Department of English

Hamlet Synopsis

The play begins at the castle of Elsinore, home to the throne of Denmark. The country has just undergone a change in monarchs –  the Old King Hamlet has died, and his brother Claudius has taken his place. King Claudius has also married Old Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude, thus becoming the stepfather to her son, the prince Hamlet. An opening scene in the Danish court introduces the royal stepfamily, as well as the wily politician Polonius, father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia and Laertes. The scene also shows Claudius dealing efficiently with the military advances of Fortinbras, Prince of Norway.

Prince Hamlet enters the play upset by his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage. Hamlet’s malaise is fused with a sense of purpose through an encounter with the Ghost of his father, who reveals that he was murdered by Claudius and charges Hamlet to avenge his death.

Motivated by the Ghost, Hamlet begins seeking proof of Claudius’ guilt, eventually finding his opportunity in an unexpected venue – the theater. The arrival of a traveling theater troupe at Elsinore inspires Hamlet to stage a play before King Claudius closely resembling the Ghost’s account of Claudius’ murder.

Hamlet meditates on suicide in the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, then has an emotional encounter with Ophelia, spied on by her father Polonius and the King.

The play-within-the-play begins, and Claudius looks on in horror as the theatrical reinterpretation of his murder unfolds onstage. Before the actors have finished, Claudius calls off the play. Hamlet is ecstatic – he has seen what he perceives as proof of Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet then accidentally kills Polonius behind a curtain in Gertrude’s bedroom, having mistaken him for Claudius.

Claudius sends Hamlet away, accompanied by his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, under the pretense of an embassy to demand tribute from England. The King sends him off carrying sealed orders asking England to kill Hamlet upon arrival.

Laertes returns from France set on avenging his father’s death. Ophelia goes mad and then drowns. Claudius learns that Hamlet has somehow escaped his trap, and returned to Denmark. Claudius persuades Laertes to a plot through which he may get revenge on Hamlet for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. They will set up a public fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, in which Laertes will secretly use a sword with a poisoned tip. As a backup, Claudius will offer Hamlet a poisoned drink.

The duel begins. Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword. Gertrude drinks the poison intended for Hamlet. The swords get swapped, and Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword. Laertes confesses the plot to Hamlet. Hamlet wounds Claudius and forces him to drink from the poisoned cup. Hamlet dies in the arms of his loyal friend Horatio. And finally, Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore with his army, discovers the royal bloodbath, and soberly claims power over Denmark.