Summary of The Tragedy of Hamlet

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The Tragedy of Hamlet book summary

Literary Classic

  • Tragedy
  • Elizabethan Era

What It’s About

The Tragedy of a Well-Examined Life

The 16th century and its religious wars; colonial conquests; and economic, technological and military advances brought an end to the certainties of the Middle Ages and the naive hopes of the Renaissance. When Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark at the dawn of a new century, Tudor England was enjoying a brief period of stability and comfort under an aged Queen Elizabeth I after a century of turmoil, intrigue and existential wars. Shakespeare’s prince is a man of comfort and privilege, but obligations derived from past events for which he wasn’t responsible torment him. While passion may bring others to act before thinking of the consequences, he is too thoughtful to act foolishly. Like many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who knew the compromises of Tudor England and its falsity and opportunism, Hamlet also knows that a principled stand may be worse. The late Tudor period is a time for cunning, not idealism. Still, Hamlet is troubled because he knows that inaction isn’t just, and the play follows him as he tries to reason his way to a better answer – suffering madness, cynicism, duplicity and betrayal in the process. The final disaster presages the horror of the English Civil War only four decades into the future.

Take-Aways

  • The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare is one of the most famous and widely discussed tragedies in world literature. 
  • The ghost of King Hamlet appears and tells his son, Prince Hamlet, to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, murdered King Hamlet and married his widow after the deed. Yet, Hamlet hesitates. He accidentally stabs the wrong man, causing the dead man’s daughter – Hamlet’s lover – to commit suicide. By the end of the final act, all the main characters are dead.
  • Hamlet is the quintessential doubter; he questions every single action.
  • With his contradictory and ambiguous nature, he’s a modern literary figure that continues to fascinate audiences.
  • His desperate search for the meaning of life causes Hamlet to say his world-famous line, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
  • The play was written around 1600, when England experienced an economic boom under Queen Elizabeth I, a patron of the arts and theater.
  • This long play was popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Later, Hamlet became a veritable obsession for writers and intellectuals.
  • It has provided inspiration for many literary characters and been frequently adapted in surprising ways, including the Disney animated hit The Lion King.
  • Shakespeare’s life is sparsely documented, a fact that continues to feed speculation that someone else wrote parts of his work.
  • “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
 

Summary

A Ghost Appears

The Ghost of old Hamlet, the late King of Denmark, appears to the sentries at Elsinore Castle. The soldiers are scared because they fear that the spirit heralds calamity in the war against Norway and its Prince Fortinbras. Although they prompt the apparition to talk and even threaten it with a battle axe, the ghost vanishes without a word at the cock’s first crow. The sentries decide at once to tell young Hamlet, son of the deceased, about what they have seen. Hamlet is attending a gathering of the Court, where the new King Claudius thanks everyone for their loyalty and voices concern about the war against Norway. The world saddens and disgusts Hamlet: On the one hand, he can’t get over his father’s death, and on the other, his mother Gertrude‘s shamelessness for having married – just one month after her husband’s passing – the king’s brother and successor Claudius appalls him.

“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! God! / How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (Hamlet)

As Hamlet accompanies the sentries to their nighttime watch, the ghost of his father calls him aside and, to his son’s great dismay, tells him that, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t die from a snake bite. In fact, the father’s own brother Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, poisoned him. Because the king died without receiving the last rites, the ghost continues, his ghost must now atone for it. Hamlet's father demands that his son avenge him, yet asks for Gertrude to be spared. Hamlet makes the sentries swear to keep the apparition a secret.

Is It Madness?

Prince Hamlet then rushes to his beloved Ophelia, grabs her wrist in silence and despair and then backs away, twisting and bending in strange ways. Ophelia’s father, Lord Chamberlain Polonius, has previously prohibited her from associating with Hamlet in any way, given that he is the legitimate successor to the late king. Ophelia’s brother Laertes, too, has urgently counseled her against Hamlet. When Polonius learns about the young man’s peculiar behavior toward his daughter, he concludes that Hamlet must have gone mad from his presumed unrequited love for Ophelia. Polonius decides to tell the royal couple about it.

“Polonius: Though this be madness, yet there is method / in’t. Will you walk out of the air, my lord? – Hamlet: Into my grave. – Polonius: Indeed, that is out o’ the air.”

While Polonius is talking to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet arrives unexpectedly, absorbed in a book. Claudius and Gertrude retire from the scene, while Polonius tries to decipher Hamlet’s alleged madness. His seemingly absurd answers confuse Polonius due to their ambiguity and hidden meaning. Yet Hamlet appears very much alert toward his former schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, recognizing immediately that the king has sent them to observe and spy on him.

A Play Within a Play

When an acting troupe arrives at Elsinore Castle, Hamlet makes a decision: He wants the players to re-enact the murder of his father before his uncle’s eyes. He plans to watch Claudius closely to see if the king betrays himself in reacting to it, thus confirming the ghost’s version of the story. Hamlet then accuses himself of being an indecisive coward, who can’t even take action after the murder of his own father. He ponders the possibility that the ghostly apparition was a trap set by the devil. Meanwhile, he shows his witty and energetic self to the theater troupe, taking on the role of actor-writer with verve and inspiration, declaiming and gesticulating wildly. He asks the actors whether they would be willing to recite some verse he has written himself during the performance. They agree to it, and the king and queen announce that they’ll attend the show. The prince’s plan seems to be working.

“I am but mad north-north-west: When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” (Hamlet)

Before the performance, Polonius and the king want to observe Hamlet’s supposed madness during an arranged meeting with Ophelia. While they hide themselves, Hamlet appears and starts his soliloquy with the words, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet ponders the meaning of life, wondering whether suicide might not be the appropriate answer to the travails of human existence. When he sees Ophelia, he abuses her, accusing her of seducing men through witchcraft and depravity, the way all women do. He rudely demands that she join a convent.

The Mousetrap

Soon after, the actors perform the play in front of the royal couple, Polonius and Ophelia. When the King asks the name of the play, Hamlet responds, “The Mousetrap.” As previously instructed, the actors re-enact – to spectacular effect – Claudius’s murder of his brother as well as his hasty marriage to Queen Gertrude. The king gets up and hurries out of the hall, with Ophelia, Polonius, and other dignitaries following. Claudius orders the two courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet to England as soon as possible. However, Claudius’s guilty conscience and remorse get the better of him – though not enough to forgo the wealth and power of his kingship. When Claudius falls to his knees in prayer, Hamlet steps behind him, drawing his sword and ready to avenge his father’s murder once and for all. Yet the king’s pious stance makes him hesitate, and Hamlet puts off the deed until later. He fears that his uncle’s soul could rise to heaven; he wants to make sure that Claudius will burn in hell.

Polonius’s Death

Queen Gertrude, deeply troubled by the play, summons her son to talk. Polonius hides behind a curtain to listen. Hamlet answers the queen’s accusations with such impertinence and in such a threatening manner that she wants to end their conversation at once. Polonius, intending to rush to her rescue, moves behind the curtain, whereupon Hamlet – thinking it’s the king – stabs him exclaiming, “A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!” Then he curses Claudius and showers his mother with such severe allegations that she begins to waiver in her loyalty to her husband. She doesn’t reveal whether she knew of his crimes, and if so, how much. It also remains unclear whether she was actively involved in the murder or married the new king only for sheer lack of principles. She tells Claudius about what Hamlet has done, maintaining, however, that her son acted in a state of mental derangement. The king is deeply concerned because he fears that the blame for murdering Polonius could fall on him.

“A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.” (Rosencrantz)

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern strongly urge Hamlet on Claudius’s behalf to divulge where he’s hidden the corpse, they receive nothing but scorn and derision. These events confirm Claudius’s desire to get his nephew out of the country and have him killed as soon as possible. Hamlet is popular with the country’s people, so murdering him in Denmark would be too risky. The prince agrees to embark for England, but just before his departure he watches as the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras passes by on his campaign against Poland. Hamlet sees the energetic, young Norwegian as a contrast to himself, and he resolves to overcome his perpetual dithering and finally take action. Yet on his crossing to England, pirates ambush his ship. He is released for a ransom and unexpectedly returns to Denmark.

A Devious Plan

After the death of her father, Ophelia goes insane, singing and holding flowers in her hand. Polonius’s son Laertes, incensed, instigates an uprising against the king with a troop of his followers, believing that he was responsible for the murder. However, Claudius effortlessly convinces Laertes that it was Hamlet who murdered Polonius. Together, they plot to kill the prince. Laertes is supposed to challenge Hamlet to a friendly duel. Instead of fighting with the usual blunt sword, he will use a sharpened weapon coated with poison, thereby killing the prince seemingly by accident. If the plot fails, the king will hand Hamlet a poisoned chalice as a refreshment after the fight. While Claudius and Laertes are still discussing their ruse, they hear from the queen that Ophelia, while picking flowers for a wreath, fell into a river and drowned. Laertes breaks into tears.

The Triviality of Life

Meanwhile, the gravedigger presumes that the girl committed suicide by letting herself fall into the river and that she’s granted a Christian burial on the cemetery only because she was an aristocrat. He digs Ophelia’s grave, singing along, occasionally tossing out a skull in the process. Hamlet and his friend Horatio watch this macabre spectacle, not knowing whose grave it is that the man digs. With each skull that’s brought to light, Hamlet makes crass assumptions as to who it might have belonged to: a crook, a courtier, a shyster or a land speculator. Hamlet strikes up a conversation with the gravedigger and learns that one of the skulls is Yorick’s, the former king’s jester. The prince, who personally knew the deceased, takes the skull and philosophizes about the transience of human life and the nullity of greatness and might in the face of death.

“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.” (Hamlet)

Suddenly, Hamlet and Horatio spot a funeral procession led by Laertes. Hamlet hears the queen lamenting that the deceased should have become her daughter-in-law, and it dawns on him that Ophelia is dead. When the priest refuses his blessing and Laertes jumps into Ophelia’s grave exclaiming fierce maledictions against the prince, Hamlet dives after him. They end up fighting and must be separated. Afterward, Hamlet confesses to Horatio what happened during the crossing to England: He secretly crept into the cabin of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, read the royal instructions, and learned that the king ordered Hamlet’s murder upon his arrival in England. With disguised handwriting and a forged seal, he changed the order to the effect that the English were to kill the messengers instead, thus sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their doom. Hamlet feels no remorse, because – in his view – the two have disgraced themselves as opportunists.

The Great Extinction

But now Hamlet is in danger of falling victim to his opponents’ cunning, because Laertes challenges him to the planned duel. While attending the fight, Gertrude unwittingly drinks from the chalice with the poisoned wine. In the thick of the fight, the contenders accidentally swap their swords. The tainted weapon cuts them both, dooming them to death. The queen dies, and the dying Laertes confesses the ploy to Hamlet, whereupon the latter also stabs the king. Vengeance is done.

“O, I die, Horatio; / The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit: / I cannot live to hear the news from England; / But I do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice; / So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less, / Which have solicited. / The rest is silence.” (Hamlet)

Horatio wants to follow his friend into death by drinking from the poison, yet Hamlet keeps him from doing so. Horatio shall live, he declares, in order to report to posterity what happened at Denmark’s court. At that very moment, cheers and gun salutes announce the return of Fortinbras from his victorious battle against Poland. The dying Hamlet wishes that Fortinbras, who has earlier claims to the Danish throne, to be the new king. Finally, Hamlet receives an honorable burial.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare is a drama in five acts. It follows the dramatic arc of the classical tragedy: exposition and rising action towards the climax, followed by falling action that leads to catastrophe. With its 20 scenes and roughly 4,000 lines – 40% of which belong to the central character – it is Shakespeare’s longest play. The first act introduces the background event: the murder of Hamlet’s father. In subsequent acts, both the conflict between Hamlet and his opponents, and the hero’s inner conflict come to a head. The king’s and Laertes’ intrigues as well as Ophelia’s death inescapably lead to the four main characters’ demise in the fifth act, marking the final catastrophe. While being quite removed from today’s standard English, Shakespeare’s language was modern and innovative in its time. The most striking characteristics are its rich imagery, frequent use of puns and distortions of words, a flexible approach to grammatical rules, and quick changes from one style to another. Pathos, melancholy, sarcasm, equivocal insinuations and sharp witticisms occur in close proximity. Many lines from Hamlet have entered everyday language. Shakespeare mostly uses unrhymed blank verse in iambic pentameter, adding a few scenes in prose as well.

Interpretation

  • Hamlet is the embodiment of the doubting and conflicted man. He constantly questions himself and thus is incapable of quick and decisive action. This makes him into an archetype for modern literature. Hamlet’s character is contradictory and ultimately opaque, because in certain moments, the great ditherer appears to be rather energetic – incurring his share of guilt, for instance, in the context of Ophelia’s suicide.
  • Hamlet’s madness, while it’s never entirely clear how much of it is genuine or an act, illustrates that it’s impossible or at least delusionary to deal with reality in a rational and calculated manner.
  • Hamlet is melancholic, which isn’t to be confused with a depressive disorder in the modern sense. In the early modern period, melancholic people were thought of as skeptical but also amusing, quick-witted and self-critical. Around the year 1600, melancholy was quite in vogue among aristocrats and intellectuals. 
  • In some ways, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, which was common in Shakespeare’s time. Yet it doesn’t focus on the moral justification or the execution of the avenging deed but rather on the inner conflict the hero must bear as a result of his mission.
  • Another central theme is the question of the meaning of life in the face of inevitable death, condensed into the beginning of Hamlet’s great soliloquy: “To be, or not to be…”
  • An important and modern motive is the play within a play. The truth about the murder of the king doesn’t come to light through reason and analysis but rather through acting, masquerade and theatrical exaggeration. The boundaries between appearance and being and between reality and illusion increasingly blur.

Historical Background

The Elizabethan Theater

Under Queen Elizabeth I, whose reign lasted from 1558 until 1603, England experienced a tremendous political and economic revival. The country finally freed itself from the Catholic Church, resulting in a political climate of spiritual and religious tolerance. Moreover, it replaced Spain as the most powerful seafaring nation, thereby turning it into a European superpower. The bourgeoisie enjoyed growing prosperity and national pride, and William Shakespeare’s London was a modern, urban, lively and intellectually curious city of about 200,000 inhabitants, offering ideal conditions for a vital public theater culture. England’s political and military advancements raised interest in the country’s history, drawing attention to historical plays and revenge tragedies throughout the Elizabethan era – dramatic forms that Shakespeare brought to artistic perfection. Not only was Elizabeth I a cunning politician but also a great patron of the arts and theater. It was under her reign that a visit to the theater became a regular pastime for broad sections of the population, resulting in a true theater boom and an artistically inspiring and fruitful competition between professional acting troupes. However, dramas were regarded as a functional art form that was meant for the stage, which is why only few plays were recorded in written form. About two-thirds of the works from the heyday of the Elizabethan era are thought to have been lost forever.

Development

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is strongly indebted to the revenge drama, going back to the Roman philosopher, statesman and poet Seneca (The Trojan Women, Medea, Oedipus, among others), whose work English playwrights further developed for the local stage at the time of Elizabethan theater. Among the works that influenced Hamlet is The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet between 1600 and 1604, and likely sources for the material are a Nordic legend from the Historia Danica by Saxus Grammaticus as well as the Histoires Tragiques by François Belleforest. The Nordic legend recounts the competition between two men at the Royal Court of Denmark, and Belleforest wrote a French version of it. Within a short amount of time, Hamlet went through several editions, with the 1604 version considered to be the first reliable one. The play is part of an outstanding quartet of Shakespeare’s tragedies, also including King Lear, Othello and Macbeth, all of which he wrote between 1600 and 1606.

Reviews and Legacy

Hamlet is one of the most influential dramas of world literature, and its protagonist – with his enigmatic inconsistency – is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and interpretation. The play was extremely popular from the start, even if it was often staged in an abbreviated form during Shakespeare’s time. The first recorded unabridged performance took place at Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon in 1899, lasting five to six hours. Ever since Hamlet came to life, writers and intellectuals have been creating their own image of the ambiguous hero, depending on the political circumstances and prevailing philosophy of their time.

Hamlet has inspired a number of musical compositions, roughly 20 ballets and half a dozen operas, as well as numerous adaptations and reinterpretations. It has provided the inspiration for creative works as diverse as Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemeru) and Disney’s animated film The Lion King. In 1997, a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater opened on London’s South Bank to showcase the great bard’s works. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2014, a two-year project to perform Hamlet in every country of the world was launched with an inaugural performance at the Globe.

About the Author

It isn’t an overstatement to say that William Shakespeare is the most famous and important playwright of world literature. He wrote a total of 36 plays and 154 sonnets. He is presumed to have been born on April 23, 1564 as the son of glove maker and mayor John Shakespeare. His mother, Mary Arden, descended from a wealthy family of the Roman Catholic landed gentry. In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and daughter of a landowner, with whom he had three children: Susanna and the twins Hamnet and Judith. Around 1590, he moved to London, where he quickly made a name for himself as an actor and playwright. Starting in 1594, he was a member of the theater troupe Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later named King’s Men. In 1599, a partnership of members built the Globe Theater, which he lovingly referred to as “my wooden O,” the circular form of which is modeled after a Greek amphitheater. Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, King James took over the throne. Starting in 1608, Shakespeare also became involved in the Blackfriars Theater. In 1597, he bought a property in Stratford and most likely retired from theater life after 1613. He died on April 23, 1616. Shakespeare’s life was only sparsely documented, which is why his biography is so fragmented. Time and again, speculations arise to the effect that someone else wrote his works – or at least parts of them. They have been attributed to the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, and even Queen Elisabeth I herself. However, no one has been able to produce evidence for such hypotheses. Today, the majority of scholars believe that Shakespeare is the authentic and sole author of his literary work.


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