Hamlet: the Summary- Themes- and Symbolism of Shakespeares Classic Play

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or simply Hamlet, is widely recognized and revered as William Shakespeare’s most famous play. It is set in Denmark and is thought to have been written around 1600.

In the play, young Prince Hamlet sets out on a quest for vengeance. Claudius, Hamlet’s evil uncle, assassinated the King of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. But Hamlet is more than just a blind vengeance seeker out to assassinate his evil uncle and usurp the throne. He is philosophical, seeking moral ground, and questioning himself and the justice of his actions. This inner dialogue of Hamlet is what makes the character such an engrossing study and such a relevant character model for today.

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Hamlet has been retold and readapted numerous times, including in our childhood favorite film The Lion King, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of literature of all time.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Hamlet Characters

Let’s begin with a quick look at the main characters in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, the son of King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude, who both died. At the start of the play, Hamlet had just returned from his studies to discover his father had died and his mother had married his Uncle Claudius. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the deceased King Hamlet, appears to tell him that Uncle Claudius was responsible for his death, Hamlet’s darkest suspicions are confirmed. This inciting incident propels Hamlet on a vengeful mission.

King Claudius is King Hamlet brother. He assassinates the King and seizes his wife and throne. Claudius is portrayed as a cunning and manipulative character who is motivated by primal instincts. Unlike Hamlet, Claudius kills and manipulates with little regard for the moral implications of his actions. Claudius seizes the throne before the play begins by pouring poison into King Hamlet’s ear, killing him, and passing it off as a snake attack.

Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother, and she was previously married to King Hamlet Sr. Following his death, she married Claudius. Gertrude does not appear to be guilty in her marriage to the man who murdered her husband, and Hamlet dislikes her for it.

This character serves as the King’s chief counselor. He is also the father of Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend, and her brother Laertes. Polonius, who is described as having a big disrespectful mouth, is an unlikable character in the play. In Act II, Hamlet refers to him as a “tedious old fool.” After persuading Claudius to spy on Hamlet, he is accidentally killed by Hamlet, precipitating Ophelia’s madness and death, as well as the play’s climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes.

In the play, Ophelia is Hamlet’s lover. She is Polonius’ daughter and Laertes’ sister. Ophelia’s brother and father attempt to break up her relationship with Hamlet, with Polonius even forbidding her from marrying him. After her father’s death, Ophelia goes insane, speaking in riddles and rhymes and acting strangely. She commits suicide.

The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is frequently referred to as King Hamlet in order to distinguish him from his son. The ghost appears three times in the play. He first appears to soldiers, then to Hamlet, sending him on a mission of vengeance, and finally to Hamlet again, rebuking him for not having killed Claudius yet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

These two characters are almost always seen together. They are the protagonist’s childhood friends who have been tasked by King Claudius with keeping an eye on the prince and determining the source of his insanity. They are depicted as flatterers and sycophants, and Hamlet sees right through them. Shortly before Act V, pirates assassinate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Hamlet’s friend is referred to as Horatio. He is the only character in the play who is sympathetic to Hamlet’s humanity. It is unknown what Horatio’s origins are, or whether he is noble and holds a position in court. Horatio is the only major character who survives the play’s events.

The Play: Hamlet Summary

This Hamlet summary focuses on the plot and can be used as a guide to what happens in the play. Although the Hamlet play is approximately six hours long and very detailed, you can still ace your Hamlet essay by simply understanding the sequence of events, themes, and symbolism used in the play. Continue reading until the end to learn more about the themes that run throughout the play.

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Act 1

The play’s central character is Prince Hamlet. Claudius murders King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father, marries his widow Gertrude, and seizes the throne before the play begins.

The Kingdom of Denmark, where the play is set, has a long-standing feud with Norway and has long feared an invasion from their neighbors. During a routine cold-night patrol, two sentries, Bernardo and Marcellus, as well as Hamlet’s friend Horatio, encounter the ghost of the late King Hamlet. They make a promise to tell Hamlet about the ghost.

The next day, at King Claudius and Queen Gertrude’s court, Hamlet is in despair. He finds it difficult to believe that his mother married Claudius so soon after his father died.

 “A little more than kin and less than kind”
(Act 1, Scene 2)

Horatio meets Hamlet and tells him about the ghost, which piques Hamlet’s interest. Throughout the royal court, we meet Polonius, his son Laertes, and his daughter Ophelia. Polonius bids farewell to Laertes, who is leaving for France, and gives him sound fatherly advice:

“This above all: to thine own self be true”
(Act 1, Scene 3)

Before leaving, Laertes warns his sister Ophelia to avoid Hamlet and to stop overthinking his feelings for her.

The ghost appears to Hamlet on the ramparts at night and informs him that Claudius is responsible for his murder. The ghost urges Hamlet to avenge his death before disappearing. Hamlet tells his sentries and Horatio that they must put on an act as if Hamlet had gone insane in order to conceal his plans for vengeance. However, Hamlet is unsure whether or not to believe this ghost.

Act 2

The act begins with Ophelia rushing to her father and informing him that Hamlet is acting strangely. Polonius advises her to disregard all of Hamlet’s advances, claiming that love has driven Hamlet insane. Following that, he goes to inform Claudius and Gertrude of the prince’s behavior. We also meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends, in the King and Queen’s chambers. The royal couple tasked the two with determining what was causing Hamlet’s strange behavior.

Polonius informs the King and Queen of Hamlet’s behavior as well as his theory about Hamlet’s love. He even addresses Hamlet, but Hamlet pretends to be enraged and insults Polonius. When Hamlet runs into his old pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he quickly realizes they are spies.

The two scholars arrived from Elsinore with a troupe of actors, whom Hamlet requests to perform several plays. They perform a play about the Trojan War, and Hamlet is so impressed that he plots to perform The Murder of Gonzago in front of Claudius. The occurrences of this play are similar to what Claudius did to King Hamlet, and Hamlet attempts to study Claudius’ reaction in order to determine his guilt or innocence.

“The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil…
I’ll have grounds
More relative than this”
(Act 2, Scene 2)

Hamlet is skeptical of the ghost and seeks more concrete evidence against Claudius.

Act 3

In the following act, Polonius forces Ophelia to return to Hamlet all of his tokens of love in order to study Hamlet’s reaction. Meanwhile, Hamlet is strolling through the corridors, delivering his famous monologue.

“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”
(Act 3, Scene 1)

Hamlet ponders life and death, claiming that he has reached a point where he only sees suffering in life and that the only thing preventing us from killing ourselves is fear of the unknown.

When Ophelia tries to enter to bring back Hamlet’s tokens of love, he lashes out at her, and it is unsure whether he is sincere or just pretending to be the mad prince. Claudius notices Hamlet’s reaction and concludes that he is not insane for love.

During Hamlet’s Murder of Gonzago play, the prince keeps a close eye on Claudius and analyses his reactions. Claudius is disturbed by the play and storms out of the room, vowing to exile Hamlet to England. After studying his reaction, Hamlet is convinced that Claudius is responsible for his father’s death.

Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, summons him to her chambers in emotional turmoil. On his way, he comes across Claudius, who is kneeling and trying to pray and repent. Hamlet appears to believe that if he kills Claudius in prayer, his soul will go to heaven, so he spares his life.

Polonius is hiding behind some curtains in Gertrude’s chambers to defend her from her unforeseen son. When Hamlet arrives, he has a loud argument with his mother. He hears movement behind the curtain and stabs the tapestry, thinking it’s Claudius, killing Polonius instead.

The ghost reemerges to warn Hamlet not to postpone his vengeance or upset his mother. Gertrude is unable to see the ghost, which strengthens her belief that Hamlet has gone insane. The scene concludes with Hamlet dragging Polonius’s dead body away.

Act 4

Gertrude informs Claudius that Hamlet murdered Polonius. Claudius sends Hamlet to England, where he plots to have him killed. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he leaves a sealed letter for the King of England. The letter directs the King to assassinate Hamlet. When Hamlet discovers Claudius’ letter, he forges a new one, ordering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed in his place. Around this time, King Fortinbras of Norway is crossing Denmark with his army in preparation for an attack on Poland.

Meanwhile, Ophelia had gone insane as a result of her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection. She walks around giving out symbolic flowers and speaking in rhymes. Her insanity reaches a peak, and she drowns. It’s unclear whether her drowning was accidental or intentional.

Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, has just returned from France and is annoyed by Polonius’ death and his sister’s insanity. Following a meeting with Claudius, Laertes is convinced that Hamlet is to blame for everything. After learning that Claudius’ plan to murder Hamlet failed, he proposes a fencing match between himself and Laertes. Claudius will poison Hamlet’s wine glass (if he wins) to ensure his death, and Laertes will be given a poison-tipped foil. Gertrude enters the scene and reports that Ophelia has drowned.

Act 5

While preparing Ophelia’s grave in the fifth act, two gravediggers debate her death or suicide. Hamlet and Horatio pass by and speak with one of the gravediggers, who pulls out a jester’s skull that Hamlet remembers from his childhood. When Hamlet looks at the skull, he thinks about death and mortality, saying, “alas, poor Yorick.”

“That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once… This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’er-reaches; one that would circumvent God”. (Act 5, Scene 1)

Even those who try to avoid God’s punishments cannot avoid death, according to Hamlet.

Laertes leads the funeral procession for Ophelia. Hamlet and Horatio flee, but as soon as Hamlet learns that Ophelia has died, he reveals himself. Laertes and Hamlet fight at the graveyard, but the fight is broken up.

At Elsinore, Hamlet tells Horatio about his journey, including the fact that Claudius had ordered his death, but Hamlet forged the letter to order the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. This is when a courtier presents Hamlet with the fencing challenge, which he accepts despite Horatio’s protests.

Before the battle, Hamlet discovers that Claudius has bet on him winning the duel with Laertes. Claudius’ bet is part of his scheme to conceal the fact that he attempted to murder Hamlet. Hamlet has no desire to gain his evil uncle’s respect, let alone win the bet.

Throughout the battle, Hamlet is in the lead. Gertrude raises a glass in his honor, using the poisoned glass Claudios intended for Hamlet. Claudius tries to intervene, but she drinks the glass anyway. Laertes, sensing that everything is about to go wrong, slashes Hamlet with the poisoned rapier. They switch weapons in a scuffle, and Laertes is also injured by the poisoned blade. Gertrude is poisoned and dies after falling to the floor. In his final moments, Laertes reconciles and tells Hamlet the entire plan. Laertes reconciles with Hamlet before his death, and both accept each other’s apology. Hamlet then rushes up to Claudius and murders him.

As the poison is about to kill Hamlet, he learns that the Norwegian King Fortinbras and his army are marching through Denmark. He appoints Fortinbras as his heir to the throne. Horatio nearly commits suicide in Hamlet’s honor, but Hamlet persuades him to live to tell the tale before dying in Horatio’s arms.

Fortinbras shows up at the palace with news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death. When he sees the entire Danish royal family dead on the floor, he seizes the throne and orders an honorable military funeral for Hamlet. He was laid to rest as a soldier.

Hamlet Essay Writing Guide

Hamlet Themes

This iconic play contains numerous themes, making it one of the most discussed pieces of literature ever. One of the most prominent themes is action vs. inaction, in which Hamlet constantly questions the morality of his decisions, whether he should kill or not kill, whether he should be or not be. The most exciting aspect of Hamlet is not his actions, but rather his inactions, which fuel these moral debates. This theme is directly related to the theme of death.

This play is heavily influenced by the themes of religion, honor, and vengeance. Characters in Hamlet constantly lecture each other on how to act; Claudius ‘parent talks’ Hamlet on how to properly show sadness; Polonius lectures Laertes on how to act at university; and Hamlet lectures himself on what he should do in his dialogues. The moral codes in this play are largely based on religion and aristocratic values that demand honor, stating that vengeance is required if honor is sullied.

However, as the play progresses, Hamlet discovers that these codes of conduct are in conflict with one another. Religious codes forbid vengeance, claiming that it could endanger Hamlet’s soul. The concept of justice becomes muddled, and Hamlet’s own musing on the concept of vengeance gradually muddies his judgment. According to some scholars, after Hamlet returns from his trip to England and encounter with pirates, he acts very differently, as if he has talked himself out of killing Claudius. According to one theory, Hamlet’s desire for vengeance is rekindled by Ophelia’s death and Claudius’s intimidation and attempts to have him killed.

Another recurring theme is appearance vs. reality, as each character tries to figure out what the other characters think of them. Everyone is spying on and deciphering one another.

Another frequently discussed theme in the play is women. Specifically, how the protagonist perceives women and their social standing. Hamlet has a dark view of women, and his pretend insanity sometimes becomes actual insanity when he becomes enraged at women. His mother’s actions demonstrate to him that women are not to be trusted, that their beauty is nothing more than deception and sexual desire.

Other Hamlet themes focus on history and societal values rather than the play itself. Many scenes in Hamlet exemplify the English codes of conduct at the time or expose the English monarchy’s corrupt and greedy nature.

Symbolism in Hamlet

This play contains symbols but does not overuse them. The symbols are clear and visible, such as the Ghost. The Ghost is commonly interpreted as a sign of impending adversity, and is regarded as a bad omen in the Danish state.

The flowers of Ophelia, which appear just as she begins to lose her mind, are the second symbol we see. She gives everyone flowers, explaining what they represent and expressing her feelings of betrayal by doing so symbolically. It can be interpreted as a disguised cry for help, or as Shakespeare making fun of how no one understands symbols and what they mean.

The third and most well-known symbol in the play is the skull of the jester, which Hamlet picks up. It is regarded as a symbol of death, decay, and a person’s uselessness after death in the play. The skull causes Hamlet to reflect on his fate and how, when we die, we all turn to dust.

Another symbol in the play is poison, which represents deception, betrayal, and corruption. Claudius employs poison to assassinate King Hamlet, foreshadowing the ending. The seemingly innocent fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes appears to be deceitful and corrupted, as each blade, along with Hamlet’s wine, is poisoned. Poison also serves as a metaphor, as the entire royal family has been ‘poisoned’ from the start, betraying and corrupting one another.

Shakespeare also uses the weather to set the mood; when the weather is bad, it’s a bad omen. When things are going well, it usually means that better times are on the way. The symbols, on the other hand, are ambiguous and can be over-interpreted while serving only as props to set the mood.

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