this revelation. The Ghost also makes his second and final appearance of the play, reminding Hamlet of his cause and not to be overly aggressive to his mother. Hamlet, amongst issuing several goodbyes, manages to convince his mother of his sanity, worries about his trip to England, and also convinces her not to reveal the truth of his antic disposition, as well as reminding her to no longer commit any of the sinful deeds that have so shocked and shattered his opinion of womankind.






Hamlet finally discusses his antic disposition with his mother, and swears her to secrecy. Hamlet’s language in the scene rarely suggests madness (although his first dichotomous conversation in which he imitates his mother’s language is unusual behaviour), but he does get carried away with his actions, and appears emotionally vulnerable in this confrontation, possibly because of the profound effect that his mother’s betrayal had on his already fragile mind. His discussion with the Ghost, not observed by his mother, could also be used to suggest Hamlet is turning truly mad. Although, with the rational Horatio having also witnessed the Ghost earlier, the audience can truthfully believe in the Ghost’s existence, a case could be made suggesting that the appearance of the Ghost only to Hamlet could just be a figment of his imagination. Either way, the ghost returns him to a more stable state of mind, as he appears to calm down and ceases to act in an aggressive fashion towards his mother. (Line 9)




The focus of this scene of primarily on Gertrude’s betrayal of King Hamlet. Shakespeare uses it as a means of voicing Hamlet’s anger, allowing him to vent many of the feelings that he had stored up over the months, that were beginning to manifest themselves in his suicidal tendencies and anger towards himself for his lack of action. Hamlet’s anger does have a genuine basis though, as Gertrude’s behaviour is despicable and is seen as such by the audience. (Line 54)


Role of Women


While never approaching the level of passivity the Ophelia manages in the play, Gertrude does seem somewhat subdued throughout the scene, despite starting on the offensive by criticising Hamlet’s behaviour (also, intriguingly, referring to Claudius as Hamlet’s father). She soon reverts to a inert state, almost accepting Hamlet’s aggressive behaviour, and one pleading him to stop. This, in a way, shows her remorse and realisation of her misdeeds. It also garners support from the audience that, as the scene ends, she agrees to keep Hamlet’s plot a secret from her husband, showing commendable loyalty to her son, and a willingness to stand up to her husband. Her closing lines of the scene, while confirming to Hamlet that she will keep his antic disposition secret, also tell of her mental state, and the clearly profound and genuine affect that this scene has had on her outlook. Most importantly, Gertrude keeps her promise to Hamlet, scannering darkly the scene in which Ophelia promises Laertes to keep their discussion secret, before immediately informing Polonius. (Line 85 and 195)


Gertrude’s desire to live in ignorance is also observable here, when she asks Hamlet to cease talking because she struggles to accept what he says, and moreso because she does not wish to accept his statements. She attempts to avoid the truth.




Hamlet’s attitude towards death in this scene is highly ambiguous. His turbulent mind in 3.1 seems to have been replaced with a cold and indifferent familiarity that prevents him from even forming any emotion that resembles remorse upon killing Polonius, making his subsequent speech about his mother’s sins somewhat hypocritical, especially as she did not realise Claudius’ true nature. Hamlet’s indifference develops further and eventually culminates in his stoical sentencing of R+G to death, though his conversation with the gravedigger and uncovering of Yorrick’s skull signals a sudden wave of truth-seeking thoughts. Apparently his familiarity of death has resulted in his mind separating the actual process of killing from the physical consequences of burial, heaven and hell. (Line 29)




The Ghost’s reappearance once again reminds Hamlet of his true purpose, after he had become sidetracked into berating his mother for her sinful actions – which the ghost at first requested he did not do. Hamlet’s desire for revenge, however, was almost shown as forceful in this scene, given his impulsive murder of Polonius. (Line 106)


Uncertainty / Deception


It is revealed in this scene that Gertrude has also been deceived by Claudius. This revelation does create a small amount of sympathy for Gertrude, as does her decision to conceal Hamlet’s secrets. For the first time, Gertrude is not loathed by the audience, as they feel that she is no longer keeping any secrets of deceiving any characters, even admitting the guilt that eats at her soul to Hamlet. By realising the error of her ways, unlike Claudius in the prior scene, Gertrude is partially absolved of guilt, however her death in the final act of the play serves as a consequence of her actions, unfaithfulness and remarriage, none of which she fully atones for. Blah blah blah nonsensical shite.  (Line 85)


Key Quotes


Queen Gertrude – 9: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.



Mother, you have my father much offended.


Queen Gertrude

Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.



Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.”


Queen Gertrude – 25: “O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!



A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,

As kill a king, and marry with his brother.


Queen Gertrude

As kill a king!



Ay, lady, 'twas my word.”


Hamlet – 29: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!

I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune;”


Hamlet – 54: “Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;


This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:

Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,

Blasting his wholesome brother.”


Queen Gertrude – 85: “O Hamlet, speak no more:

Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;

And there I see such black and grained spots

As will not leave their tinct.”


Ghost – 106: “Do not forget: this visitation

Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”


Queen Gertrude – 195: “Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,

And breath of life, I have no life to breathe

What thou hast said to me.”






A minor and rather unimportant scene of only 45 lines. Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet has murdered in a fit of madness, in doing so keeping her promise to her son, and Claudius






“This mad young man” – Claudius. Claudius fully believes in Hamlet’s feigned madness, and appears relatively unsurprised as to his actions. Gertrude lies convincingly, again showing how she has kept her promise to Hamlet.




Gertrude keeps her promise to Hamlet, as opposed to Ophelia’s betrayal earlier in the play. This may in part inspire Hamlet’s realisation of love for Ophelia upon her death, as his faith in womankind is partially restored. Gertrude is seen slightly atoning for her earlier misdeeds, though is far from being fully forgiven by the audience.


Key Quotes


Claudius – 3: “Where is your son?” – Claudius, now apprehensive of Hamlet, does not pretend to be his father for once.


Gertrude – 11: “in this brainish apprehension, kills

The unseen good old man.”


Claudius – 21: “Like the owner of a foul disease” – Claudius’ description of Hamlet’s affliction.


Claudius – 43: “My soul is full of discord and dismay”






Hamlet, having hidden Polonius body, is confronted by R+G, who demand to know of its location. He taunts them, insulting their obedience to the King, before asking to be brought to Claudius himself.




Pretty much nothing here, see quotes.


Key Quotes


Hamlet - 2: “What noise? Who calls on Hamlet?

O, here they come.” – Refers to himself in the third person. A sign of true madness manifesting itself.


Rosencrantz – 13: “Take you me for a sponge, my lord?



Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his

rewards, his authorities.” – Hamlet, with clever wordplay, criticises R+G’s betrayal of friendship.






Hamlet is brought before the King, who had just stated that Hamlet’s popularity prevents him from putting him on trial, showing his concern with his image to the public.






Hamlet’s conversation with Claudius, including numerous taunts from the prince, again shows the “method” in his madness. Even Claudius can be construed as understanding that his behaviour, while erratic, is merely covering up his true demeanour. This fuels his ever more apparent desire to send Hamlet to England with haste, and as he reveals at the end of the scene, to have him killed. Thus removing the threat that he presents.


Key Quotes


Claudius – 4: “He’s loved of the distracted multitude”. First mention of Hamlet’s popularity, and a method Shakespeare uses to solidify Hamlet’s status as the protagonist.


Hamlet – 48: “Farewell, dear mother.


King Claudius

Thy loving father, Hamlet.



My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man

and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother. Come, for England!”


Claudius – 61: “Our sovereign process; which imports at full,

By letters congruing to that effect,

The present death of Hamlet.”






Hamlet observes Fortinbras’ army marching across Denmark, Fortinbras’ himself has a brief speech at the beginning of the scene in which he formally asks for permission to march across the nation as promised. Hamlet then briefly converses with the Captain who carries Fortinbras’ message, who reveals that the army is destined to fight for a worthless piece of land, merely for honour. Hamlet, who is then left alone shame is again evident in the soliloquy, as when he compared himself to the actor.




Revenge (Action)


As with 2.2, Hamlet becomes introspective based upon his observations of the actions of others. He continually struggles to comprehend why he, with the purpose and the motives to carry out his revenge, cannot take action. This is the hero’s fundamental flaw, and the audience is aware at this point, along with the length of the play, that his procrastination will incur disastrous consequences.


Interestingly, hamlet again speaks of his “dull revenge”, despite being visited by the Ghost again the Act 3. In an effective monosyllabic speech, hamlet also imparts unto the audience that he has the means to carry out his revenge, yet continually delays it.


Key Quotes


Captain – 16: “Truly to speak, and with no addition,

We go to gain a little patch of ground

That hath in it no profit but the name.”




 - 31: “How all occasions do inform against me,

And spur my dull revenge!”


 - 39: “some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on the event,


I do not know

Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do;'

Sith I have cause and will and strength and means

To do't.”






Gertrude speaks with a Gentleman (Possibly Horatio) about a mentally ill woman, who is later revealed to be Ophelia. She eventually agrees with speak with her, and in the brief interlude she has a small soliloquy alluding to her guilt. Ophelia then enters, clearly mad, and recites songs and jargon that appear to be attributed to her father’s death. Claudius, who enters mid scene, also observes her madness and is apparently troubled. He is left alone with Gertrude, and speaks of the sorrow that the sight has brought upon him, though not admitting his guilt, and his speech still appears somewhat self-indulgent as he is still over concerned with his own welfare (He also mentions how he rushed Polonius’ death, possibly to avoid suspicions). Laertes then arrives, amidst a crowd of his supports who represent the unrest among the Danish people following Polonius’ death and Hamlet’s departure. Claudius shows his calm reserve once more in the face of Laertes’ anger, and promises a full account of his father’s death (beginning his eventual control over Laertes) before their conversation is interrupted as Ophelia reappears. Laertes’ is distraught and Claudius, sympathising with his grief, continues to manipulate his actions as the scene concludes.






Though he is not present, this scene aids the audience’s understanding of Hamlet’s mind by presenting two polarising figures, that of the mad Ophelia and the vengeful Laertes. Each of these characters represents a facet of Hamlet’s increasingly fragile mind. Ophelia’s madness echoes Hamlet’s, with her multiple goodbyes and referral to the King as a woman. Laertes represents the side of Hamlet not constrained by philosophical reflection – as he states the lack of concern he has for the repercussions of his actions, he merely desires revenge. This insight into the turbulence in Hamlet’s mind helps the audience come to terms with the true madness of the protagonist, and yet combined with his antic disposition and musings, still does not fully touch upon his madness as a whole. (Line 72)


Laertes almost represents Hamlet as he desires to be, as Hamlet commonly states in his soliloquies his desire to be able to take reckless action. This, however, is not presented as a beneficial characteristic. It allows Laertes to be manipulated by the King, his own tragic flaw, and the one flaw that Hamlet is devoid of throughout the play. (Line 130)


Revenge (And Action again)


Laertes’ spurring into revenge is similar to Hamlet’s early desire, yet remains strong and impassioned – even though his father is not presented as glorified as King Hamlet. This may be in part because of the means by which his revenge is stirred. Hamlet was confronted by a Ghost, who apart from speaking of his own death, also spoke of the afterlife and his new existence in purgatory. The questions that the ghost raised inevitable manifested themselves in Hamlet’s logical mind and slowly began to taint and dominate his thoughts. Laertes’ revenge is not detracted from by mitigating factors such as these, he even states his willingness to ignore the consequences he faces and even confine himself to hell so long as he achieves his revenge. (Line 130)


Claudius’ transition to the dark side is complete, as despite showing signs of grief he still does not repent and is even willing to deceive Laertes. The audiences’ desire to see Claudius demise increases exponentially in this scene as he commits yet another despicable act by subduing his own moral compass and employing Laertes, by cunning use of his sorrow, into supporting his cause against Hamlet. With his role as total villain confirmed, Laertes’ desire for action allows Shakespeare to bring about the play’s climax. FINALLY!


Role of Women


Ophelia, suddenly without the guidance of her father, appears to have collapsed. Her dependence on men for guidance in her actions has been observable throughout the play, and clearly it has had a detrimental impact on her mind, removing her independence. She sings of lost love and her lost father alternatively, and these two factors combined have proved enough to collapse her mind. Her grief at Hamlet’s behaviour earlier in the play was evident in her tearful conversation with her father, but the duty and obedience she felt towards her father meant that she was still willing to abandon and betray her love. (Her brief line to the queen is the only indication of her own hopes that she may reconcile with Hamlet). She appears unable to function without the support / guidance / ‘instruction’ of either of these men. (Lines 23/29)


Gertrude continues to appear stronger and more independent than she appeared at first. Her sustained loyalty to Hamlet endears her to the audience, as does her conversing with Horatio, Hamlet’s only consistent trusted ally. Her small soliloquy also shows that she is remorseful for her actions, and acts a premonition to her death. The diseased imagery that she uses to describe her soul suggests that the only method by which she can be purged of her sins is in death, and her eventual death from poison ironically serves as a physical mirror to the taint that her spirit has suffered.


Uncertainty / Betrayal


In this scene we witness a conversation between Horatio and Gertrude, who are both loyal to Hamlet, and also the beginning of Laertes and Claudius conspiring against Hamlet. Hamlet’s current status is unknown to the audience, having been sent to England, though they correctly assume that he will return unharmed. Until then it is these two parties that represent the rival interests at Elsinore although there is not a palpable tension until the aggressive Laertes enters, almost signalling a build up to the plays conclusion as his desire for action forces Claudius himself to act.



Key Quotes


Gertrude – 17: “To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is,

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss:

So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt” – Gertrude’s 4 line soliloquy. The only time in the play she is alone.


Ophelia – 23: “(Sings)

    How should I your true love know

    From another one?

    By his cockle hat and staff,

    And his sandal shoon.”


Ophelia – 29: “(Sings)


He is dead and gone, lady,

He is dead and gone;

At his head a grass-green turf,

At his heels a stone.”


Ophelia – 72: “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;

good night, good night.” – Echoes hamlet’s madness, not just his gender confusion in the last scene, but his multiple goodbyes when with his mother in 3.4.


Claudius – 75: “O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs

All from her father's death. O Gertrude, Gertrude,

When sorrows come, they come not single spies

But in battalions.” – Claudius shows sorrow for Ophelia’s suffering, and maybe even for hamlet and his own actions. Both of the characters here, Claudius and Gertrude, and suffering from internal guilt at their own actions.


Laertes – 130: “    To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!

    Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!

    I dare damnation.


    Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged

    Most thoroughly for my father.”






A messenger brings Horatio, otherwise alone on the stage, a letter from hamlet. In the letter Hamlet speaks of the seemingly random events that have unfolded on his voyage, his ship having been sabotaged by pirates. He describes, after requesting that the King be given the letter addressed to him, how he boarded their ship and befriended them, agreeing to owe them a favour for his safe return to Denmark. Shakespeare’s description of the events seems fanciful, but is necessary to accelerate the course of events. It is also relevant to Hamlet’s latter conclusions that fate governs many of the outcomes of the play, and his easy relationship with the pirates could be attributed to his frequently mentioned popularity among the people, and among the players from earlier in the play.






Even in the letter Hamlet seems to have undergone a devout change since we last saw him. His familiarity with death is one of the most noteworthy comments in the scene, as it is a far cry from his early comments on the subject. His apparent courage in the face of a battle also shows how familiar he has become with death, not succumbing to contemplation, rather managing to take immediate action by boarding the pirate ship and engineering his escape. (Line 21)




Hamlet’s letter to Horatio starkly contrasts the language he uses in his letter to Claudius. Hamlet’s Antic disposition is again distanced from the true mind of the protagonist. In concluding the letter, Hamlet deems himself “He that thou knowest”, almost as if to signal that he has returned to being the Hamlet that Horatio knows, i.e. the “noble mind” that the audience has yet only to hear of indirectly. (Line 28)


Key Quotes


Horatio (Hamlet’s Letter) – 21: “Let the king

    have the letters I have sent; and repair thou to me

    with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death.”


Horatio (Hamlet’s Letter) – 28: “He that thou knowest thine, HAMLET”






Claudius and Laertes are deep in conversation, with Claudius clearly leading the discussion and manipulating Laertes’ aggression into a form that will suit his cause against Hamlet. They are interrupted by a messenger, who brings them news that Hamlet is returning to Elsinore. Though angered and surprised, Claudius now has the perfect method to eliminate Hamlet – Laertes. He acts quickly and effectively convinces Laertes to follow his plan to poison Hamlet in a fencing match (despite the fact that he mentions twice the great affection that the Queen has towards her son, showing again the rift that has formed between them.) Gertrude then enters, bringing news of Ophelia’s glorified death. This serves to catalyse Laertes’ aggression, and immediately spurs him to action.






Laertes’ role as a foil to Hamlet is increasingly palpable to the audience in this scene, especially following his statement of intent in which he pledges that he would kill Hamlet in a church, again showing no heed for the consequences of his actions, a polar opposite to the prince. This line is swiftly followed by an ironic statement from Claudius in which he supports Laertes’ pledge by stating that ‘Revenge should have no bounds’. This statement is rife with dramatic irony, as the audience is aware that if Hamlet presented characteristic that mirrored those shown by Laertes, the play would not only have concluded in the previous act, but would have avoided the tragic finale that is destined to come. Despite this, when pitted against Hamlet, Laertes impetuous recklessness only contributes to the eventual disastrous ending. (Line 123)


Uncertainty / Deception


Laertes appears devoutly certain of his actions, yet ignorant of their potential consequences. This may be in part due to Claudius’ ability to extract only his most aggressive tendencies, such as by subtly questioning his desire to avenge his father, even asking for an example of his commitment. This focuses Laertes’ actions and prevents him from becoming, like Hamlet, drawn into a subterfuge of antics and mental turmoil. (Line 12, 65, and 123)


Betrayal ( / Manipulation of trust)


Claudius is now on his own, having lost his strongest ally Polonius, and now with his wife in allegiance with Hamlet. This increasing his apparent desire to manipulate Laertes, and he is even willing to make his wife suffer the pain of her son’s death, stating repeatedly the fondness that she has for him. Claudius’ discourse with Laertes shows Claudius to be in total control throughout. He moulds Laertes, first drawing upon his anger and then seminally utilising reverse psychology and emotional manipulation to remove any potential doubts that Laertes may have and merely replace them with anger. Therefore, in this scene, we see the most villainous side of Claudius, who is even willing to betray his wife in order to alleviate the threat to his crown and life. We see this again in the final scene as he fails to prevent Gertrude from drinking the poisoned cup as it would interfere with his plans. (Line 12 and 65)


Disease Imagery


Stygian language is used again, firstly when Laertes describes the “sickness” of his “heart”, which resembles the sickness of both Hamlet’s mind and soul. Laertes shows little resemblance to the character that we observed earlier in the play, such is he overcome by anger, and this image reminds the audience of the taint that Claudius has imposed on him, just as he and the Ghost has combined to plague Hamlet’s thoughts and action. The eventual conclusion of the play and the poisoned fencing match serves as an ironic and partially foreshadowed culmination, replacing the spiritual and metaphysical poison with a very literal poison that not only kills the characters, but is responsible for Denmark’s fall to Fortinbras, being the other state that is described as sick and diseased it also inevitably suffered.


The scene, which becomes increasingly dark and foreboding as it continues, receives a sudden contrast when the Queen enters and details the nature of Ophelia’s death. The language she uses beautifies her otherwise discordant suicide, and even emphasises Ophelia’s innocence and serenity amongst her surroundings. Her mind was sickened by the poison of deep grief, and not also the desire for revenge and hasty action – therefore she who is without sin dies the only serene death of the play. (Line 53 and 138 and contrast 174)




Only the last, fragmented partial line of Gertrude’s melodic lament for Ophelia addresses the bitter realities of her death. As an audience, we are distracted by the beauteous natural imagery that surrounds the events in Gertrude’s wails, and only the “muddy death” reminds the audience of the factual nature of her drowning, giving the statement the overall discordance needed to effectively describe the death and extract a compassionate sentiment for Ophelia.

(170, 174 and 180)


Key Quotes


Claudius – 12: “The queen his mother

    Lives almost by his looks”


Claudius (Hamlet’s Letter) – 43: “'High and mighty, You shall know I am set naked on

    your kingdom. To-morrow shall I beg leave to see

    your kingly eyes’” – Hamlet’s letter shows inklings of his madness, see Madness from 4.6 He also continues to taunt the King with his methodical madness.


Laertes – 53: “It warms the very sickness in my heart,”


Claudius – 65: “even his mother shall uncharge the practise

    And call it accident.”


Laertes – 107: “Why ask you this?



    Not that I think you did not love your father...” (Claudius inveigles. Seminal use of reverse psychology to influence Laertes’actions.)


Claudius – 123: “what would you undertake,

    To show yourself your father's son in deed

    More than in words?



    To cut his throat i' the church.


King Claudius

    No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;

    Revenge should have no bounds.”


Laertes – 138: “I’ll anoint my sword” – Poison returns to the fold, this time in a literal sense, rather than the spiritual poisons that have plagued the play so far.


Gertrude – 170: “crownet weeds”


Gertrude – 174: “mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

    Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;

    As one incapable of her own distress,

    Or like a creature native and indued

    Unto that element”   


Gertude – 180: “Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay

    To muddy death.”







The scene begins with a comical yet immensely profound exchange between the Gravedigger and his assistant. They speak about Ophelia’s death and entitlement to a Christian burial, begin to contemplate the uncontemplatable aspects of death in a closeness that even Hamlet has not achieved. Hamlet and Horatio, approaching from a distance, begin to discuss a similar topic, inspired by the gravediggers seeming familiarity with death. Hamlet then begins to speak with the Gravedigger, and appears to greatly enjoy the precision of his words and comments. This is until his enjoyment reaches an abrupt ending when he learns of the source of the skull – his childhood jester Yorrick. This prompts a return to his ponderous outlook on death. As he is contemplating, the funeral procession for Ophelia arrives, and Hamlet and Horatio recede. Hamlet observes Laertes’ overblown expressions of grief and, realising that the funeral is for Ophelia, makes himself known (also in an ironically overblown manner), proceeding to grapple with Laertes, possibly in Ophelia’s grave, and deride Laertes’ love for Ophelia in comparison to his own. One by one the players depart, leaving Claudius to briefly and subtly impel Laertes on in his plot to kill Hamlet.






Hamlet’s growing ease around death in this scene is reflected by the Gravedigger, who is entirely at ease with his profession, and Horatio even states that his familiarity with death is the reason for this.


The Gravedigger himself is an important character, representing far more than a mere comic worker. He states that he began the job not only the day King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras, but the day young Hamlet was born. The gravedigger appears to transcend mere mortality, and his mentioning of Adam gives him biblical connotations, even allowing him to serve as a gateway between life and death. A liminal space if you will.  Having outlived both of the Hamlet, it allows the Gravedigger to serve as funeral maker to the state of Denmark, as he will soon be dealing with Hamlet and Claudius. This gives the character and even more interesting basis. He also serves to ease Hamlet’s tensions with a comic dialogue, and then trigger his meditations.


Hamlet’s meditations, triggered by the skull of his childhood jester, almost conclude the theme of death that has been present through the play, since the early appearance of the ghost. Hamlet concludes that death acts as the great leveller. Making all humans, no matter how substantial their achievements in life, mere dust. This epiphany breaks Hamlet free of the turbulent questions that the Ghost had laid in Hamlet’s mind, and allows him to return nearly to acting as his free minded self. (Lines 29, 61, 164.)




Hamlet finally breaks free form the Ghost’s hold on him, realising the futility of life itself and ceases to idolise his father. His ‘Hamlet the Dane’ revelation signals his return to a self-controlled mind. It is Hamlet’s revelations upon pondering Yorrick’s skull which enable this, and realisation that even Alexander the great and Caesar befell the same fate that will one day, soon, come to him. This spurs him on and alerts him to life’s futility, and therefore the necessity to use it rather than contemplate it.


There are remnants of true madness in Hamlet’s characterisation in this scene. Not only do the emotions he states for Ophelia starkly contrast his earlier emotions, but his impulsive actions are a far cry from his self-proclaimed cowardice and inability to act. It is possible that Hamlet has changed since returning to Elsinore, but the noble mind that is termed by Ophelia is not seen in this scene, rather a marginally more aggressive and impulsive Hamlet.


Horatio’s presence removes the need for a soliloquy. Hamlet can speak his innermost thoughts around Horatio, who merely affirms the Prince’s statements. Horatio’s continued support through the play can be attributed as one of the reasons prince does not fully descend into lunacy, though Horatio does not appear to derail his train of thought, rather encouraging it by affirming his statements (76 and 81). (Lines 198, 246 and 258)




Hamlet seems to have been freed from his earlier despising of womankind, possibly by his mother’s continued support and loyalty towards him. This manifests itself in Hamlet’s posthumous confessions of love for Ophelia. Gertrude’s behaviour is also crucial to observe, her lamentations upon Ophelia’s death show her longing for her son to have been happy, and for his relationship with Ophelia to succeed. Throughout the play she is shown as desiring happiness, even if it means existing in ignorance of the truth (i.e. her unwillingness to listen to Hamlet’s berations in 3.4) however she rarely takes action herself to make her desires come to fruition, similar to Ophelia. Unlike Ophelia, however, she is occasionally shown as free willed and capable due to her role as taking action. It is this negligence and willingness to be subservient, abiding by the King’s and Polonius’ plans for Ophelia and Hamlet, which inspire much of the audience’s dislike of Gertrude.  (Lines 233 and 246)


Revenge (And Action)


This scene confirms the events of the final scene of Hamlet by staging the first confrontation between Hamlet and Laertes, with the change in Hamlet’s demeanour allowing him to act as rashly as Laertes does. Both characters end the scene with an aggressive bearing, and this carries over into 5.2, allowing their duel to occur. The revenge plot of the play, and the outcomes of it, have been guessed by the audience, and the use of a funeral scene directly preceding the tragic conclusion of the play is the final piece of patent foreshadowing of the multiple deaths that are soon to occur. Hamlet still appears to distance himself from Ophelia, saying he is not rash, but confirms that he has is still spurned on by his grief, making him just as dangerous as Laertes. He also compares his love for Ophelia to that of forty thousand brothers, angering Laertes and implying his own superiority, accentuating Laertes anger and drive for revenge.  (Lines 250, 258 and 283)




Hamlet describes Laertes as a very noble youth, echoing Ophelia’s description of him before he suffered from the death of his father. Laertes in turn describes Ophelia’s body as pure and innocent, and lacking in the disease that has spread through the state of Denmark, destroying two noble characters in the process through grief and the lust for revenge. Ophelia’s death shows how even the innocent can suffer from the corrupted actions of others. (Line 227)


Key Quotes


Gravedigger - 29: “There is no ancient

gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers:

they hold up Adam's profession.


Hamlet - 61: “Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he

sings at grave-making?



Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness”.  - Hamlet's easing views on death.


Horatio - 76: “It might, my lord.”


Horatio - 81: “Ay, my lord.”


Hamlet - 129: “How absolute the knave is!”


Hamlet - 134: “How long hast thou been a




… that day

that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.



How long is that since?



the very day that young Hamlet was born”


Hamlet - 174: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow

of infinite jest,”


Hamlet - 198: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried,

Alexander returneth into dust;”


Hamlet - 202: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,”


Hamlet - 213: “That is Laertes,

A very noble youth: mark.”


Laertes - 227: “Lay her i' the earth:

And from her fair and unpolluted flesh

May violets spring!” - Again Ophelia represent the lack of corruption and diseased etc.


Hamlet - 231: “What, the fair Ophelia!”


Gertrude - 233: “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;”


Laertes - 235: “O, treble woe”


Hamlet - 246: “This is I,

Hamlet the Dane.”


Hamlet - 250: “For, though I am not splenitive and rash,

Yet have I something in me dangerous,

Which let thy wiseness fear”


Hamlet - 258: “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers

Could not, with all their quantity of love,

Make up my sum.”


Claudius- 283: “Strengthen your patience in our last night's speech;

We'll put the matter to the present push.”






Hamlet callously discusses R+Gs deaths with Horatio, and the divine processes that have resulted in his continued life, demonstrating his newfound attitude towards death. They are interrupted by the totally pointless Osric, and they have a rather comical conversation which confirms Hamlet’s willingness to duel Laertes, despite his apparent misgivings about his behaviour towards Laertes by the grave – describing Laertes very positively. The match is hastily arranged, despite Hamlet airing a sense of foreboding he no longer fears death. The court is assembled, and before the match begins Hamlet apologises to Laertes, who partially accepts but insists the match go on. The King, as part of his poisoned chalice backup plan, states that he will give Hamlet a faaaabulous bonus prize of a pretty pearl if he wins either of the first two rounds, dropping it in the cup to poison it. This backfires when Hamlet wins the first two rounds and Gertrude, showing her affection, drinks in Hamlet honour. The King is unwilling to stop her, as it would expose his plan. Hamlet and Laertes continue to duel, with Laertes stabbing Hamlet treacherously, and subsequently switching rapier which allows Hamlet to poison Laertes in return. As the Queen dies, Laertes then reveal the King’s plan, as does the Queen who realises her own fate. Laertes informs Hamlet of the quick effects of the poison, and he immediately acts against Claudius, forcing him to drink from the poisoned Chalice. As they lie dying, Laertes and Hamlet exchange forgiveness, and Hamlet also acts to prevent Horatio from committing suicide, charging him with the task of telling the story of the events that have occurred, and also naming Fortinbras as his successor. Who then arrives along with the English ambassadors bringing news of R+Gs deaths. Fortinbras declares orders Hamlet a noble soldier’s funeral, and ends the play with an epitaphic lament.




Death (And the Divine)


Hamlet’s musings on death have apparently been replaced by contemplation on divine intervention upon life. He conceded in 5.1 that death was an inevitable conclusion to life, and was the sole thing that unified mankind (the term union is used in this scene as Hamlet puns upon Claudius’ words (Line 310) to signify that union that the dying characters in this scene are entering into. All killed by (the same?) poison, though possibly facing a different fate as Horatio hints that Hamlet will transcend to Heaven. The scene where death ceases to be a talking / thinking point, it finally becomes an occurrence. This possibly eases the impact of the finale on the audience as the protagonist had become more accepting of his fate as the play continued, and there are lightened feelings of guilt, especially because of the widely held religious convictions of the time that would have seen Hamlet ascending to heaven, possibly to be joined by his mother and Ophelia. Despite this, the final scene retains a powerful emotional impact, Hamlet’s biblical quotation (Lines 10 and 199)


Revenge / Action


Hamlet’s role as a foil to Laertes, and vice versa is twice mentioned in this scene, firstly when he compares himself to Laertes when describing his nobility to Osric, and secondly when he openly offers to be Laertes’ foil. The revenge plot has almost become slightly dulled by this scene, with Hamlet still desiring to kill Claudius, but the convolution to the plot incurred by Ophelia’s death, Hamlet’s resignation to fate, and Laertes and Hamlet’s partial pre-fight forgiveness means that the impact of this scene is not as strong as it could have been had it occurred at an earlier point in the play. The climactic swordfight, though, is a welcome break from the conversation driven action of the play, giving the finale the impact that it needed.


Before their fight, Hamlet offers and apology to Laertes, which is fully reciprocated and accepted after the fight, when the truth if fully revealed. For a brief spell of time before their death, both Laertes and Hamlet return to the noble characters that they once were. Laertes’ nobility is briefly seen earlier in the play through his thoughtful conversation with Ophelia, however Hamlet’s nobility is only mentioned by other characters, yet his popularity with Denmark and the players does give the impression that he was a genial and dignified man before his father’s death. The final scene of the play has a sense of full circle, and union. Characters suffer fates worthy of their actions, or revert to their more natural state, with Hamlet becoming the stereotypical protagonist that he failed to become earlier in the play with his noble death, and Fortinbras lament, and with Claudius finally being revealed as the villain of the piece, allowing the noble Laertes to briefly turn face, and Gertrude to be partially redeemed by the audience for her sufferings. Does that make any sense?


Fortinbras’ role is finally revealed in the final scene, as he is almost a contrast to both Laertes and Hamlet, and even though he was described as rash and impulsive by Claudius in 1.2, the audience’s impression of him from the brief descriptions and sightings through the play is far from Claudius’ description. We have ascertained an image of a noble character, who rather than question his own fate, as Hamlet does frequently through the play, he accepts it without question, taking the noble action of fighting a futile batter merely for honour. As Hamlet finally becomes a protagonist, his behaviour is as a result of surrendering his life to fate, as Fortinbras had done from an earlier point. Fortinbras is the one character to gain from the play, as he is the sole character worthy in action of the fortune that he gains.

(Lines 204, 221, 232, 313, 316 and 372)




Hamlet, despite rambling somewhat, is coherent and somewhat eloquent when describing his fate-destined experiences on his voyage to England, possibly because he always appears more sane when alone with Horatio. Nevertheless, his madness, which he continued to claim was merely his antic disposition with his mother in 3.4, is his excuse for his actions when he apologises to Laertes. This could either be seen as proof that Hamlet truly was overcome with madness, as the apology does seem sincere in nature, or that Hamlet merely sought to apologise and justify his actions, even though they were not entirely justifiable.  The theme is concluded on a partially unsatisfactory note, with the audience remaining unsure as to the true nature of Hamlet’s madness, as his behaviour has until now, and continues to, fluctuate wildly, with Hamlet appearing in this scene appearing resigned and almost as reckless as he desired from the play’s inception. (Line 204)




Here, the poison that he been rooted in the characters mind, and in the state of Denmark, becomes literal, causing the deaths of four characters. The diseased imagery throughout the play has been used to describe Hamlet and Laertes and served as a premonition for this ending and the literal poison that would eventually be their downfall. The four most corrupt characters in the play are killed by poison, while the innocent Ophelia is drowned in a self-inflicted incident. Laertes admits that he is justly killed for his treacherous actions, and the poison serves as a satisfactory dramatic device, as it allows the protagonist to enact his revenge upon Claudius with the knowledge that he is about to meet death. Another irony is Hamlet’s contemplation of death being unknown, and yet being aware of his death before it occurs. (Lines 292, 294 and 302)


Role of Women


In an ironic twist, Gertrude finally breaks free of her subservience to Claudius, becoming totally loyal to Hamlet (confirming this with her last line addressed to her son), by disobeying his order not to drink – which leads to her death. This is not Shakespeare criticising her for her independent thought, rather giving her character and appropriate ending for the sinful deeds that she committed in the play, and the guilt that was rife within her mind in the last two acts. Her survival was never an option, so long as Hamlet died in the finale, as her guilt would not have kept her alive. Shakespeare commonly used women as sacrificial victims; however Gertrude’s relevance to this is questionable. She is not entirely a victim, not in the sense that the overtly passive and oppressed Ophelia is, as she has brought about her own demise. (Lines 272 and 294).




The theme of fate is merely hinted upon throughout the play, with many of the events conspiring and resulting in an apparently predestined outcome. Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio shows his acceptance of his own fate, and his conclusion about the inevitability of death, and anticipation of the ulterior intent of the duel, show a character who understands that he is not in full control of his own life, and no longer sees the need to ponder the potential consequences of his actions.



Key Quotes


Hamlet – 10: “There's a divinity that shapes our ends,”


Hamlet – 48: “Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.

    I had my father's signet in my purse,”


Hamlet – 57: “They are not near my conscience;”


Osric – 80: “I thank your lordship, it is very hot.



    No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is




    It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.”


Hamlet – 104: “his semblable is his mirror; and who else would trace

    him, his umbrage [shadow], nothing more.”


Hamlet – 179: “I am constant to my purpose; they follow the king's



Horatio – 187: “You will lose, my lord.



    I do not think so: since he went into France, I

    have been in continual practise:”


Hamlet – 199: “if it be not to come, it will be

    now; if it be not now, yet it will come” - Hamlet resigned to his fate, Foreboding and inevitability.


Hamlet – 204: “Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong;


His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.” Sincere? Is this a real apology. Dissatisfactory reasoning. Supports the theory that Hamlet was mad all along as it seems sincere.


Laertes – 221: “I am satisfied in nature,


 but in my terms of honour

    I stand aloof”


Hamlet – 232: “I'll be your foil, Laertes”


King Claudius – 249: “And in the cup an union shall he throw,” - allows Hamlet's wordplay at end.


King Claudius – 272: “Gertrude, do not drink.


Queen Gertrude

    I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.”


Laertes – 279: “’tis almost 'gainst my conscience.”


Laertes – 292: “I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.”


Queen Gertrude – 294: “O my dear Hamlet,

    The drink, the drink! I am poison'd.”


Laertes – 302: “Unbated and envenom'd: the foul practise

    Hath turn'd itself on me


thy mother's poison'd:

    I can no more: the king, the king's to blame”


 Hamlet – 310: “Is thy union here?

    Follow my mother.” – Unity in death, the great leveller.


Laertes – 313: “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:”


Hamlet – 316: “Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee.

    I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu!”


Horatio – 343: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”


Fortibras – 372: “For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune:”



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