Hamlet Summary and Analysis: William Shakespeare

Read our detailed notes below on the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Our notes cover Hamlet summary and analysis.

Hamlet Introduction:

Hamlet is a tragic play written by William Shakespeare somewhat in 1599. The exact date of publication is unknown, however, many believe that it was published between 1601 and 1603. The play is set in Denmark.

Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is Shakespeare’s longest play and is well-thought-out as the most influential literary work of literature. The play stages the revenge that Hamlet is to wreak upon his uncle, Claudius, for killing his (Hamlet’s) father.

The story of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is supposed to be derived from the fable of Amleth, written in the 13th century and reiterated in the 16th century by a scholar named Francois de Belleforest. We can assume the popularity of the play by this that throughout centuries, the role of Hamlet is staged by the highly skillful artist.

Hamlet has different version published at different ages. Each version is different from others as it includes lines or excludes them making them entirely different from other. The main characters of the play are Hamlet, the protagonist; Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle; Queen Gertrude; Polonius; Ophelia; Laertes. The major themes of the play include fate, free will, revenge, political instability, mortality, and madness. Yorick’s skull is the major symbol used by the writer to introduce artistic effect in the play.

Hamlet Summary:

The play opens with Prince Hamlet being summoned to Denmark from Germany for his father’s funeral. When he reaches there, he finds that his mother Queen Gertrude has already remarried to his fraternal uncle, Claudius. For Hamlet, this marriage was a big shock and considered it “foul incest”. Even worse than this, Claudius has crowned himself disregard of the fact that being King’s son, this crown belongs to Hamlet. Hamlet doubts the whole scenario as foul play.

All of Hamlet’s doubts and suspicions are confirmed when his father’s ghost visits the Castle and complains that because he is murdered, he is unable to rest in peace. Moreover, the ghost claims that Claudius had poured poison in the ear of King Hamlet when he was sleeping causing his death. The king’s ghost, impotent to confess and find redemption, is now condemned to pass his days in despair and walk on earth at night. He persuades and begs his son Hamlet to take revenge from Claudius, however, he asks to spare Gertrude and let her fate decided by heaven.

Hamlet pledges to avenge his father’s death and wears a mask of madness so that he would be able to observe the interactions among people in the castle. However, by doing so, Hamlet finds himself somewhat very confused and questions the trustworthiness of the ghost. What if the ghost is a devil’s agent directed to allure him? What if by killing Claudius consequences Hamlet to revive his memory throughout for life? Hamlet cannot stop himself from over-thinking and worries over his thought and perceive them as his cowardice. Words restrict action, however, the world in which he lives pay back every action.

To test the sincerity of the Ghost. Hamlet takes help from the troupe of actors who staged a play named The Murder of Gonzago. Hamlet added few scenes to play that resembles the murder of the King Hamlet as described by the ghost. Hamlet named this revised play as “The Mousetrap”. The play is proved successful as the Claudius reacted to the play and seems to be conscience-stricken, as hoped by Prince Hamlet. Claudius immediately leaves the place as he faces difficulty to breathe. Prince Hamlet, being convinced by the sincerity of the ghost, vows to avenge his father’s death and decided to kill Claudius. But “conscience doth make cowards of us all”, as observed by Hamlet.

Hamlet, by his unwillingness to avenge Claudius, causes six subsidiary deaths. The first victim is Polonius, an old man, who is stabbed by Hamlet through a wall hanging as Polonius spies on hamlet and his mother. Claudius banishes Hamlet to England to punish him for Polonius’ death and instructs Hamlet’s school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to handover him to English king for execution. Hamlet, during the journey, discovers what is going on and arranges a plot for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ophelia, highly upset on her father’s death and Hamlet’s behavior, drown herself while singing a song and lamenting over the fate of a despised lover. Laertes, her brother, follows next.

When Laertes returned to Denmark to kill Claudius to avenge his father’s death, sees that Ophelia, his sister, has drowned by madness. Laertes, in the love of her sister, pledges to kill Hamlet for being the cause of Ophelia’s death. Through his creative words, Laertes convinced Claudius to kill Hamlet. Hamlet and Laertes have a sword fight. In the middle of the fight, Laertes drops his poisoned sword that is retrieved by Hamlet and wounds Laertes. Laertes tells Hamlet of the poisoned sword and as Hamlet is already been wounded by the sword, he, too, will die soon. Meanwhile, Horatio informs Hamlet that “Queen Falls”. Gertrude has drunk a sip from the poisoned cup, that was prepared by Claudius for Hamlet and she dies.

Laertes, before he dies, made another confession to Hamlet of his part in the plot and tell him the Claudius is responsible for Gertrude’s death. Enraged Hamlet stabs the poisoned sword into Claudius and pours the remaining poisoned wine into Claudius’ throat.

Before he dies, the throne should pass to the Prince Fortibras of Norway, declares Hamlet. He also begs his friend Horatio to tell him accurately the events that lead to such bloodshed.

The play ends with a grand funeral for Prince Hamlet as ordered by King Fortinbras of Denmark.

Hamlet Themes:

  • Mortality:

The question of life and death is introduced just as the play opens. Hamlet, throughout the play, ponders the complexity of life and considers the meaning of life. Throughout the play, many questions emerge as what happens when one dies? Will someone directly goes to heaven, if he/she is murdered? etc. Furthermore, Hamlet is very uncertain about the afterlife and causes him to quit suicide. The death of almost all the major characters of the play, towards the end of the play, doesn’t fully answer the question of mortality. The character of Hamlet represents exploration and discussion disregard of a true perseverance.

  • Madness:

Hamlet, after hearing confessions from the ghost acts like a mad person to fool people in order to know the reality of the people around him. He acts so to prove himself harmless. However, this madness was recognized by Polonius. The irony arises when he falsely believes that Hamlet’s method stems from his love for Ophelia. It was impressive of Polonius that he recognizes the method behind Hamlet’s madness.

However, Hamlet starts losing his hold on reality by acting mad. He faces difficulty in handling the circumstances that are emotionally driven. Surrendering himself to physical violence displays that he has more issues than merely acting mad. This all scenario comes up with a question that what compels Hamlet to act such without considering the consequences?

  • Women

There are only two female characters in the play Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter and Hamlet’s beloved.

Hamlets seem to be nervous while communicating with both of the women. In Hamlet’s life, both of these women have a special position, however, he is suspicious of both. The too early remarriage of her made him very suspicious of her mother. Secondly, Ophelia is in cahoots with her family and Hamlet realizes it when he starts acting mad.

Both of the ladies let Hamlet down. However, Ophelia is viewed as a victim of Hamlet brutality while Gertrude is represented as the more flexible character.

  • Political Livelihood:

With the death of King Hamlet, the nation of Denmark starts deteriorating as the death of a king causes political turmoil in the country. Hamlet erratic behavior leads to unrest in the country. At various points in the play, the mad behavior of Hamlet is linked with the political livelihood of the country.

Hamlet Character Analysis:

The main characters of the play are:

  • Hamlet:

He is the Prince of Denmark and son of the deceased king. He is called from Wittenberg University in Germany to attend his father’s funeral. When he reaches Denmark, he comes to know that his mother has remarried very soon to his uncle. Moreover, his uncle has crowned himself. This makes Hamlet very suspicious. These suspicious changes to reality when Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost. After hearing his father’s confession he vows to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet, in the play, is a highly confused person that leads to the bloody end of the play. To be or not to be is one the most celebrated dialogue of Hamlet and representation of his confused state of mind.

  • Claudius:

He is the present king of Denmark and brother of the deceased king, King Hamlet. He is accused of killing his brother and remarries widow of the Queen.

  • Gertrude:

She is the Queen of Denmark and also the wife of deceased King Hamlet. She immediately remarries to Claudius, brother of King Hamlet.

  • Laertes:

He is a son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. He is a student in Paris. Who first appears at the funeral of the King Hamlet and secondly at the death of his sister, Ophelia.

  • Horatio:

He is a loyal friend and a schoolmate of Prince Hamlet.

  • Polonius:

He is an old chief counselor of Claudius. He is murdered by Prince Hamlet when caught him spying.

  • Ophelia:

She is the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes and Hamlet’s beloved. She commits suicide after her father’s death.

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

The classmates of Hamlet at Wittenberg whom Claudius called to spy on him.

The minor characters of the play are:

  • Fortinbras:

He is King of Norway, who vows to avenge his father’s death who was killed by the Danes’ hands.

  • Osric:

A minor character who acts as the messenger between Hamlet and Laertes.

  • Voltimand and Cornelius:

They are the courtiers of Danish kingdom who are directed as diplomats to the Courtyard of Norway.

  • Marcellus and Barnardo:

They are Danish officers who guard the castle of Elsinore.

  • Francisco:

A Danish soldier to guard castle of Elsinore.

  • Reynaldo:

A young man whom Polonius trains to spy on his son and report him.

Hamlet Analysis:

Throughout the play, Hamlets seems to be highly confused regarding the idea of death. His famous soliloquies line “to be or not to be” shows Hamlet confused mindset for suicide; whether he should suicide or not; what would be an afterlife. The play has a turning point where Hamlet realizes at the graveyard and encounters the skull of a man whom he is fond of. In his contemplations, Hamlet realizes that death vanishes the class difference among society. Everything is created by man himself. All these differences are illusions that diminish with death.

The play demonstrates a conflict between fate and free will and this what the classical tragedians appreciated. In every great tragedy, there lies a struggle between the predisposition a man to accept the fate and his natural desire to control his destiny. Whether it is Sophocles or Shakespeare, both demonstrate that there is a continuous struggle between destiny and choice to control human life. To Shakespeare, man’s dilemma is represented when he is given to choose between good and bad. In the play, Hamlet was well aware of his shortcomings and his powerlessness to stand for what is right and to correct what seems to be wrong to him. He, through his intellectual guidance, tries to pursue his fate. Hamlet resembles a modern man who is tossed between good and bad. To him, there is nothing good or bad, it is what our thinking makes it so. Like Hamlet, every man struggles to live between what he expects and what he gets; the battle that a man never wins. God asks man one thing and he demands another.