Hamlet Book summary

William Shakespeare



Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare between 1599 - 1601, at a time when Queen Elizabeth had ruled the British Empire for a little over four decades. She had no apparent heir, and the closest relative with the legitimate claim was somewhat of a foreigner, and the throne had never before been held by a foreigner. Hamlet, like several other Shakespearean plays, explores the challenges that are associated with a power shift. The story of Hamlet had existed for a long time before Shakespeare used it as an inspiration for his play. Most of the details of the play Hamlet originate from the old story, however, Shakespeare shifted the focus of the tale. Hamlet is a masterful telling of a complicated tale that leaves the reader with several uncertainties and doubts such as the question of Gertrude's abetment in the murder of her husband or Hamlet's true feelings for Ophelia. Hamlet explores various themes, some of the most important being that of the state as a diseased body, certainty, doubt, suicide, and death.


Plot Summary

The play begins with a group of guardsmen, who bring a learned man, Horatio, to witness a ghost that interrupts their nightly watch. Horatio is at first dismissive of the guardsmen's claim, but he is forced to change his mind as he gazes on the armored form of the old King Hamlet. The Ghost doesn’t to speak to the guardsmen and Horatio. They decide to inform Prince Hamlet, the son of the dead King. In the next scene, we see the newly throned King Claudius address the Danish royal court. He talks about the funeral of his recently deceased brother and his new marriage to his brother's widow, Queen Gertrude. He discusses the threat of a Norweigan attack led by Fortinbras, who is the son of a Norweigan monarch that his brother had defeated in the past. He dispatches a diplomatic mission to Norway's current ruler in an attempt to quell the attack and then turns to address Laertes, the son of Polonius, a trusted advisor of the crown. He grants Laertes's request to return to Paris for education but denies Hamlet's request to leave for Wittenberg. Gertrude and Claudius both admonish Hamlet over his continued grieving of his father. As Hamlet is left alone, he soliloquies his desire for suicide, and the grief he experiences at the altered state of his family. Horatio approaches Hamlet with one of the guards from the previous night, and they tell Hamlet of his father's Ghost that appears nightly. Hamlet decides to see the Ghost for himself and promises to meet Horatio and the guards during the watch.

Laertes bids his family farewell with a parting word of caution to Ophelia. He tells her to treat Hamlet's promises of love with caution, and Polonius echoes the same idea. He commands Ophelia to rebuff all of Hamlet's attempts of courtship, and Ophelia readily agrees. Hamlet sees the ghost of his father that very night and follows the apparition away from Horatio and the others. His father's ghost has come to Hamlet with a command to pursue revenge against Claudius, who murdered King Hamlet with poison and stole Gertrude to his bed. He tells Hamlet to spare Gertrude from revenge and departs. Hamlet makes Horatio and the other guardsmen swear by his sword that they would never tell anyone about the events of the night, even if Hamlet were to suddenly act insane.

Laertes sends one of his servants to learn about his son's conduct in Paris and hears of Hamlet's erratic behavior from his daughter, Ophelia. She tells her father that a disheveled Hamlet had come to stare at her in silence, and had departed without uttering a single word. Polonius begins to believe that Hamlet's recent lunacy is a product of Hamlet's unrequited love for Ophelia. He decides to take the matter to the King and Queen at once. Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to the court. The King and Queen had commanded their presence so that they could learn the cause of Hamlet's odd behavior. Polonius reports the return of the ambassadors from Norway, who inform Claudius of their successful visit and inform him of Frontinbras's request to allow a Norwegian army to pass through Danish lands to attack the Polish. Claudius dismisses the ambassadors in a hurry and is more focused on learning Polonius's hypothesis about Hamlet's madness. Polonius reads a letter sent by Hamlet to Ophelia and describes Ophelia's rejection of Hamlet's love at his command. Gertrude is reluctant to believe this account, so they devise a plan to spy on Hamlet's interaction with Ophelia to confirm their theory.

Polonius encounters Hamlet and attempts to speak with him, but Hamlet feigns insanity while he makes jokes at Polonius's expense that go over his head. Hamlet then meets his old friends and manages to discover their purpose in visiting him while easily rebuffing their poor attempts to learn about his mental condition. He informs them that he feels insane sometimes, but in control at other times. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet of a company of actors that has been brought to court for his amusement. Polonius brings along the actors, and Hamlet makes one of them perform an old speech that nearly reduces the actor to tears. He informs them that he would like them to perform a play for him, one which would have additions that he would make himself. After the actors depart, Hamlet wonders at the passion that moves an actor to tears over the account of a fictional character. He berates himself for not killing Claudius already but decides that he cannot be sure that the account presented by the Ghost had been true. He intends to verify Claudius's guilt by measuring his reaction to the additions he will make in the play performed by the actors.  

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to the King and Queen. They inform the King and Queen that they have been unable to deduce the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. However, they have successfully diverted him employing a company of actors. Polonius chimes in to inform the King that Hamlet has invited both the King and Queen for the play he intends to set up. Claudius and Gertrude readily accept the invitation. Claudius then asks Gertrude to leave while the rest of them begin to prepare to spy on Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia. During this interaction, Hamlet soliloquies his confusion over the nature of life and death. He attacks Ophelia for being a woman and informs her that he bears no feelings for her. Claudius becomes afraid of Hamlet's insanity and decides to send him away to England. Polonius instead suggests that they should once attempt to discover the cause of hamlet's madness by secretly observing his interaction with his mother.  

Hamlet advises the actors on how he wishes for them to perform and confides the objective of the play to Horatio. He requests Horatio to observe the reaction of the King to the play so that they can verify the Ghost's account. Hamlet sits along with Ophelia during the play and makes crude sexual jokes. The King jumps up and leaves as soon as he sees the actor King being poisoned by a relative for the gain of his estate. The play is stopped and everyone leaves except for Horatio and Hamlet. They both agree that the King presented a guilty conscience, but their conversation is interrupted by the entry of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius. They inform Hamlet that the King is upset and that his mother wishes to speak to him. Claudius discusses the plan to send Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and they depart with Polonius who goes to the Queen's room to overhear Hamlet's conversation with her. Claudius is left alone in his chamber, where he expresses his desire to pray for forgiveness for the murder of his brother.

Hamlet finds Claudius praying, but decides to delay his act of vengeance to ensure that Claudius's soul would be damned. Hamlet proceeds to his mother's room, where he accidentally kills Polonius. He tells his mother that she needs to cease her sexual relationship with Claudius, and commands her to keep his feigned madness a secret. However, Gertrude betrays Hamlet by telling Claudius immediately of Polonius's death, and Claudius is left stricken with fear at the possibility of having been similarly killed. He sends for Hamlet and sends his attendants to have Polonius buried in secret after he learns the location of the corpse. Hamlet appears to express no regret at Polonius's death and expresses excitement at the prospect of traveling to England. Claudius is left alone, and he expresses his hope that the monarch of England would follow the contents of his letter and behead Hamlet at the earliest opportunity. Hamlet meets a captain from Frontinbras's army and learns that the prince planned to march to fight the Polish over a paltry piece of land.

Ophelia is driven insane after the murder of her father, while Claudius learns of Laertes's secret return to Denmark. He is afraid that Laertes will blame him for the murder of Polonius. Claudius then receives a messenger who tells him that Laertes has been propped up as King by a rabble that now marches to see Claudius. Laertes enters the King's chambers while compelling his men to stay outside, and then he begins to question the King about his father's fate. Laertes learns of his father's death and his sister's insanity, but Claudius calms him down with the promise of delivering revenge to him. Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet informing him that he had been taken prisoner by a ship of pirates while he had been traveling to England. He urges Horation to hurry to him with all haste. Claudius manages to convince Laertes that Hamlet is guilty of the crime, and he learns that Hamlet has escaped the England plot. Claudius and Laertes agree to lure Hamlet into a fencing competition and murder him with either the pointed and poisoned rapier or a poisoned drink. Laertes then learns about Ophelia's death by drowning and rushes away.

Hamlet and Horatio come upon the funeral procession of Ophelia, and Hamlet is shocked by the sight of Ophelia's dead body. Hamlet advances to express his grief along with that of Laertes but he is attacked by Laertes. The grappling men are separated and Hamlet retires along with Horatio. He then tells Horatio about how he had discovered the King's letter to England's monarch and had been horrified to learn that he was meant to be executed. Hamlet altered the contents of the letter so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be executed instead of him.

Hamlet then receives news that the King has placed a wager on his performance in a duel against Laertes. Hamlet readily accepts the terms, and he apologizes to Laertes for the murder of his father. He does so before the beginning of the duel and blames his madness for the death. They begin the duel, and Hamlet begins to win. He refuses to drink the cup that is offered by the King, and it is instead drunk by Gertrude. Laertes attacks Hamlet unexpectedly and Hamlet grapples with him so that when they are separated both Hamlet and Laertes have been stabbed by the poisoned rapier. Gertrude collapses from the poisoned wine, and Laertes loudly declares that Claudius is to blame for both instances of poison. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned rapier and falls to death. He compels Horatio to tell his tale to the rest of the world. Fortinbras arrives along with an embassy from England that bears the news of the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet's body is treated with the rites of a soldier at Fortinbras's command, and all of the men in the army are gathered to hear Horatio tell Hamlet's story.

  • Author(s)

    William Shakespeare
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Nicholas Ling and John Trundell