Plot Summary of Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Sep 09, 2021

Plot Summary of Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Hamlet is a popular discourse among college students. This blog explains key takeaways to help you understand Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Hamlet, also referred to as Hamlet Prince of Denmark, is a five-act tragedy and one of William Shakespeare's classical plays. The Shakespearean tragedy drama is believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601 and first published from an unauthorized text in 1603 in a quarto edition. Shakespeare's story of Prince Hamlet is linked to several earlier published sources. The most notable sources include Books III and IV of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (12th century) and Histoires tragiques (1570). Evidence also reveals that Ur-Hamlet preceded Hamlet (now lost), conjectured author is Thomas Kyd.

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Shakespeare's play opens with protagonist Hamlet mourning the death of his father, King Hamlet. Prince Hamlet is a depressed man because he has been recalled from Germany, where he was schooling to attend his father's funeral in Denmark. He is shocked by his mother, Gertrude's behavior, who marries Hamlet's uncle Claudius and the late King's brother barely a month after her husband's death. For Hamlet, the marriage between Claudius and Gertrude is filthy incest, and it makes Hamlet suspicious about the events leading to his father's death. His anger heightens when Claudius is crowned as a king despite Hamlet being apparent to the throne.

The ghost of the slain King visits the castle and appears to Hamlet, confirming his suspicion about a foul play surrounding his father's death. King Hamlet's ghost informs prince Hamlet that Claudius conspired and poisoned him to death, and his spirit cannot rest until Hamlet avenges his death. At first, the ghost's revelation galvanizes Hamlet that Claudius poured poison into King Hamlet's ear while he was having a nap, murdering him. The King's spirit says that he will spend his days confined within the walls of purgatory and walk by the night because he cannot confess and receive salvation. Hamlet should avenge his death by killing his uncle-crowned King Claudius but spare the fate of Gertrude to the heavens.

Hamlet avoids following the ghost’s command to take haste action and opts to reflect and gather sufficient evidence that is in tandem with the ghost’s claims. He observes that the devil can use his current grief and mind’s vulnerability to mislead him into making wrong decisions. He opts to deliberately embrace a melancholic and mad behavior to deceive everyone in the court, including King Claudius, to have closer scrutiny of the activities in the castle in his truth-finding mission. However, the guise pushes him into persistent confusion, making him skeptical about the ghost's trustworthiness. He wonders whether the spirit is a devil sent to tempt him to commit murder most foul, and he agonizes over what he believes are cowardly thoughts.

Hamlet hatches a plan to determine the validity of the ghost’s claims by enlisting a group of players to perform a play entitled The Murder of Gonzago. He deliberately adds scenes recreating the murder of King Hamlet as described by the ghost and titles the revised version of the play The Mousetrap. To Hamlet's amazement, King Claudius's immediate reaction to the play on the staged murder reveals a conscience-stricken person who has suddenly been jerked into the reality of his past mistakes. Claudius hurriedly leaves the room because he cannot breathe, and his dimmed vision needs more light. Hamlet confirms the ghost's accusations about the murder and decides to kill Claudius to avenge King Hamlet's death.

Hamlet moves to his mother’s chambers and confronts her about her blamable loyalty to Claudius, knowing that he is responsible for King Hamlet's death. Hamlet stabs a person he believes to be his villain, Claudius, upon hearing a man's voice from behind a wall-hanging. However, the victim is Polonius, eavesdropping to determine the motives behind Hamlet's recent erratic behaviors. Polonius's violent murder jerks the King to the reality that his life is in danger, and he punishes Hamlet by exiling him to England in the escort of Hamlet's two school friends Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, to spy on him. The King also issues secret instructions for Hamlet to be executed by the King of England upon his arrival in exile. However, Hamlet discovers the secret orders, alters them, and arranges for the execution of his two friends. Ophelia is saddened by her father, Polonius's death, and Hamlet's behaviors and commits suicide by drowning herself while singing broken love songs.

Hamlet learns about Ophelia's death linked to suicide and her madness upon learning about her father's death when he returns to Denmark. Laertes, who has returned from France and has vowed to avenge Polonius's death, saw his sister Ophelia's descent into madness and death. His enmity with Hamlet is visible during Ophelia's funeral when the two enters into a fierce blow exchange while arguing who among them loved Ophelia more. Laertes vows to also avenge Ophelia's death by punishing Hamlet. 

King Claudius and Laertes hatch a plot to bring Hamlet down, but Laertes drops his sword down, which Hamlet retrieves and cuts Laertes. The wound from a poisonous sword kills Laertes, who before death informs Hamlet that he will also follow him because the poisoned sword cut him too.  Horatio disrupts Hamlet’s attention from Laertes by saying that the queen has fallen. Gertrude had mistakenly drunk a toast that King Claudius had prepared for Hamlet. The poison kills the queen.

The dying Laertes confesses his part in the conspiracy to bring Hamlet down and tells him that Gertrude's death is on King Claudius's head. The angry Hamlet moves and stabs the King with the poisoned sword before pouring the last poisoned wine into the King's throat. Before his death, Hamlet orders the throne to go to Prince Fortinbras of Norway and entreat his friend Horatio to give an accurate account of the happenings that led to the Elsinore bloodbath. Hamlet sets himself free from the prison of his words with his last breath, “The rest is silence.”

The play ends with Prince Fortinbras’s first act as a new King of Denmark, where he orders Prince Hamlet's funeral to include complete military honors.


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