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Plot Summary

By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003


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.......At midnight on the battlements of Elsinore castle in eastern Denmark, an officer named Bernardo arrives to relieve
Francisco, another officer who has been standing guard in the frigid air during an uneventful watch. “Not a mouse stirring”
(1. 1. 13) Francisco reports as he leaves. Two other men, Horatio and Marcellus, arrive a moment later. Marcellus inquires,
“What, has this thing appeared again to-night?” (1. 1. 31).The “thing” is a ghost that Marcellus says has appeared twice on
the battlements to him and Bernardo. Horatio doubts the story, believing the specter is a child of their imaginations.
.......While Bernardo attempts to convince Horatio of the truth of the tale, the apparition appears again–a ghost in the form
of the recently deceased King Hamlet, outfitted in the armor he wore when warring against Norway and slaying its king,
Fortinbras. Horatio questions the phantom. But just as quickly as it appeared, it disappears. Horatio, grown pale with fright,
says, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1. 1. 85). His words foreshadow all the tragic action to follow. The
ghost reappears, then disappears again.
.......Prince Hamlet, the son of the late king, learned of the death of his father while studying at the University of Wittenberg
in Germany. When he returns to Denmark to attend the funeral, grief smites him deeply. The king’s brother, Claudius, has
assumed the throne, even though Hamlet has a claim on it as the son of the deceased king. In addition, he has married the
late king’s widow, Gertrude–Hamlet’s mother–in little more than a month after old Hamlet died, a development that deeply
distresses Hamlet. In a soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his opposition to the marriage, his loathing of Claudius, and his
disappointment in his mother in his mother:

..............A little month, or ere those shoes were old


..............With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
..............Like Niobe1, all tears:–why she, even she–
..............O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
..............Would have mourn'd longer–married with my uncle,
..............My father's brother, but no more like my father
..............Than I to Hercules: within a month:
..............Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
..............Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
..............She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
..............With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1. 2. 151-161)

The words “incestuous sheets” in Line 161 reflect the belief, prevalent in Europe at and before Shakespeare’s
time, that marriage between in-laws–Claudius had been Gertrude’s brother-in-law before he married her–was a
form of incest.
.......As a first priority as king, Claudius prepares to thwart an expected invasion of Norwegian troops under Prince
Fortinbras, the son of the Norwegian king slain in battle years earlier by old King Hamlet. Fortinbras apparently
has a double goal: to avenge the death of his father (old King Fortinbras) and to win back territory lost to the
Danes.
.......In the meantime, Hamlet’s best friend Horatio tells the young prince the amazing story of the ghost. He says
two guards, Bernardo and Marcellus, have reported seeing on two nights an apparition of old King Hamlet on the
battlements of the royal castle. On the third night, Horatio says, he accompanied the guards and himself saw the
apparition.
.......''I will watch to-night,'' Hamlet says (1. 2. 260).
.......Another young man at Elsinore–Laertes, son of the king's lord chamberlain, Polonius–is preparing to leave for
France to study at the University of Paris. Before debarking, he gives advice to his sister, Ophelia, who has
received the attentions of Hamlet from time to time, attentions that Ophelia apparently welcomes. Laertes advises
her that Hamlet’s attentions are a passing fancy; he is merely dallying with her.

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,


Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more. (1. 3. 8-13)
In other words, Laertes says, Ophelia should be wary of Hamlet's courtesies and flirtations. They are, Laertes
maintains, mere trifles that are sweet but not lasting–"The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more." Laertes
then receives parting advice from his father:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee! (1. 3. 82-88)
.......After Laertes leaves and day yields to night, Hamlet meets on the battlements of the castle with Horatio,
Marcellus, and Bernardo at his side. By and by, Hamlet sees the Ghost but is uncertain whether it is the spirit of
his father or the devil in disguise:
Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn’d
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy interests wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (1. 4. 46-50).
When Hamlet questions the Ghost, it says, “I am thy father’s spirit, / Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night”
(1. 5. 16). The Ghost tells him to revenge a “foul and most unnatural murder” (1. 5. 31) committed by Claudius.
According to the Ghost’s tale, Claudius poured a vial of poison extracted from a plant (probably henbane2, also
called hemblane, ) into old King Hamlet’s ear while the king was asleep, robbing him, “of life, of crown, of queen”
(1. 5. 83). Claudius had committed the murder when King Hamlet had sin on his soul, the better to send him to the
fiery regions of purgatory3.
.......Hamlet makes Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus swear on the hilt of his sword (where the handle and a
protective bar intersect, forming a cross suitable for oath-taking) never to reveal what they saw. While attempting
to verify the ghost’s story, Hamlet tells the others he will pretend to be mad, putting on an “antic disposition” (1. 5.
194).
.......It is Ophelia, Hamlet's beloved, who first reports that Hamlet has been acting strangely. She tells her father,
Polonius, the nosy lord chamberlain, that Hamlet had burst in upon her while she was sewing. His face white, his
eyes crazed, he took her by the wrist, peered into her eyes, then left the room. Polonius runs to King Claudius and
repeats Ophelia's report. Claudius suspects there is something sane and threatening behind Hamlet's strange
behavior. So he directs two school acquaintances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch the prince
to find out the truth.
.......When roving actors come to Elsinore to entertain, Hamlet engages them to stage a play, which he calls The
Mousetrap. In the play, a throne-seeker uses poison to murder a king named Gonzago. Claudius's reaction to the
play will reveal his guilt, Hamlet believes, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most
miraculous organ” (2. 2. 427-428)–and thus confirm that the ghost was indeed telling the truth.
.......Meanwhile, Fortinbras sends word that he will not make war on Denmark if King Claudius allows him to
march through the country to invade Poland. Claudius agrees.
.......After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to fathom the meaning of Hamlet's "madness," Claudius and
Polonius secretly observe Hamlet conversing with Ophelia. During the conversation, Hamlet rejects and insults
Ophelia as his "madness" apparently worsens. His words deeply wound her, and there is a question whether he is
transferring to poor, frail Ophelia the loathing and anger he feels toward his mother for her marriage to
Claudius.Claudius, unsure whether Hamlet pretends insanity to disguise a scheme or is really mad, decides to rid
the court of his unsettling presence by sending him to England on a contrived political mission. There, while
conducting the court’s business, he will be murdered.
.......While the actors present the play, they stage a murder in which an actor pours ''poison'' into the ear of
another actor playing Gonzago. The scene so unnerves King Claudius that he rises and ends the play abruptly.
His reaction convinces Hamlet of Claudius’s guilt: He killed Hamlet’s father; there can be no doubt of it.
.......Later, Queen Gertrude reproves Hamlet for upsetting Claudius by staging the play. Hamlet in his turn rebukes
her for her hasty marriage. Polonius, meanwhile, has positioned himself out of sight behind a wall tapestry (called
an arras) to eavesdrop. When Hamlet sees the tapestry move, he stabs through it and kills Polonius, thinking he
is Claudius..After Hamlet discovers his fatal mistake, the ghost reappears to remind Hamlet of his duty. When
Hamlet speaks with the apparition, Gertrude cannot see the ghost and concludes that her son is indeed insane.
Later she tells Claudius that Hamlet, in a fit of madness, killed Polonius.
.......Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry sealed papers ordering
Hamlet's execution after the ship's arrival. At sea, Hamlet discovers the papers in a sealed packet while
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sleeping and writes a new commission ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, then re-seals the papers and places them in the packet. The next day, pirates attack the ship,
and Hamlet escapes and hitches a ride with them back to Denmark. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive
in England and present the sealed papers, they are executed.
.......Meantime, Ophelia, distraught over her father's death and the apparent loss of Hamlet’s love, drowns in a
brook–at first floating until her clothing, heavy with water, pulls her down. She apparently committed suicide, or
was her death an accident–or the work of a sinister hand?
.......After Hamlet meets up with Horatio, they pass through a cemetery where two men are digging a grave. The
first gravedigger sings as he digs and throws out a skull. Shocked, Hamlet tells Horatio, “That skull had a tongue
in it, and could sing once; how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first
murder!” (5. 1. 34). The man continues to dig and throws out another skull. Hamlet says, “There’s another; why
may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his
tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about . . . ?” (5. 1. 40). After Hamlet strikes up a
conversation with the gravedigger, that latter tells him that the second skull was that of Yorick, old King Hamlet’s
jester when Hamlet was a child. Holding the skull, Hamlet recites a short speech about Yorick that underscores
Hamlet’s preoccupation with death.
.......A funeral procession approaches. Hamlet is unaware that the body being borne aloft is Ophelia’s. It is she
who will be lowered into the grave. When Hamlet sees her face, and when Laertes sees the face of Hamlet, the
two men grapple, tumbling into the grave. Laertes means to avenge the death of his father, Polonius, and his
sister, Ophelia. Attendants part them, and Hamlet declares,
I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. (5. 1. 155-157)
.......Later, in secret, Laertes and Claudius plot against Hamlet and poison the tip of a sword Laertes is to use
against Hamlet in a fencing match designed as an entertainment. For good measure, Claudius prepares poisoned
wine he will offer Hamlet during the match. Osric, a courtier and messenger of the king, informs Hamlet of the
details of the match–although, of course, Hamlet is unaware of the deadly plot against him.
.......During the competition, Hamlet performs brilliantly, and Claudius offers him the cup of wine. But Hamlet and
Laertes fight on. Meanwhile, Gertrude takes the cup, telling Hamlet, “The queen carouses to thy fortune” (5. 1.
224) and, before the king can stop her, she drinks the wine. ....
Laertes grazes Hamlet with the poisoned rapier4 breaking his skin and envenoming his bloodstream. Swords
wave and poke wildly, and the fencers drop their weapons and accidentally exchange them. Hamlet then wounds
Laertes with the same poisoned rapier. Both men are bleeding. A short while later, the queen keels over. To divert
attention from the drink and himself, Claudius says Gertrude has fainted from the sight of blood. But Gertrude,
drawing her last breath before dying, says, “The drink, the drink; I am poison’d.”
.......Everyone now knows that Claudius had offered Hamlet poisoned wine.
.......Before Laertes dies, he reconciles with Hamlet and implicates Claudius in the scheme to undo Hamlet.
Hamlet then runs Claudius through. As Hamlet lies mortally wounded, Prince Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore with
his army after his conquest of Poland. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wishes the Crown of Denmark to pass to
Fortinbras. Then Hamlet dies. Ambassadors from England arrive to report the deaths of Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, and Horatio announces that he will inform the world of the events leading up to the deaths of
Hamlet and the others. While soldiers bear off the bodies in a solemn procession, canons fire a salute.