Prince Hamlet has been summoned home to Denmark to attend his father’s funeral. He is in a state of mourning and despair over the death of his father. He is further disturbed that his mother, Queen Gertrude, has married his uncle, Claudius, who is also the brother of the late king. Hamlet sees this as “foul incest” and he is just as angry that his succession to the throne has been usurped.
The ghost of the late king soon appears to Hamlet. He tells Hamlet that he was in fact murdered when someone poured poison in his ear while he napped. The ghost of the king tells Hamlet that he has been consigned to Purgatory and must walk the earth at night until his murder has been avenged. He charges Hamlet to avenge his death.
Hamlet’s plan is to feign madness so as to observe the interactions of his mother and Claudius. For example, he pretends to be delusional in front of Polonius, who is the most gullible of the characters, and convinces him that he has lost his mind in his grief. In this way, it will not be known that he is actually investigating them. At the same time, Hamlet begins to second guess everything. He wonders if the ghost was really a demon set on tricking him into committing murder. He fears being consigned to Hell and compelled to live his memories for all eternity. Hamlet becomes trapped in his own self-doubt. His thoughts and words prevent him from acting to fulfill his duty and avenge the late king.
In order to get to the truth, Hamlet employs the help of a troupe of actors to stage a play which will re-enact the murder of King Hamlet in front of Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet gives the actors a play called The Murder of Gonzago which he has revised to include a play within a play, one the will re-enact the murder of the king. The so-called play within the play is central to Hamlet.
This scene ostensibly traps Claudius in his guilt, but it also dramatizes the lengths Hamlet will go to in order to defer action. He will lose his own plot in the words of a drama before he will act on his vengeance as directed by the ghost of his father. The new play is called The Mouse Trap. As Claudius and Gertrude watch the players dramatize the murder of the king, Claudius is visibly stricken with guilt. Hamlet finds his proof and resolves to kill Claudius. Yet, he immediately begins to second guess himself again. He fears the ramifications of his actions. He says: “conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
Even as Hamlet remains afraid to act on his revenge, he nevertheless causes the deaths of others. He kills Polonius by stabbing him through a carpet hanging from a wall as Polonius spies on him. Claudius punishes Hamlet for this by exiling him to England. Claudius employs two of Hamlet’s school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on Hamlet and deliver him to the King of England for execution.
When Hamlet finds this out he arranges for them to be hanged instead. Ophelia, while in a state of extreme despair over the death of her father, is further tormented by Hamlet for feigning her grief. He accuses her of being a prostitute. This finally drives her insane and she drowns herself. And Hamlet eventually kills her brother, Prince Laertes.
Before falling to Hamlet, we meet Laertes after he returns to Denmark to avenge the death of his father, Polonius. He witnesses his sister Ophelia descend into madness partially because of the torments inflicted on her by Hamlet. Laertes vows to kill Prince Hamlet.
Prior to the climax of action, we witness, in Act III, Scene I, the famous soliloquy in which Hamlet asks “To be or not to be.” This is central to the play because this is the moment which dramatizes Hamlet’s personal obsessions. As a man and a soldier, he is duty-bound to act on the directive to avenge his father.
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Yet he is crippled by self-doubt and his own intellectual misgivings. When he wonders about whether or not he should live or die, it is a real question as to whether he should continue his destiny or refuse it by hiding in his own intellectual games. This is also a scene in which many of the questions of philosophy are built. To be or not to be is the basis for all existential philosophy which will follow after this period in history.
Laertes is not like Hamlet. He is a man of action rather than thought and words. He attacks Hamlet, but in the midst of the fight, he drops his poisoned sword. Hamlet grabs the sword and cuts him. As he lays dying, he tells Hamlet that he too was cut by the poison sword and will soon die. This scene marks the moment when Hamlet is forced to action. He can no longer question his motives or the motives of others. He must act and fight Laertes.
During this climactic scene, we find that Claudius has also poisoned a cup intended for Hamlet. When Gertrude believes that Hamlet has won the duel she drinks from the poisoned cup. The queen falls dead.
Before he dies, Laertes confesses to Hamlet the murder of his father, and own his role in the murder of King Hamlet. He tells Hamlet that the poisoned cup that killed his mother was intended for him. Finally, in a rage, Hamlet kills Claudius as he runs him through and pours the last of the poison down his throat.
Just before he dies, Hamlet explains that the throne will now pass to Prince Fortinbras of Norway. He begs his friend Horatio to tell truthfully about the events which transpired at Elsinore. His final words are a release from his thoughts and his words: “The rest is silence.”
The final scene has Prince Fortinbras order an honorable funeral for Hamlet, complete with full military honors as a funeral of a brave fallen soldier.