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Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet at Adelphi, 1899


Summary of William Shakespeare's Hamlet: Hamlet sees his dead dad's ghost, pretends to go crazy with revenge, actually goes crazy with revenge (debatable), and everyone dies.

Act I

Late at night, guards on the battlements of Denmark's Elsinore castle are met by Horatio, Prince Hamlet's student friend. The guards describe a ghost they have seen that resembles the recently-deceased king. At that moment, the Ghost reappears and the guards and Horatio decide to tell Hamlet. Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, is now married to Hamlet's recently-widowed mother, Gertrude, and in turn becomes the new King of Denmark. Hamlet continues to mourn his father's death, and, hearing of the Ghost from Horatio, wants to see it for himself.

Elsewhere, Laertes, son of the royal attendant Polonius, departs for France, warning his sister, Ophelia, against thinking too much of Hamlet's attentions towards her. 

This above all: to thine own self be true.

— Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 3

The Ghost appears to Hamlet, claiming indeed to be the ghost of his father, and tells of his murder by Claudius. The prince swears vengeance and his friends are sworn to secrecy as Hamlet decides to feign madness while he tests the truth of the Ghost's allegations (always a good idea in such situations). 

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1984
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1984

Act II

Accordingly, Hamlet begins to act strangely. He rejects Ophelia, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him, seeking to find a reason for his sudden change in behaviour. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, former friends of Hamlet, are summoned by Claudius, and their arrival coincides with a group of travelling actors. Hamlet happens to know these players well, and they rehearse together. During rehearsal, they plot together to present Hamlet's play before the King and Queen, which includes scenes that mimic the death and murder of Hamlet's father. 


At the performance, Hamlet watches Claudius closely to see how he reacts. Claudius is provoked by the play into interrupting it and storming out; he immediately resolves to send Hamlet away. Hamlet is summoned by his distressed mother, and on the way, he happens upon Claudius kneeling and attempting to pray. Reasoning that to kill the King now would only send his soul to heaven rather than hell, Hamlet decides to spare his life for the time being. 

Courtyard Theatre, 2008
Royal Shakespeare Company, Courtyard Theatre, 2008

Polonius hides in Gertrude's room to protect her from Hamlet, but Hamlet detects movement behind an arras (a kind of tapestry) as he comes to scold his mother. He stabs the tapestry and, in so doing, kills Polonius. The ghost of Hamlet's father reappears, warning his son not to delay revenge, or to upset his mother needlessly. 

What a piece of work is man!

— Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2

Act IV

As the army of Norway's King Fortinbras crosses Denmark to attack Poland, Hamlet is sent to England, ostensibly as an ambassador. During his journey, Hamlet discovers Claudius's plan to have him killed once he arrives, so he returns alone, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his stead. During Hamlet's absence, and following her father's death, Ophelia goes mad and is drowned. 

Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, 2006
Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, 2006

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

— Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

Act V

On the way back to Denmark, Hamlet meets Horatio in the graveyard (along with a gravedigger), where they talk of the chances of life and death. As Ophelia's funeral procession arrives at the very same graveyard (what luck!), Hamlet confronts Laertes, who has taken his father's place at the court. 

A duel is arranged between Hamlet and Laertes. During the match, Claudius conspires with Laertes so that Hamlet will  die either on a poisoned rapier or from poisoned wine. The plans go awry as both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded by the poisoned blade, and Gertrude unwittingly drinks from the poisoned cup. Hamlet, in his death throes, kills Claudius, leaving only Horatio to explain the truth to the new king, Fortinbras, as he returns in victory from the Polish wars.

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