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Hamlet Summary and Analysis of Act 1

Scene 1
The play opens during a bitterly cold night watch outside of the royal Danish palace. There is a
changing of the guards:Bernardo replaces Francisco. Soon two more characters
arrive,Horatio and Marcellus. We learn that Bernardo and Marcellus, two soldiers, have
witnessed an extraordinary sight on both of the previous nights watches: the ghost of the former
King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, has appeared before them in full armor. On this third night,
theyve welcomed Horatio, a scholar and a skeptic who has just arrived in Denmark, to verify
their ghost sighting. Horatio initially expresses doubt that the ghost will appear. Suddenly, it
does. The two soldiers charge Horatio to speak to the ghost but he does not. The ghost disappears
just as suddenly as it arrived.
Soon after the ghosts disappearance, Marcellus asks the other two why there has been such a
massive mobilization of Danish war forces recently. Horatio answers, saying that the Danish
army is preparing for a possible invasion by Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. We learn that
Fortinbras father (also named Fortinbras), was killed many years before in single combat with
Old Hamlet, the now-deceased king whose ghost we have just seen. Now that Old Hamlet has
died, presumably weakening the Danes, there is a rumor that Fortinbras plans to invade Denmark
and claim that lands that were forfeit after his fathers death.
After Horatio has finished explaining this political backstory, the ghost of Old Hamlet appears
once more. This time Horatio does try to speak to the ghost. When the ghost remains silent,
Horatio tells Marcellus and Bernardo to try to detain it; they strike at the ghost with their spears
but jab only air. A rooster crows just as the ghost appears ready to reply to Horatio at last. This
sound startles the ghost away. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet, Old Hamlets son, about the
apparition, and the others agree.
Scene 2
This scene begins at the court of Claudius and Gertrude, the King and Queen of Denmark. They
have just been married. This marriage has followed quickly after the death of the former King of
Denmark, Old Hamlet, Claudius brother. Claudius addresses the quickness of the marriage,
representing himself as in mourning for a lost brother even as he is joyful for a new wife, his
one-time sister. Claudius also addresses the question of the young Fortinbras proposed invasion.
He says that he has spoken to Fortinbras uncle, the King of Norway, who has made Fortinbras
promise to halt any plans to invade Denmark. Claudius sends Cornelius and Voltemand, two
courtiers, to Norway to settle this business. Finally, Claudius turns to Laertes, the son of his
trusted counselor, Polonius. Laertes expresses a wish to return to France and Claudius grants

At this point, Prince Hamlet, who has been standing apart from the kings audience this whole
time, speaks the first of his many lines. Claudius asks Hamlet why he is still so gloomy. Hamlets
replies are evasive, cynical, and punning. He declares that his grief upon losing his father still
deeply affects him. Claudius goes into a speech about the unnaturalness of prolonged grief; to
lose ones father is painful but common, he says, and Hamlet should accept this as natures
course. He expresses a wish that Hamlet remain with them in Denmark instead of returning to
Wittenberg, where he is a student, and when Gertrude seconds this wish, Hamlet agrees. The
king, queen, and all their retinue then exit the stage, leaving Hamlet alone.
In his first soliloquy, Hamlet expresses the depths of his melancholy and his disgust at his
mothers hastily marrying Claudius after the death of his father. He declares his father to be
many times Claudius superior as a man. After this soliloquy, Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo
enter. At first, Hamlet is too aggrieved to recognize Horatio, his old school friend, but finally he
welcomes Horatio warmly. After chatting about the state, Horatio tells Hamlet that he has seen
his dead father recently the night before. Hamlet asks him to explain, and Horatio tells the
story of the appearance of the ghost. Hamlet decides to attend the watch that very night in hopes
of seeing the ghost himself.
Scene 3
As the scene opens, Laertes is taking his leave of his sister,Ophelia. In the course of their
farewells, Laertes advises her about her relationship with Hamlet, with whom she has been
spending much of her time lately. He tells her to forget him because he, as Prince of Denmark, is
too much to hope for as a husband. He adds that she should vigilantly guard her chastity, her
most prized treasure as a woman. Ophelia agrees to attend to his lesson. As Laertes is about to
leave, his father, Polonius, arrives. Polonius gives Laertes a blessing and a battery of advice
before sending his son on his way.
With Laertes gone, Polonius asks Ophelia what they had been talking about as he arrived.
Ophelia confesses that they had been talking about her relationship with Hamlet. She tells
Polonius that Hamlet has made many honorable declarations of love to her. Polonius pooh-poohs
these declarations, saying, much as Laertes did, that Hamlet wants nothing more than to assail
her chastity and then leave her. He makes his daughter promise that she will spend no more time
alone with Hamlet. Ophelia says that she will obey.
Scene 4
At the night watch, Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus await the reappearance of the ghost. They
hear cannons from the castle and Hamlet tells them that this is a sign that Claudius is drinking
pledges. Hamlet goes on a short tirade against the Danish custom of drinking heavily. His speech
is no sooner over than the ghost appears again. Hamlet immediately addresses the ghost,
imploring it to speak. The ghost beckons for Hamlet to come away, apart from the others.
Horatio and Marcellus attempt to keep Hamlet from following the ghost, warning him of the

many evils that might befall him. Hamlet doesnt listen. He threatens to kill Horatio or Marcellus
if they detain him, and when they stay back he follows the ghost offstage. Horatio and Marcellus
determine to follow at a distance to make sure that no harm comes to their friend.
Scene 5
Alone with Hamlet, the ghost finally speaks. He tells Hamlet that he has come on a nightly walk
from Purgatory, where his soul is under continual torment for the sins of his life. The ghost then
reveals that he was not killed by a viper, as officially announced, but was murdered. Moreover,
he reveals that his own brother, Claudius, who now wears his crown and sleeps with his wife,
was the murderer. The ghost tells of how Claudius snuck into his garden while he was taking his
accustomed afternoon nap and poured poison into his ear, killing him most painfully and sending
his soul unpurified into the afterlife. The ghost demands vengeance, telling Hamlet not to plot
against his mother, whom he describes as merely weak and lustful, but to focus the whole of his
revenge on Claudius. The ghost then disappears.
Hamlet, overwhelmed and half-raving, swears that he will kill Claudius. After he has made this
vow, Horatio and Marcellus arrive. Hamlet does not tell them what the ghost has revealed, but
nevertheless insists that they swear not to speak of the apparition to anyone. They agree. Hamlet
then insists that they swear again on his sword. They agree again, confused at these demands.
The ghost of Old Hamlet, meanwhile, can be heard under the stage, insisting along with his son
that they swear themselves to secrecy. Hamlet leads his friends to several different points on
stage, insisting that they swear over and over again. He then reveals, parenthetically, that they
might find his behavior in the next while to be strange he might pretend to be mad and act
otherwise unusually but that they must still keep secret what they have seen. After this final
agreement, Hamlet leads the others offstage, uneasily determined to revenge his fathers murder.
Even if this is your first time reading Hamlet, it must already seem very familiar. Countless
characters, ideas, and quotations introduced in this play have become part of the cultural (and
literal) vocabulary of the western world and, indeed, the whole world. Many of the most
famous critical minds of western history, from Samuel Johnson to Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
from Eliot to Empson, from Voltaire to Goethe to Freud, have taken a crack at the play, and
together they have left very few stones unturned. Nevertheless, there is still much to be gained
from an intelligent appreciation of Hamlet. While one should not expect to resolve any of the
famous and bizarre conundrums of the play Is Hamlet really insane or faking insanity? Did
Ophelia commit suicide or not? Is Hamlet in love with his mother? there is still great value
in knowing what these conundrums are, how they are presented, and why they are important.
Sensitively and cleverly acknowledging a puzzle to be a puzzle is where
much Hamlet scholarship begins and ends.

The first scene of the play, like most every scene of the play, is very well known, and very
puzzling. Without explaining his reasons in detail, T.S. Eliot once declared the first lines of the
play to be the best lines in English. He and many other critics have found this scene to be a
microcosm of the whole play, as it were. Shakespeare uses many deceptively simple rhetorical
tricks to introduce some of the major themes and concerns that he follows through to the plays
For example, in a play that contains many of the most famous, most unanswerable questions ever
expressed, whether literal questions (To be or not to be) or interpretive questions of motivation
(Why doesnt Hamlet just kill Claudius straight away?), it is remarkable that Shakespeare
begins Hamlet with a question, Whos there? Whos there, indeed.... On one level, this is a
simple question, one that is asked every day in the most innocuous contexts. But on a deeper
level (and everything in this play is richly rewarding on a deeper level) it is one of the basic
questions of philosophy. Who is there? Who are we? What is man? Who is Hamlet? What
is Hamlet? In this most philosophical of plays, we begin with a moment of covert philosophy, a
question simple on the surface, but profound when pressed; and the first scene continues this
focus on questioning, giving us question after question. Horatio, the quintessential scholar,
skeptical and empirical, begins by questioning the reality of the ghost; eventually, he is exhorted
to question the ghost in a more literal way to ask the ghost questions. In general, then, the
first scene takes us from the no-nonsense world outside the theater, the world of Horatio and his
doubts, to the magical, metaphysical, ultra-theatrical world of Hamlet. We may bring certainties
to the play, but we are encouraged almost immediately to abandon them.
Thus before we have even seen Hamlet (the younger Hamlet, that is) we are deeply mired in the
plays dubious, spectral atmosphere. In the second scene, after several long speeches by Claudius
giving us political background, we come to Hamlets first soliloquy. A soliloquy is a speech
given by a speaker alone on stage, exploring his or her own thoughts and feelings. Both Hamlet
and Hamlet are practically synonymous with such speeches; in this play, Shakespeare exhausts
the possibilities of such on-stage introspection. Hamlets soliloquies are not to be thought of as
actually happening in any realistic way. Rather, they are moments of suspended time, in which
the overwhelming pressure of a single thought, or group of thoughts, forces its way out of a
speakers mind by way of his mouth. They are moments where we, as audience members, can
enter intimately into Hamlets mind, exploring the patterns of his thought even as he does so
We might notice right away, in this first soliloquy, how difficult Hamlet can be to follow how
much his speech jumps and roils around, allowing interjections, playing with allusions and puns,
becoming frequently side-tracked by this or that image. This tendency of Hamlets, to become
sidetracked by his own train of thoughts, is crucial to the play, and crucial to the central
motivational mystery of Hamlet the delay of the revenge. But we will see much more of that to
We might also note that in his first soliloquy Hamlet appears deeply depressed, as we would
put it today, or melancholic, as the people of the early seventeenth century would have put it.

The audience of Hamlets own day would have expected as much. The play belongs to a genre
known as revenge tragedy. Such plays occupied many of the greatest playwrights of the
generation directly preceding Shakespeares, including Thomas Kyd, but by the time Hamlet was
written they had come to be seen as rather old-fashioned. Like any genre, revenge tragedy has
certain predictable conventions, one of which is that the protagonist of the play is melancholic
dominated by saturnine, sluggish, pensive humors, or bodily spirits. InHamlet, Shakespeare,
rather than simply repeating this convention, explores it as a convention. That is, he gives us the
archetypal revenge hero, the most introspective, most melancholic, most pensive hero ever seen
on the English stage.
At the same time, Hamlet seems somewhat aware that he is, in fact, playing a role on stage. He
notices his own costume and makeup (Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother [...] (I.ii.77
ff.)); he refers to specific areas in the theater (as when he notes that the ghost is in the cellarage
(I.v.150)); in short, he seems at once to be the most typical of types, and to be an audience to his
own typecasting and furthermore, he seems to be distressed about being so typecast, and
anxious to prove that there is something genuine behind his theatrical veneer. In general, critics
have long noticed that Hamlet is a play about plays, most specifically a revenge tragedy about
revenge tragedy, and the pretzel-like self-referentiality of the protagonist is the main reason why.
As a relatively light-hearted accompaniment to such ghastliness and introspective misery, Act
One features two appearances by Polonius and his family. Nearly every Elizabethan play has at
least one so-called subplot, and this family occupies the primary subplot of Hamlet the
question of Hamlets relationship with Ophelia. Polonius, you might have noticed already, is
long-winded, pedantic, and meddlesome, even while he is somewhat loveable in his fussy way.
He is always interested in being in the know, whatever the occasion. Notice, for instance, how
eagerly he questions Ophelia about her earlier conversation with Laertes.
Act One contains Polonius most famous speech in the play, and one of the most quoted speeches
of Shakespeare, the advice speech to Laertes that ends, to thine own self be true (I.iii.55 ff.).
One can weigh the various maxims here offered on the basis of their individual merits. However,
it is a common mistake of new readers of Shakespeare to take this speech simply at face value
to think, in effect, that Shakespeare, not Polonius, is giving this advice. This is never the case in
Shakespeare he never simply speaks through a character and most certainly not the case
here. Notice, for instance, that Polonius speech begins by telling Laertes to rush off to catch his
boat, and then detains him from doing just that. Notice also, that Polonius begins by declaring
that he will offer Laertes a few precepts, then goes on to ramble for thirty lines. Polonius, in
short, never misses an occasion for a speech, and follows his own advice creatively if at all. His
meddlesome, didactic character leads to his undoing, as we shall see.
Hamlet Summary and Analysis of Act 2
Scene 1

Act Two begins with Polonius speaking to one of his servants,Reynaldo, about
his son, Laertes, who has by this time returned to Paris. We see Polonius in
the act of sending Reynaldo after Laertes to inquire into his sons conduct.
He instructs Reynaldo very precisely in the method of obtaining this
information. First, Reynaldo is to find out from strangers in Paris about the
prominent Danes in the city without revealing that he has any particular
attachment to Laertes. When Laertes name comes up, Reynaldo is to
pretend to have some distant knowledge of him, and is further to suggest
that he knows of Laertes as something of a happy-go-lucky youth given to
gambling, drinking, fencing, swearing, fighting, and whoring. By this path of
insinuation, Polonius explains, Reynaldo will hear from his hypothetical
Parisian interlocutor the unvarnished truth about Laertes conduct in France.
Having thus prepared Reynaldo to spy on his son, Polonius sends him off.
Ophelia enters, distraught. She tells her father that Hamlet has frightened
her with his wild, unkempt appearance and deranged manners. After Ophelia
describes Hamlets behavior, she further reveals that, as per Polonius
orders, she has cut off all contact with Hamlet and has refused his letters.
Polonius reasons, thus, that Hamlets madness is the result of Ophelias
rejection. He had thought that Hamlet was only trifling with her, but it turns
out (he now declares) that Hamlet was indeed deeply in love with Ophelia.
Polonius hurries off to tell Claudiusand Gertrude that he has discovered the
reason for their sons odd behavior.
Scene 2
King Claudius has made plans of his own to discover the reasons for Hamlets
supposed madness. He has summoned two of Hamlets school
friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, both to comfort his nephew-cum-son
and to try to discover the reason for his distemper (so he says). The two
scholars are only too happy to oblige in this task.
After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave the royal presence, Polonius rushes
in, announcing that he has found the reason for Hamlets madness. Before
he reveals his news, however, he entreats Claudius and Gertrude to hear
from the two ambassadors to Norway, Voltemand and Cornelius, who have
just returned. They report that the King of Norway, after looking into his
nephew Fortinbras actions, found out that he was indeed planning to invade
Denmark. The King of Norway then rebuked Fortinbras and ordered him to
abandon his plan of Danish conquest, which young Fortinbras agreed to do.
Overjoyed at his nephews acquiescence, Norway then rewarded Fortinbras
with a generous annual allowance. Further, Norway granted Fortinbras leave
to levy war against the Polish. Finally, the ambassadors report that Norway

seeks Claudius permission to allow Fortinbras passage through Denmark in

this proposed campaign against Poland. Claudius declares his approval of
this message and says that he will consider its details anon.
Polonius steps forward to reveal his discovery. He tells the king and queen, in
a very roundabout way, that he has discovered Hamlets foiled love of
Ophelia, and that he believes this lost love to be the root cause of Hamlets
madness. Claudius asks how they might prove this to be the case. Polonius
has a plan. He offers to loose Ophelia on Hamlet while he is reading alone in
the library. Meanwhile, he suggests, he and Claudius could hide behind a
tapestry and observe the meeting. Claudius agrees.
Just then, Hamlet enters, reading. Gertrude and Claudius exit while Polonius
attempts to speak to Hamlet. Hamlet plays with Polonius, mocking him,
evading his questions, and turning his language inside out. Nevertheless,
Polonius reads between the lines, as it were, and interprets Hamlets
nonsensical replies as motivated by a broken heart. Polonius leaves to
contrive the proposed meeting between Hamlet and his daughter.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, surprising their friend Hamlet. The three
friends banter philosophically for a good while before Hamlet asks the two
why they have come to Elsinore. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to dodge
this question, declaring that they have come for no other reason than to visit
him. Hamlet, though, wont let them off the hook, and makes them admit
that the king and queen sent for them. When they admit it, Hamlet also tells
them why they were sent for because he has been deeply melancholy, and
has foregone his accustomed behavior. He sinks deeply into a speech
detailing this misery.
Rosencrantz changes the subject. He tells Hamlet that he and Guildenstern
passed a troop of players on their way to Elsinore. They gossip briefly about
the city theaters the troop had left before coming to Denmark (presumably
those of London). Soon the players arrive with a flourish. Polonius rushes
back into the scene, bearing the already stale news that the players have
arrived. Hamlet banters with Polonius in the same mocking vein as before
until the players burst into court, at which point Hamlet rushes up to
welcome them.
Hamlet insists upon hearing a speech straight away, and in particular
requests a recitation based on a scene in VirgilsAeneid, as related by Aeneas
to Dido, recounting the death of Priam during the fall of Troy. Hamlet himself
begins the speech and then cedes the floor to one of the players, who recites

a long and fustian description of Priams death by Pyrrhus hand. The player
goes on to speak of the wild grief of Hecuba, Priams wife, after her husband
has been killed. While speaking of her agony, the player begins to weep and
shake. Polonius finally cuts him off and Hamlet agrees.
Before the players retire, however, Hamlet pulls the main player aside and
asks him whether the company knows a certain play, The Murder of
Gonzago. The player says that they do, and Hamlet commissions it for the
following night, saying that he will write some speeches of his own to be
inserted into the play as written. The player says that this would be fine and
then takes his leave.
Left alone on stage, Hamlet muses about the strangeness of his situation. He
asks himself, How can this player be so filled with grief and rage over Priam
and Hecuba, imaginary figures whom he doesnt even know, while I, who
have every reason to rage and grieve and seek bloody revenge, am weak,
uncertain, and incapable of action? He curses himself and his indecisiveness
before cursing his murderous uncle in a rage. Having regained composure,
Hamlet announces his plan to make sure that the ghost of his father is
genuine that the apparition was not some evil spirit sent to lure his soul to
damnation. He declares his intention to stage a play exactly based on the
murder of his father. While it is played he will observe Claudius. If the king is
guilty, Hamlet figures, surely he will show this guilt when faced with the
scene of the crime.
This Act begins by establishing the atmosphere of political intrigue at
Elsinore. Polonius plots to spy on Laertes by means of Reynaldo; Claudius
and Gertrude plot to spy on Hamlet by means of Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern; Norway foils Fortinbras plot to invade Denmark, only to assist
him in a venture against Poland. It seems that everyone in Elsinore is plotting
against everyone else. Significantly, though, these intrigues are represented
as very clumsy, if not stupid. Polonius instructions to Reynaldo are so
comically complex and so circuitously related that he himself loses track of
them at one point. And his attempt to relate his great discovery of Hamlets
broken heart to Claudius and Gertrude in the second scene does not go any
better. Brevity is the soul of wit, he says (another instance of Polonius
getting one of Shakespeares most famous and most often decontextualized
lines); and he then proceeds to be anything but brief, anything but witty.
Rather, he is dull, pedantic, self-important, pompous, flowery and, more to

the point, dead wrong. As in Act One, Polonius obviously fancies himself a
great political mind. We might beg to differ.
Claudius, too, shows remarkable political stupidity in trusting to the
espionage of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two rather clownish fellows
whom Hamlet sees through instantly. Moreover, the Norway episode reveals
Claudius blunt instincts quite clearly; he appears ready to agree to allow
Fortinbras, whom only days before had planned to take over his realm, to
march through Denmark on his way to conquer Poland. This is sort of like
allowing Canada to march through the United States in order to attack
Mexico. In other words, it makes no sense at all, strategically or logistically.
Claudius and Polonius, try as they might to play the part of Machiavellian
lords of state, are really quite out of their depth.
Hamlet, however, has found his element in Act Two. His language is dazzling,
full of wild puns, inventive jokes, and succinct and strong observations
sheer mastery. His repartee with Polonius, for instance, plays brilliantly with
the notion of method in madness (as Polonius puts it). He plays the role of
the melancholic madman almost as though Polonius is a gullible audience
member. Hamlet toys with Polonius, leading the old fool to think just what he
wants. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, too, are no match for the
perceptiveness of Hamlet. He instantly plumbs the depths of their purpose,
calling them out for royal spies. In short, Hamlet appears in this Act as the
only truly gifted politician, the only accurate reader of mens minds, in the
whole of Elsinore. Why, then, is he so reluctant to act so incapable, it
seems, of action? Why does he not even mention revenge until the very last
speech of the Act? It seems that Hamlet is so obsessed with contemplating
the meaning of action that he is rendered unable to act himself.
This is the central question of Hamlet, of course, and one that has frustrated
and intrigued readers for centuries. The transition from the Hamlet of Act
One Scene Five, so willing and eager to kill Claudius, to the Hamlet of Act
Two Scene Two, where he is witty and evasive and ultimately impotent, is
really quite absurd. Its almost as though weve suddenly landed in another
play one not about revenge, but about something else, about madness or
politics or about the very meaning of acting.
This theme comes to a head, of course, with the appearance of the troop of
players. The handling of the players in Hamletplaces the play firmly in the
genre of metatheater, or theater about theater. The scenes with the
players are full of in-jokes about theatrical happenings in Shakespeares own
day the rise in popularity of boy acting troops, for instance. In another

winking moment in Act Three, Polonius declares that he was an actor in his
younger days. I did enact Julius Caesar, he says. I was killed ithCapitol.
staged Hamlet immediately following his own Julius Caesar. Here are two
moments among many, then, where Shakespeare refers outside of the play,
to the reality of London stage culture (where, in fact, the play
is actually taking place, at the time of its first performances). What is he up
to with these references? Are they simply jokes, or do they point to some
deeper concerns?
It seems that Shakespeare is blurring the lines between theatricality and
reality. He insists that we see his play as occurring at the same time in the
fantasy world of Elsinore and in the actual world of the Globe Theater in
London in the early seventeenth century (which for us, at our historical
remove, is yet another layer of fantasy). He writes elsewhere, in As You Like
It, All the worlds a stage. In Hamlet, he takes this notion a step farther,
giving us a play that presses relentlessly on the primordial relationship
between acting in the theater and acting in real life. Is there ever a
moment when we, as human beings, are not playing a role in one way or
another? Are the tears that we shed for the loss of our loved ones any more
genuine than the tears that an actor sheds for the imaginary death of Priam,
the imaginary grief of Hecuba? If so, how? Why?
And this, of course, is the subject of Hamlets second soliloquy, which closes
the Act. Whats Hecuba to him or he to her? he asks of the player who has
just wept for his fictional subject. Shakespeare has layered this speech so
carefully and so vertiginously that it might be helpful simply to bracket out
the several planes of meaning on which it operates. First, Hamlet speaks of
the man on stage who has shown such an outpouring of emotion for Hecuba
while he, Hamlet, who has every reason to show such grief himself, remains
cold and reluctant to act. But on another level, Hamlet himself is an actor
on stage, and has no more reason to wail and grieve and gnash his teeth
than the player who spoke of Hecuba does. While he is philosophizing about
the nature of pretend grief versus real grief, all is ultimately pretend. There is
no Hamlet. There was no poisoning, not really. On this second level, it seems
almost as though Hamlet knows that he is in a play. He does not hurry
along the revenge because he knows there is nothing really to revenge;
nothing really happened; it has all been staged. Of course, he cant really
know this, but Shakespeare creates the effect of self-awareness and selfdoubt that reaches beyond the limitations of the stage. Somehow he is able
to explore these philosophical questions while maintaining a compelling

By the way, this notion of Hamlet as "metatheater" is explored, among

several other places, in Lionel Abel's book, Tragedy and Metatheatre: Essays
on Dramatic Form.

Hamlet Summary and Analysis of Act 3

Scene 1
An entourage consisting of the king and queen, Polonius andOphelia,
and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enters to begin the Act. Claudius asks
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what they have learned about Hamlets
malady. The two reply that they have not been able to find its cause. They do
mention, however, that Hamlet was very enthusiastic about the players
performance that night, which prompts Claudius to agree to attend the play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave. Polonius and Claudius then begin their
plan to loose Ophelia on Hamlet and mark their encounter, hoping to find the
root of his madness. They instruct Ophelia to pretend that she is simply
reading a book and withdraw behind a tapestry.
Hamlet enters and delivers the most famous speech in literature, beginning,
To be or not to be. After this long meditation on the nature of being and
death, Hamlet catches sight of Ophelia. After a short conversation she
attempts to return some of the remembrances that Hamlet gave when
courting her. Hamlet replies caustically, questioning Ophelias honesty. He
then berates Ophelia, telling her off sarcastically and venomously, with the
refrain, Get thee to a nunnery, or in other words, Go become a nun to
control your lust. After this tirade, Hamlet exists, leaving Ophelia in
Claudius and Polonius step out of their hiding place. The king states that he
does not believe that Hamlet is mad because of his foiled love for Ophelia, or
really mad at all, but tormented for some hidden reason. He determines to
send Hamlet on a diplomatic mission to England before he can cause any
serious trouble. Polonius endorses this plan, but persists in his belief that
Hamlets grief is the result of his love for Ophelia. He consoles his daughter.
Polonius suggests in parting that Claudius arrange a private interview
between Hamlet and his mother after the play that evening and Claudius
Scene 2

Just as the play is about to begin, Hamlet instructs the players on the art of
acting, telling them to act naturally and to avoid bombast. He sets the
players to their preparations and then conferences with Horatio. After
complimenting Horatio in the most sterling terms, Hamlet asks his friend to
assist him in watching the kings response to the play they are about to see
(apparently Hamlet has by this time told Horatio what the ghost revealed).
Horatio seats himself so as to view the king properly. The royal entourage
enters. Hamlet manically chatters with Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and
Ophelia, reserving special attention for the latter, whom he sits next to and
The play begins with a Dumb Show, which is a pantomime of the drama to
come. On stage, the basic form of the alleged murder is repeated: a king and
queen are shown happily married; the king takes a nap; a poisoner enters
and pours something in the kings ear, killing him; the poisoner than takes
possession of the queen. Ophelia seems confused by this plot but Hamlet
tells her to wait for the speaker of the prologue to explain.
The prologue is a short little jingling rhyme. The player king and queen then
immediately enter the stage. The king mentions that they have been married
thirty years. The player queen expresses a hope that their love last as long
over again. The king encourages the queen to remarry if he dies. The queen
protests against this notion vehemently, swearing never to love another if
were to she turn widow. With this, the king falls asleep and the queen exits.
Hamlet asks his mother, Gertrude, how she likes the play, and Gertrude
replies with the famous line, The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Claudius is also outspokenly apprehensive about the nature of the play. It
continues, however, with the entrance of Lucianus, the sleeping kings
nephew. This evil character creeps up to the sleeping player king and pours
poison in his ear. Hamlet, unable to contain himself, erupts, telling everyone
that Lucianus will soon win the love of the kings over-protesting wife.
At this, Claudius rises and orders the play to end. He retreats with his
retinue. Hamlet and Horatio laugh together, certain now that the ghost was
telling the truth. After a short celebration, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
enter and tell Hamlet that he has made Claudius very angry. They also say
that Gertrude has ordered Hamlet to meet her in her chamber. They then
entreat Hamlet to tell the cause of his distemper. Hamlet replies mockingly
by saying that they are trying to play him like a pipe and that he wont let
them. Polonius enters and entreats Hamlet again to see his mother. All exit
but Hamlet. In a short soliloquy, Hamlet reflects that he will be cruel to his

mother, showing her the extent of her crime in marrying Claudius, but will
not actually hurt her.
Scene 3
Claudius gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a sealed envelope with orders
to convey Hamlet to England and give the envelope to the king there. In
highly flattering terms, they agree to do the kings bidding and exit. Polonius
then enters, saying that Hamlet is going to meet with his mother, and
declaring his intention to hide behind an arras and listen to their
conversation. He exits. Alone, the king looks into his soul. He is deeply
disgusted by what he sees. He kneels to pray, hoping to purge his guilt, but
reflects that this penance will not be genuine because he will still retain the
prizes for which he committed murder in the first place, his crown and his
As Claudius is vainly attempting to pray, Hamlet comes up behind him. He
reflects that he now has an opportunity to kill his uncle and revenge his
father, but pauses, considering that because Claudius is in the act of prayer
he would likely go straight to heaven if killed. Hamlet resolves to kill Claudius
later, when he is in the middle of some sinful act. He continues on to his
mothers chamber.
Scene 4
In the chamber, awaiting Hamlets arrival, Polonius hides himself behind one
of Gertrudes curtains. Hamlet enters. Gertrude attempts to be firm and
chastising, but Hamlet comes right back at her, saying that she has sinned
mightily in marrying her husbands brother. He pulls his mother in front of a
mirror, saying that he will reveal her inmost part, and Gertrude momentarily
misinterprets this, thinking that Hamlet may attempt to murder her. She
cries for help. Polonius, hidden from view, also cries out for help. Hamlet
thinks that the hidden voice belongs to Claudius. He stabs Polonius through
the curtain, killing him. When he sees that he has killed Polonius, Hamlet
declares the old man to be a rash, intruding fool.
Quickly forgetting about this death, Hamlet seats his mother down and
presents her with two portraits, one of her first husband and the other of
Claudius. He describes the two as opposites, the one all nobility and virtue,
the other all deformity and vice. Gertrude is deeply affected by this
comparison and seems to comprehend the enormity of her sin. Hamlet
continues to berate her and describe Claudius in the most foul and hurtful

language. While in the middle of this harangue, Old Hamlets ghost appears
once more, telling Hamlet to stop torturing his mother and to remember his
duty to kill Claudius. At the ghosts command, Hamlet consoles his mother.
Gertrude, unable to see the ghost, sees Hamlet talking to thin air and
resolves that he is indeed insane. The ghost exits.
Hamlet tells his mother that he is not in fact insane. He reiterates that she
should repent her marriage to Claudius and tells her in particular to stay
away from their shared bed for the night. After describing the importance of
this abstinence in the most colorful terms, Hamlet reminds his mother that
he is ordered to England. Hamlet says that although he will go to England, he
will not trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He exits his mothers bedroom,
dragging the body of Polonius behind him.
On of the most remarkable things about the speech that begins, To be or
not to be, the most famous speech in western literature, is how out-of-place,
how offhand it seems in the larger context of the play. Hamlet has, only a few
lines before, hit upon the play as his means of exposing the king why, then,
is he suddenly contemplating suicide (if thats what hes doing in To be or
not to be)? This psychological strangeness is true, at least, of the version of
the play that most of us read which is a conflation of two Renaissance
texts, as explained in the Additional Content section. (In the first printed
version ofHamlet, the speech occurs at perhaps a more logical place, in Act
Two scene two, in place of Hamlets mocking repartee with Polonius.) In
these longer, more literary versions of Hamlet, To be or not to be arrives as
a surprise it slows down the action just as the action is really beginning to
This odd, out-of-place effect of the speech is a testament to Hamlets
tendency to become wrapped up in his own thoughts, regardless of his
surroundings. In the middle of the urgent business of revenge, Hamlet takes
the time to explore the nature of death and human life with a subtlety and
eloquence that renders the speech unforgettable. Think of his brain as a sort
of obsessive problem-solving machine, a focused, powerful instrument that
exhausts one subject and then another indiscriminately in short-term bursts
now theater, now death, now sex, now filial duty and that can only with
great difficulty (if at all) focus on a longer-term plan, such as, I must kill
So what is To be or not to be about, anyway? This is an enormous question.
Entire books have been written on the speech, most recently Douglas

Brusters To Be or Not To Be, and critical consensus as to its nature is far

from settled. Most casual readers of Hamlet take the speech to be, at its
simplest level, a contemplation of suicide. Hamlet is saying, in effect,
Wouldnt it be nice to die? We dont know what to expect after death,
though, and so that keeps us alive. We would rather suffer the woes we
know, painful as they are, than go on to possible woes we cannot conceive
of. But of whom is he speaking? Himself, or human beings in general? In
other words, the speech can be thought of as a general contemplation of the
human condition rather than a specific expression of a desire to die. In an
interview in the Atlantic Monthly, the famous Shakespearean Harold Bloom
offers an idiosyncratic reading of the speech along the latter lines: It is a
testimony, indeed, to the power of the mind over a universe of death,
symbolized by the sea, which is the great hidden metaphor. You can read
more about this interpretation in his book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited.
This speech, which is really tangential to the action, threatens to dominate
most readings of Act Three. But there are many more interesting exchanges
and famous scenes in the Act. The play-within-a-play, for instance, is the
culmination of the theme of theatricality that weve already looked at in Act
Two. The play-within-a-play, like other features of Hamlet (the madness of
the revenger, the appearance of a ghost, etc.), is a convention found in
several revenge tragedies, including The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeares
own early tragedy, Titus Andronicus. In Hamlet, naturally, Shakespeare takes
this convention to its extreme. Hamlet seems to take great pleasure in the
exposure of Claudius guilt by theatrical means, relishing the self-referential
potential of the scenario, exploring the multiple forms of drama capable of
representing the same action (the dumb show versus the spoken verses),
and filling the whole scene with London theatrical in-jokes.
After all this, though, the exposure does not actually lead to the satisfaction
of vengeance. Just after the play, Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius and
talks himself out of it; two scenes later he is shipped off to England, no
questions asked. One can speculate on his reasons. To me, it seems almost
as though the exposure, the catching of the kings conscience in the play,
is fulfillment enough for Hamlet, who is at home in a realm of contemplation
rather than action. He has had his revenge on Claudius conscience, which is
aptly demonstrated by the kings moving prayer soliloquy (the only soliloquy
in the play that does not come from Hamlet), and this is what counts for him.
The body is simply a silly machine for Hamlet; the mind, the spirit, is where
the action really is.

Another strain that goes through Hamlet, and a disturbing one, is the abuse
by Hamlet of his former beloved and his mother, Ophelia and Gertrude. In his
scenes with Ophelia, Hamlet is relentlessly cruel, charging her with a lustful
nature, a dishonest heart, a dissembling appearance, and so on. He builds
up, in scene three, to an utterly misogynistic rant, beginning, I have heard
of your paintings well enough. Men in the English Renaissance were
obsessed with womens make-up, which they took to be a symbol of feminine
wiles, excuses, manipulations, artifices, and hypocrisies. Shakespeare,
especially, has a long rhetorical history with this line of vitriol; it shows up in
many of his plays and features strongly in his Sonnets. Readers have long
sympathized deeply with Ophelias position in the play; as far back as 1765,
Samuel Johnson wrote, [Hamlet] plays the madman most, when he treats
Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton
Up to this point, Ophelia has been given few lines and hardly a will or mind of
her own; she has done her fathers will, her brothers will, and Hamlets will.
All three of the men in her life have defined her almost exclusively in terms
of her sexuality and her beauty. Remember Laertes parting instruction to
Ophelia, that she should not open her chaste treasure to Hamlet? Here,
throughout Act Three, is Hamlets own iteration of the same patriarchal
order, only now in a mocking, sarcastic, ghastly tone. The young and
presumably innocent Ophelia is besieged and defined by fantasies of female
lewdness and she has little power to do anything about it.
Hamlets conduct with his mother is also probably repulsive to most readers.
Their encounter in scene four is full of even more ripe and fetid language of
corrupt sexuality. Can you imagine saying to your parent, to your mother,
Nay, but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in
corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty. This is
ridiculously hurtful language, and seems motivated by something very deep
and dark in our protagonist. Sigmund Freud claimed to have discovered the
buried, primeval cause of Hamlets flare-up in his Oedipal theory, his
assertion that all little boys go through an original sexual drama in their
childhood, in which they want to murder their fathers and possess their
mothers. Ensuing scholars have questioned this theory, but this scene
provides continuing fuel for speculation as to the exact nature of Hamlets
feelings toward his mother. Again, at the very least we can agree that he is
here uselessly, excessively cruel. His cruelty toward both Ophelia and
Gertrude seems at least as motivated by a deep-seated and virulent hatred
of women as by the logic of the revenge plot. Act Three, then, gives us

Hamlet as his most sublime, in his meditations on death, and his most
inexcusably depraved, in his cruelty toward the women.
Hamlet Summary and Analysis of Act 4
Scene 1
after Hamlet exits,
dragging Polonius
seeClaudius asking Gertrude to explain what has happened. She tells him of
Hamlets accidental killing of Polonius and Claudius realizes that he could
have just as easily been slain. Claudius asks where Hamlet has gone and
Gertrude says that he has taken the body away. The king orders Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern to find Hamlet and discover where he has taken Polonius
Scene 2
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question Hamlet about Polonius whereabouts.
Hamlet evades their questions playfully, accusing his former friends of
sycophancy to the king and leading them on a wild goose chase.
Scene 3
Claudius is greatly distracted by the death of Polonius and the attempt to
find the body. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter with Hamlet. Claudius
questions Hamlet as to where he has taken Polonius. After some morbidly
humorous replies, Hamlet reveals that he hid Polonius up the stairs into the
lobby. The king sends attendants to find the body. Claudius then tells
Hamlet that he is to depart immediately for England, as planned. Hamlet
mockingly departs, leaving Claudius to reflect on his plans for Hamlet. He
has prepared letters asking the English king, whom Denmark has recently
defeated in war, to kill Hamlet as part of the duties owed by right of
Scene 4
Next we see Fortinbras Norwegian army. They are at the borders of
Denmark. Fortinbras sends one of his captains to the court of Claudius to ask
permission to cross Denmark in the course of their march to Poland. The
captain travels on and Fortinbras and the rest of the army exit.

The captain meets with Hamlet, who is being conveyed by Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern to the ship to England. Hamlet asks the captain about his army
and his purpose in going to Poland. The captain says that in Poland there is
a little patch of ground which Norway claims as her own. He describes this
land as perfectly worthless and small. Hamlet suggests that the Poles will not
likely defend such a piece of land, but the captain sets him straight, saying
that Poland is already garrisoned and ready for their dispute. Hamlet wraps
up his conversation with the captain. He hangs back from the others
marching to the ship and delivers a long soliloquy on the irony of this
occasion these men are off to risk their lives for a worthless piece of land,
while he, who has every reason to risk his life in the cause of revenge, delays
and fails to act. Hamlet resolves to recast his mind to bloody thoughts.
Ironically, however, just after making this resolution he continues on toward
England, leaving Denmark behind him.
Scene 5
Back in the court of Denmark, we see Gertrude speaking with a gentleman
who explains that Ophelia has gone mad. She is rambling nonsensically
about her father and insisting on seeing Gertrude. The queen reluctantly
admits Ophelia, who proceeds to sing a number of simple and haunting
songs, some of them quite bawdy. The king enters and witnesses her
madness. Ophelia then speaks openly of her fathers untimely demise and
hasty, unofficial burial. She threatens, My brother shall know of it, and
exits. Claudius reflects on the difficulty of their situation, admitting that their
decision to cover up Hamlets deed and bury Polonius so covertly has gone
against them. He says thatLaertes has come from France, egged on by
people who see the court as responsible for Polonius death.
On cue, a messenger arrives with word that Laertes has come to court with a
mob of followers who wish to depose Claudius and make Laertes king.
Laertes bursts in and tells his followers to wait outside. In a half-crazed state
he insists that Claudius give him Polonius. Claudius attempts to calm Laertes
and tells Gertrude to keep out of their talk and let Laertes question him to his
hearts content. Claudius tells Laertes that Polonius is dead. He also
insinuates that he and Laertes are on the same side that he has been
injured by Polonius death too.
Just as Claudius is about to explain what he means, Ophelia enters again,
bearing a bundle of flowers. The sight of his insane sister deeply grieves
Laertes. Ophelia handles all those present gifts of flowers, each symbolizing
a reproach to the receiver. She sings another song about her dead father and

exits abruptly. As she leaves Claudius tells Laertes to inquire into the matter
as deeply as he wishes, confident that he will find himself aligned with
Claudius against Hamlet. Laertes agrees.
Scene 6
A messenger approaches Horatio, saying that some sailors have news for
him. Horatio receives from these sailors a letter from Hamlet. He reads the
letter aloud. It recounts an amazing turn of events: on his way to England,
pirates attacked Hamlets ship. During the fray, Hamlet boarded the pirate
vessel. The two ships parted with Hamlet still aboard. The pirates treated
Hamlet like thieves of mercy, promising to return Hamlet to Denmark in
return for some favors. Hamlet also alludes to a startling development
having to do with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but says that he must delay
telling of this until they meet. He tells Horatio to follow the sailors to where
he is hiding. Horatio says that he will help to deliver the rest of their letters,
one of which is addressed to the king, and then go with them to see Hamlet.
Scene 7
Claudius and Laertes are in conference. The king seems to have explained
the strange occasion of Polonius death to Laertes satisfaction. He says that
he did not try Hamlet for two reasons, first, because his mother loves him so
much, and second, because the people of Denmark are supporters of
Hamlet. A messenger arrives and delivers a letter to Claudius, who is greatly
surprised to learn that the letter comes from Hamlet. The letter announces
Hamlets imminent return to court.
With this in mind, Claudius and Laertes plot to find a means of killing Hamlet
without upsetting Gertrude or the people. They propose to arrange a duel
between Hamlet and Laertes, both of whom are accomplished swordsmen,
though Laertes is the more reputed. Claudius suggests that Laertes be given
a sharp sword while Hamlets remains blunt. Laertes does him one better,
saying that he will dip his sword in poison so that the least scratch will kill
Hamlet. Claudius says that on top of this he will prepare a poisoned cup and
give it to Hamlet during the fight.
Gertrude enters with yet more tragic news. She says that Ophelia has
drowned. She was watching Ophelia play in the branches of a willow by the
water when she fell in. Gertrude says that Ophelia seemed ignorant of
danger and went to her death slowly, singing songs. This news reignites
Laertes rage and Claudius goes to console him.

You can see simply from the quickness with which the scenes of Act Four
proceed that the action has reached a point of great tension following the
death of Polonius. We see more evidence of Claudius lack of political talent
when we learn that he has simply hushed up Polonius death, burying his
longtime advisor without pomp or circumstance, and keeping the nature of
the death a mystery. This, as much as the death itself, prompts the two
events most central to Act Four, the return of Laertes and the madness of
First, though, its necessary to note that the fourth scene contains another of
Hamlets famous soliloquies How all occasions do inform against me. This
speech reiterates, basically, the point that Hamlet made in his previous
soliloquy about the actor playing Hecuba. The basic position of Hamlet is one
of befuddlement that these soldiers can go off to their deaths over a patch of
worthless ground while he, who has every reason to rage and war and battle
Claudius, is introspective and melancholy, and chokes off his action with
excessive contemplation. He remarks, Rightly to be great / Is not to stir
without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When
honors at the stake. In other words, the greatness of man comes not with
the greatness of an occasion, but with treating any occasion, however petty,
as an occasion for greatness. One should not overthink, but do. Of course,
this is not Hamlets character at all, and as soon as he has resolved that his
thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth, he is off to England, leaving revenge
for another day, if ever. Indeed, Hamlet seems to express the central irony in
his case it is not enough that his thoughts be bloody. They already are
bloody. What he needs, or what his fathers spirit needs, is bloodydeeds, not
thoughts, and those are, as ever, beyond our protagonist.
Laertes, though, provides precisely the model of what Hamlet is not. The
early twentieth century critic A.C. Bradley once illustrated Shakespeares gift
for characterization by observing that if Othello were in Hamlets place the
play would be about thirty minutes long as soon as he learned of the
murder, he would kill Claudius and likewise if Hamlet were in Othellos he
would immediately see through Iagos plottings and simply laugh the intrigue
away. Just so, Laertes vengeful return, like Fortinbras military example,
serves as a contrast to Hamlets own hesitating, over-thinking character. This
is a true avenger. When he bursts into court demanding satisfaction, he says,
That drop of blood thats calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my
father, brands the harlot / Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow /
Of my true mother. In other words, Laertes proclaims that he has a blood-

bound duty to avenge his fathers death impetuously and bloodily, or else he
proves himself not his fathers son. In contrast, Hamlet has been calm,
reflective, passive, playful, morbid, and impotent in his own long-delayed
quest for revenge a quest which has led rather to an attempt to find
motivation to revenge, to reflect on the nature of revenge, the nature of
man, and the nature of Hamlet. In short, Hamlet has thought and thought but
has not acted. Laertes, we will see, acts without thinking.
The other major event of this Act is the madness of Ophelia. We have seen
Ophelia, up to this point, represented as a chaste, innocent, obedient,
bewildered little girl. With her madness, however, she suddenly has a deluge
of lines and a rich, multi-layered, startling consciousness. The songs she
sings are quite sexual especially the one that begins, To-morrow is Saint
Valentines day. This ballad, which documents the duplicity of a man who
promises to marry a young maid in order to get her into bed, and then
abandons her because she relented to him, has been read by some as
evidence that Ophelia herself gave up her virginity to Hamlet, who then left
her in the lurch. In Kenneth Branaghs adaptation of Hamlet, for instance, the
filmmaker explicitly shows flashbacks to Hamlet and Ophelia in bed.
However, it may not be necessary to read the song, and the other songs, so
straightforwardly. In her mad scenes, Ophelia is perhaps demonstrating the
cultural pressures of a young woman of her time, forced into the impossible
position of simultaneous chastity and sexualization. Ophelia, throughout the
play, is forever urged to be chaste, be chaste, be chaste as in Laertes
instructions, or the get thee to a nunnery scene as a means of controlling
her sexual identity. This emphasis on chastity contains, of course, the other
side of the coin, a concern with lewdness. She must know nothing about sex,
yet know enough to avoid it. In her madness, it seems as though Ophelias
inner dam, so to speak, has broken, and all of her contained knowledge of
sexuality, and of the unfair position of women within her culture, has come
rushing out.
Ophelias death by drowning is one of the famously impossible-to-settle
questions of Hamlet. Did she die accidentally or did she commit suicide? If
one looks forward to Act Five, it seems as though she was indeed a suicide.
Given the immediate evidence of Gertrudes testimony, however, there is no
reason at all to believe that she killed herself. Gertrude describes her as
dying almost in slow motion: Her clothes spread wide, / And mermaid-like
awhile they bore her up, / Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, / As
one incapable of her own distress, / Or like a creature native and indued /

Unto that element. Indeed, the question to ask given this description is not,
Did Ophelia kill herself? but rather, If she had time to sing songs while
dying, why on earth didnt Gertrude try to save her? Perhaps, though (as
suggested in the television series,Slings & Arrows, among other places),
Gertrude's narrative is an attempt to protect Ophelia. She knows that
Ophelia is better off dead and tries to hide the fact of her suicide with her
narrative. As with so many aspects of this play, the truth is not forthcoming.
These shifts in meaning from Act to Act are difficult to pin down, but they
serve to underline one of the most prevalent trends in the play, toward
interpretive uncertainty. Any account of things in this play whether the
testimony of the ghost, the murmurings of Laertes followers, or this eyewitness account of Gertrudes leads to quite divergent interpretations. As
Hamlet says in Act Two, [T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking
makes it so. If there is one lesson to take fromHamlet, it is this that by our
very nature we cannot ever know the truth, only interpretations of the truth.

Hamlet Summary and Analysis of Act 5

Scene 1
The final Act begins with a conversation between two gravediggers as they
dig Ophelias grave. They repeat a rumor that Ophelia committed suicide and
wonder whether she ought to be buried in hallowed ground. We learn that
the king has overridden the objections of the clergy and provided for her
burial. After some witty and macabre banter on the nature of
gravedigging, Hamlet and Horatio enter. The main gravedigger sends his
partner off for a cup of liquor and then commences to dig, singing songs all
the while. Hamlet appears fascinated by the gravediggers indifference to the
gravity of his profession. As the gravediggers throws various skulls out of the
grave, Hamlet wonders whom they might have belonged to in life whether
a courtier or a lawyer.
Hamlet approaches the gravedigger and exchanges witticisms about this
morbid work. The gravedigger informs Hamlet about the length of time it
takes bodies to decay in the ground. He then produces a skull from the grave
that he says has been lying there for twenty-three years. The gravedigger
says that this is the skull of Yorick, the old kings jester. Hamlet is amazed
he knew Yorick and loved him as a child. He takes up the skull and speaks

about Yorick, a topic that leads him to consider the nature of mortality more
Claudius, Gertrude,
and Laertes march toward the grave along with a priest and an entourage
bearing a body. Hamlet notices that the burial is less elaborate than usual,
signifying that the deceased was a suicide. He and Horatio stand aside while
Laertes argues with the priest about the paltriness of the burial rites. In the
course of his arguing with the priest, Laertes reveals to Hamlet that the dead
body is that of Ophelia. Gertrude steps forward to say farewell to Ophelia.
Laertes follows. In his intense grief, Laertes leaps into his sisters grave to
hold her body again and orders the gravediggers to bury him alive. Provoked
by this show of grief, Hamlet then reveals himself. After grappling with
Laertes, Hamlet declares that he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand
brothers could. The king and queen dismiss his avowal as madness. Hamlet
then exits and Horatio follows him. After they have left, Claudius reminds
Laertes of their plan to take care of Hamlet.
Scene 2
Hamlet explains to Horatio what happened on his journey to England. He
says that he strongly suspected Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of foul play,
and so decided to apprehend their letter to England. In the letter he found an
order for his death. Hamlet then devised a substitute letter asking for the
deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He happened to have a signet ring
in the shape of the seal of Denmark, and so sealed the letter. Hamlet then
replaced the letter while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were asleep. At this
point, pirates attacked the vessel, as related previously.
A courtier, Osric, interrupts Hamlet and Horatio. In very ornate and silly
language, Osric declares to Hamlet that Claudius has proposed a contest of
swordsmanship between Laertes and he. Hamlet and Horatio mock Osrics
pompous and artificial mannerisms. Eventually Hamlet agrees to enter the
contest. When Horatio worries that Laertes is better at swordplay than he,
Hamlet declares that he has been in continual practice for some time.
A table is prepared and the king, queen and other figures of state gather to
watch the swordfight. Hamlet begs Laertes pardon both for his outburst at
Ophelias grave and for his rash killing of Polonius. Laertes appears to accept
this apology but declares that his honor will not be satisfied until they have
had their contest. Hamlet and Laertes choose their swords. Laertes
nonchalantly chooses the unblunted sword with the envenomed blade. As
they prepare to fight, Claudius proposes a drink to Hamlet.

The fight begins with Osric as referee. Hamlet wins the first point and the
king offers him a drink to refresh himself, dropping a poisoned pearl in the
wine just before he hands it over. Hamlet declines to take the drink for the
time being. They play another round and Hamlet again wins a point. After
this second pass, Gertrude toasts to Hamlets health. She takes up the
poisoned chalice and has a drink despite Claudius protestations. Hamlet and
Laertes have a third pass which ends in a draw.
After this pass, while Hamlet is unguarded, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the
poisoned rapier. They scuffle and Hamlet ends up with Laertes poisoned
sword. He wounds Laertes with it. Just then, the queen collapses. She
declares that she has been poisoned by the drink and then dies. Hamlet asks
for the treachery to be found out and Laertes confesses the plan hatched by
the king and he. He says that they are both inevitably going to die, having
been wounded by the poisoned blade. Hamlet takes the envenomed sword
and wounds Claudius, then forces the king to drink from his poisoned cup.
Claudius dies. Laertes asks Hamlets forgiveness and then also dies. Hamlet,
knowing that he is about to die also, asks Horatio to explain this bloody
spectacle to the confused onlookers. Horatio, on the contrary, wishes to die
with his friend, but Hamlet convinces him to live a while and clear his name.
Hamlet declares that Fortinbras should become King of Denmark. He then
dies the rest is silence.
A flourish is heard and Osric brings news that Fortinbras has arrived from his
victory in Poland with ambassadors from England. Fortinbras enters the court
only to find four noble bodies sprawled out on the floor. The ambassadors
from England enter with news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been
killed. Horatio explains that Claudius would not have welcomed this news
even if he had been living to receive it. He orders that the royal bodies be
taken up. Horatio further promises to explain the story behind the deaths, a
story full of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts; / Of accidental judgments,
casual slaughters; / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause. In short,
he promises to tell the story of Hamlet. Fortinbras agrees to hear it. He adds
that, given the death of the Danish royalty, he will now pursue his own
claims to the throne. Finally, Fortinbras declares that Hamlet shall receive a
soldiers burial. Some soldiers take up his body and bear it from the stage.
No surprise, this final Act of Hamlet is as mysterious, ambiguous, and
controversial as those that precede it. The play begins rather
straightforwardly, if ironically, as a revenge tragedy Old Hamlets ghost

spurs his son to revenge and it would seem that Act Five, like the Act Fives
of all major revenge tragedies preceding Hamlet, should fulfill this initial
plotline. Indeed, in Act Five Hamlet kills Claudius finally. But he does so in
such a roundabout, half-cocked, off-hand way, we wonder whether this really
counts as revenge. The death of Claudius certainly lacks the poetic justice
that vengeance seems to require. What on earth is Shakespeare trying to do
with this strange play why doesnt he give it a proper ending?
Many of the earliest extant critics of the play, those of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, found the strange and abrupt manner of Hamlets
revenge to be as puzzling as we might. These critics often found fault with
the plays lack of moral meaning. After all, if Claudius was wrong to kill his
brother and marry his brothers wife (and surely he was), shouldnt the lethal
correction of these crimes feel more satisfying, more right, than it does in
this play? Samuel Johnson, writing in 1765, voices critical dissatisfaction
quite clearly: The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetical
justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The
apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he
demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it;
and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper
and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia. In other words,
Johnson charges that the ending ofHamlet is both unjust and improbable. The
earlier part of the play, including the role of the ghost in giving the death of
Claudius a moral shape, seems to have been forgotten. Hamlet seems to
bring the drama to a close almost accidentally, and Johnson accuses
Shakespeare on these grounds of dramatic clumsiness and moral ineptitude.
Later critics have been much less quick to fault Shakespeares dramatic
instincts. Indeed, some of them have found the ending of Hamlet to signal a
shift to a higher, more self-aware theater, a purposeful rejection of the
simple morality of revenge in favor of a richer, deeper investigation of the
nature of performance itself. The critic Harold Bloom, for instance, has
written at length about Act Five as Hamlets rejection of his own dramatic
role. He seems to have grown bored with his own play, in other words, and
shrugs off its generic requirements. Bloom writes: Any Fortinbras or Laertes
could chop Claudius down; Hamlet knows he deserves the prime role in a
cosmological drama, which Shakespeare was not quite ready to compose. In
this view, Hamlets final Act transcends the play itself. The plot, the action,
has only been an occasion for Hamlets own tremendously powerful selfexploration, and the culmination of the requirements of "revenge tragedy"
appropriately occurs almost despite the play itself.

Shakespeares abandonment of the central focus on revenge, then, perhaps

amounts to his finally agreeing with his protagonist, so to speak. Hamlet has
been, from the very first moments of the play, reluctant to carry out the
absurd and generic task that is his as a character in a revenge tragedy
The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it
right! Shakespeare has purposefully miscast his hero and given us a
character whose accomplishments are intellectual and verbal, not violent
and physical. By the final Act, it seems as though the playwright has finally
given up trying to tie his hero down to conventions. Hamlet has
forced Hamlet off the rails, taken it from a simple and predictable genre play
to something inscrutable, massively significant, and, for lack of a better
term, post-theatrical.
Meanwhile, in between the two major events of Act Five (the burial of Ophelia
and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes), Shakespeare includes several
very famous setpieces. The range of Hamlets verbal and philosophical
variety becomes clear as he goes from trading macabre jokes with the
gravedigger, to his moving rumination on the dead court jester, Yorick, to his
declaration of love for Ophelia and his attendant mockery of Laertes overthe-top mourning display, to a scathing parody of Osrics ludicrous courtly
mannerisms. As noted before, Hamlets mind seems to work as an intense
magnifying glass of sorts. He looks at one subject say, the gravediggers
macabre humor and scrutinizes it to exhaustion before turning to another
say, the nature of mortality as occasioned by the discovery of Yoricks skull
and treating it with a similar thoroughness. The variety of his curiosity is
matched by depth of penetration. He is both wide-ranging and profound
truly a Renaissance mind.
In this final Act, Hamlet seems no longer to curse this tendency of his to
become distracted by thought in favor of action, as he does for instance in
his soliloquies on Hecuba and on Fortinbras army, but to celebrate it. He
says to Horatio, for instance, when his friend seems concerned that he is
walking into the trap set by Claudius and Laertes, [W]e defy augury. [...] If it
be now, tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now,
yet it will come. The readiness is all. Hamlet rejects augury that is, he
rejects any predictive phenomena, or any future-oriented thinking at all. In a
way, he rejects the ghosts order to fulfill a set goal. (By the way, we might
ask what Hamlet means by it in the above sentence. Does it refer to his
plan to kill Claudius? If I will kill him now, so be it. Does it rather refer to
death itself? If I am to die now, so be it. Or is it a placeholder for
anything, any event?) At any rate, Hamlet has achieved a point of

philosophical quietus, an acceptance of the world with all of its flaws and
absurdities, which he has made not with a bare bodkin but with his own
mental powers. His gaze is focused on some spiritual realm beyond the
pettiness of Danish political intrigue.
Of the four deaths that occur in the final scene of the play, only one
Hamlets is planned. The other three are, if not senseless, at least
spontaneous and chaotic. The entire gory episode seems to be a playing-out
of Hamlets new understanding of the world death strikes randomly,
senselessly, absurdly. The only meaning that matters must be made out of
apparent meaninglessness. Hamlets dying words, in fact, are a plea to his
friend, Horatio, to help the court audience sort out the carnage that they
have seen: [I]n this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story.
Hamlet emphasizes that significance comes only in retrospect, with
storytelling, with sense making, not in prospective action. His death thus
demonstrates the value of introspection over action, and the triumph of
thought over fate, against the uncertainty and confusion of death.
With the arrival of Fortinbras, the tone shifts dramatically in the other
direction. Fortinbras, whose own barely-limned plot is extremely similar to
Hamlet's (his identically-named father dead, his rise in Norway impeded by
his uncle, etc.), in nonetheless Hamlet's opposite. He is a man of action, a
man like Laertes, or Old Hamlet. As Hamlet predicts, he hardly wastes a
moment in declaring his intention to take the throne of Denmark for his own.
And, as a final irony, Fortinbras misunderstands the dead prince, and gives
him a soldiers funeral. Though we know very little of him, it seems that
Fortinbras is the anti-Hamlet a man who can only understand others in light
of his own simple and straight-forward mind. Hamlet, because he was a
prince, was probably a soldier, so he is given a soldiers burial. In an exact
opposite way, Hamlet finds a universe of variety within his own mind; he
explores the world from many perspectives, searches many questions,
revolves all but resolves nothing. Fortinbras arrival marks the end of the true
reign of Hamlet, not Claudius petty and incompetent rule, but Hamlets
regime of the mind and the possibilities of subjectivity.

Important Quotations Explained


O that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixd
His canon gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie ont! O fie! tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead!nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother,
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month,
Let me not think ont,Frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month; or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor fathers body
Like Niobe, all tears;why she, even she,
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mournd longer,married with mine uncle,
My fathers 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!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart,for I must hold my tongue.

This quotation, Hamlets first important soliloquy, occurs in Act I, scene ii (1 2 9

1 5 8 ).

Hamlet speaks these lines after enduring the unpleasant scene at Claudius

and Gertrudes court, then being asked by his mother and stepfather not to return

to his studies at Wittenberg but to remain in Denmark, presumably against his

wishes. Here, Hamlet thinks for the first time about suicide (desiring his flesh to
melt, and wishing that God had not made self-slaughter a sin), saying that the
world is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. In other words, suicide seems like a
desirable alternative to life in a painful world, but Hamlet feels that the option of
suicide is closed to him because it is forbidden by religion. Hamlet then goes on
to describe the causes of his pain, specifically his intense disgust at his mothers
marriage to Claudius. He describes the haste of their marriage, noting that the
shoes his mother wore to his fathers funeral were not worn out before her
marriage to Claudius. He compares Claudius to his father (his father was so
excellent a king while Claudius is a bestial satyr). As he runs through his
description of their marriage, he touches upon the important motifs of misogyny,
crying, Frailty, thy name is woman; incest, commenting that his mother moved
[w]ith such dexterity to incestuous sheets; and the ominous omen the marriage
represents for Denmark, that [i]t is not nor it cannot come to good. Each of
these motifs recurs throughout the play.

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportiond thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatchd, unfledgd comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
Beart that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:
Take each mans censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressd in fancy; rich, not gaudy:
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station

Are most select and generous chief in that.

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 own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This famous bit of fatherly advice is spoken by Polonius to Laertes shortly before
Laertes leaves for France, in Act I, scene iii (5980). Polonius, who is bidding
Laertes farewell, gives him this list of instructions about how to behave before he
sends him on his way. His advice amounts to a list of clichs. Keep your thoughts
to yourself; do not act rashly; treat people with familiarity but not excessively so;
hold on to old friends and be slow to trust new friends; avoid fighting but fight
boldly if it is unavoidable; be a good listener; accept criticism but do not be
judgmental; maintain a proper appearance; do not borrow or lend money; and be
true to yourself. This long list of quite normal fatherly advice emphasizes the
regularity of Laertes family life compared to Hamlets, as well as contributing a
somewhat stereotypical father-son encounter in the plays exploration of family
relationships. It seems to indicate that Polonius loves his son, though that idea is
complicated later in the play when he sends Reynaldo to spy on him.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

This line is spoken by Marcellus in Act I, scene iv (67), as he and Horatio debate
whether or not to follow Hamlet and the ghost into the dark night. The line refers
both to the idea that the ghost is an ominous omen for Denmark and to the larger
theme of the connection between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of
the state as a whole. The ghost is a visible symptom of the rottenness of
Denmark created by Claudiuss crime.
4. I have of late,but wherefore I know not,lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and
indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile

promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave oerhanging firmament, this
majestical roof fretted with golden fire,why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and
pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in
faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in
apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what
is this quintessence of dust?

In these lines, Hamlet speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, scene ii
(287298), explaining the melancholy that has afflicted him since his fathers
death. Perhaps moved by the presence of his former university companions,
Hamlet essentially engages in a rhetorical exercise, building up an elaborate and
glorified picture of the earth and humanity before declaring it all merely a
quintessence of dust. He examines the earth, the air, and the sun, and rejects
them as a sterile promontory and a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
He then describes human beings from several perspectives, each one adding to
his glorification of them. Human beings reason is noble, their faculties infinite,
their forms and movements fast and admirable, their actions angelic, and their
understanding godlike. But, to Hamlet, humankind is merely dust. This motif, an
expression of his obsession with the physicality of death, recurs throughout the
play, reaching its height in his speech over Yoricks skull. Finally, it is also telling
that Hamlet makes humankind more impressive in apprehension (meaning
understanding) than in action. Hamlet himself is more prone to apprehension
than to action, which is why he delays so long before seeking his revenge on
5. 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,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wishd. To die,to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream:ay, theres the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: theres the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressors wrong, the proud mans contumely,
The pangs of despisd love, the laws delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscoverd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied oer with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

This soliloquy, probably the most famous speech in the English language, is
spoken by Hamlet in Act III, scene i (5890). His most logical and powerful
examination of the theme of the moral legitimacy of suicide in an unbearably
painful world, it touches on several of the other important themes of the play.
Hamlet poses the problem of whether to commit suicide as a logical question: To
be, or not to be, that is, to live or not to live. He then weighs the moral
ramifications of living and dying. Is it nobler to suffer life, [t]he slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune, passively or to actively seek to end ones suffering? He

compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to suffering, pain, and uncertainty
it might bring, [t]he heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is
heir to. Based on this metaphor, he decides that suicide is a desirable course of
action, a consummation / Devoutly to be wished. But, as the religious word
devoutly signifies, there is more to the question, namely, what will happen in the
afterlife. Hamlet immediately realizes as much, and he reconfigures his metaphor
of sleep to include the possibility of dreaming; he says that the dreams that may
come in the sleep of death are daunting, that they must give us pause.
He then decides that the uncertainty of the afterlife, which is intimately related to
the theme of the difficulty of attaining truth in a spiritually ambiguous world, is
essentially what prevents all of humanity from committing suicide to end the pain
of life. He outlines a long list of the miseries of experience, ranging from
lovesickness to hard work to political oppression, and asks who would choose to
bear those miseries if he could bring himself peace with a knife, [w]hen he
himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin? He answers himself again,
saying no one would choose to live, except that the dread of something after
death makes people submit to the suffering of their lives rather than go to
another state of existence which might be even more miserable. The dread of the
afterlife, Hamlet concludes, leads to excessive moral sensitivity that makes
action impossible: conscience does make cowards of us all . . . thus the native
hue of resolution / Is sicklied oer with the pale cast of thought.
In this way, this speech connects many of the plays main themes, including the
idea of suicide and death, the difficulty of knowing the truth in a spiritually
ambiguous universe, and the connection between thought and action. In addition
to its crucial thematic content, this speech is important for what it reveals about
the quality of Hamlets mind. His deeply passionate nature is complemented by a
relentlessly logical intellect, which works furiously to find a solution to his misery.
He has turned to religion and found it inadequate to help him either kill himself or

resolve to kill Claudius. Here, he turns to a logical philosophical inquiry and finds
it equally frustrating.

Hamlet's originally acts mad (crazy, not angry) to fool people into think he is harmless
while probing his father's death and Claudius's involvement. Early on, the
bumbling Polonius says "[t]hough this be madness, yet there is method in't" (Act II,
Scene II). Polonius's assertion is ironic because he is right and wrong. Polonius falsely
believes Hamlet's madness stems from Hamlet's love of Ophelia. To notice a method
behind the crazy talk was impressive of Polonius.
But as the play progresses, Hamlet's behavior become more erratic. His acting mad
seems to cause Hamlet to lose his grip on reality. The circumstances he has to manage
emotionally are difficult, to say the least. Succumbing to physical violence when under
extreme stress shows that Hamlet has deeper-set issues than merely acting mad. In
reflection, Hamlet's choices and impulses beg the question, what gives him the right to
act as such without consequences?
The presence of only two named female characters says something about the role of
women within Hamlet. The death of both women also indicates a social commentary.
Hamlet is at his most agitated state when talking to either female character. Although he
cares for both, he's suspicious, as well. In the case of his mother, Gertrude, Hamlet
feels she remarried too quickly and that her remarriage means she didn't love her first
husband all that much. The idea freaks Hamlet out.
Then there's Ophelia. From the way the characters talk, we know Hamlet has been
wooing Ophelia for some time. But after Hamlet starts to act mad, it doesn't take long for
him to assume that Ophelia is in cahoots with Gertrude, Claudius, and Polonius. In
reality, Ophelia obeyed her father and her monarch.
In both cases, Hamlet feels as if each woman has let him down, respectively. He's
critical and quick to point out flaws though puns and backhanded comments. Ophelia is
usually viewed as a true victim, while Gertrude's role is interpreted with more flexibility.

In either case, the role and treatment of women in Hamlet is essential to discuss with an
open mind.