Hamlet

A young prince struggles to fulfil his destiny in revenging his father’s murder.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Marcellus, Act 1, Scene 4

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, arrives home from university after the news that his beloved father, the king, has died.

He discovers that his mother Gertrude has swiftly married his uncle Claudius, and the two have been crowned the new King and Queen of Denmark. In the throes of grief and unable to comprehend these events, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who informs him that he was murdered by Claudius, in order to assume his crown and queen.

The ghost orders Hamlet to take revenge, yet Hamlet is unable to take immediate action, crippled by indecision and his need for proof of Claudius’ guilt. While he gathers evidence, and being unable to trust others in the Danish court, Hamlet assumes an ‘antic disposition’ making him seem mad. Hamlet must reconcile his obligations to the state, his faith, his father, life, and death, before enacting his ultimate revenge.

Considered to be one of the greatest works in the English language, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and the title role his largest part. Written at the turn of the 16th century, a time of great social upheaval and expansion of thought, the complex character of Hamlet exemplified the doubt, disillusionment and new challenges of the age.

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SYNOPSIS

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Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

Ghost, Act 1, Scene 5

At Elsinore Castle in Denmark, a group of guards meet in the middle of the cold night. They say that they have seen a ghost that resembles the late King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, and have invited Horatio, a friend of the Prince, as a witness. The ghost of the late king appears to them at midnight, but will not speak to the terrified watchmen. Horatio says they must tell the late king’s son, Prince Hamlet, what they have seen.

In the Royal Court of Denmark, the new King, Claudius, explains that he has replaced his recently deceased brother and married the widowed Queen, Gertrude. Word arrives that Fortinbras, nephew of the aged King of Norway, is making plans to wage war to avenge his father, who lost land to Denmark.

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, and son of Old Hamlet and Gertrude, has returned from university in Wittenberg. In mourning and expecting his father’s funeral, Hamlet finds that his mother has remarried. He is outraged at her swift marriage to his uncle, and is reproached by both Claudius and Gertrude for continuing to mourn his late father.

We also meet the king’s adviser, Polonius, and his children, Ophelia and Laertes. Laertes is due to depart Denmark for France. Before he leaves, we learn that Ophelia has a romantic involvement with Hamlet, which her brother forbids she act on, insisting she maintain her modesty. After bidding his son farewell, Polonius also warns Ophelia about Hamlet, telling her not to trust his advances and says she must not spend any more time with him.

Horatio leads Hamlet to encounter the ghost of his late father, who reveals to Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother. Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells Hamlet to avenge him and take revenge on Claudius.

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Famous lines

To be, or not to be, that is the question...

Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1

Hamlet Trailer Title Image

Historical background

Hamlet was written and performed in the final years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.

Jeremi Campese as Marcellus and James Evans as Horatio (2020, photo: credit)

Fast facts

The character of Hamlet has the most lines of any character in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet is also Shakespeare’s longest play.

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Themes

Discover the key themes explored in Hamlet, with examples from the play.

Debatable points

Is Hamlet really 'mad'?

Perhaps the most commonly debated aspect of the play is Hamlet’s supposed ‘madness.’ Whether Hamlet is putting on a performance to fool those around him, or if he is genuinely losing control of his mind, has been hotly debated for centuries.

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