- In Act 1 we learn of several events that have preceded the play, namely that Hamlet has returned to Denmark from his university in Wittenberg after receiving news of his father’s (King Hamlet’s) death.We also learn of the recent marriage of his mother to his uncle, Claudius, the late King’s brother, which occurred “within a month” of King Hamlet’s funeral.
- In addition, we learn how the late King Hamlet slew in combat his neighbour, King Fortinbras of Norway and as a consequence of that victory received Norwegian lands. Now Prince Fortinbras of Norway, the son of the Norwegian King, has raised an army and prepares to reclaim those territories lost by his father.
- Also in Act 1, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is seen by a number of soldiers on watch at the royal castle at Elsinore on the Danish coast. The Ghost’s presence is reported to Hamlet, who eventually speaks with it. The Ghost tells Hamlet how he was murdered by Claudius. The Ghost instructs Hamlet to avenge his death, but to spare his mother for her hasty marriage to Claudius, as her punishment will come in the hereafter. Hamlet agrees to the Ghost’s call for revenge. As part of his strategy for revenge, Hamlet decides to feign madness.
- Also in this act, Polonius, a counsellor to the King, bids farewell to his son, Laertes, who is about to sail to France.Both Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter, about the dangers of her relationship with Hamlet, who is of royal blood and unattainable. (Most probably Hamlet will be required to marry royalty from a neighbouring state.) As well, Polonius is concerned that Hamlet may only be flirting with Ophelia in order to seduce her. Ophelia agrees to keep away from Hamlet.
- By Act 2 Laertes is in Paris and Polonius learns from Ophelia that Hamlet has come into her room in a wild and distracted state.This, Polonius interprets, as Hamlet having gone mad out of love for Ophelia, who has continued to refuse contact with Hamlet on the advice of her father. Polonius then excitedly takes Ophelia’s report to the King and Queen as an explanation of Hamlet’s recent “mad” behaviour. Claudius and Gertrude are pleased to hear Polonius’ explanation as a possible reason for Hamlet’s strange behaviour, which had been troubling them greatly. To be certain, however, that Hamlet is really in love with Ophelia, Polonius suggests a test in which he and the King will secretly observe Hamlet and Ophelia alone together.
- Also in Act 2 the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, student and childhood friends of Hamlet, are introduced. We learn that they have been summoned back from Wittenberg to help Claudius and Gertrude find out what is ailing Hamlet and to help, if possible, restore his spirits.
- As well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a touring company of actors is introduced in this act. Hamlet requests of the actors that in the near future they will perform a particular play for him, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he will insert some lines. In the soliloquy that ends Act 2 Hamlet reveals to the audience that the play will test the guilt of the King and the genuineness of the Ghost, whom Hamlet now fears may have been the devil in disguise.
- In this act the King and Queen question Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet’s strange behaviour.Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report that Hamlet will not reveal to them what is the matter with him.
- Also, as arranged, Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia alone together.After hearing their terse exchange, however, Claudius concludes that it is not love for Ophelia that ails Hamlet, but suspects something far more threatening to himself. Claudius therefore announces to Polonius that Hamlet must be sent away to England on the pretext of collecting tribute due to the Danes. Polonius, however, believes this plan should be delayed a little, suggesting that Hamlet should first meet with his mother so that she can learn the true source of his problem.
- The play that Hamlet has requested also takes place in this act. Many of the court attend, including the King and Queen. Before the play Hamlet speaks to Horatio, who we now learn, has been told of Hamlet’s suspicions about his father’s death. Hamlet asks Horatio to watch with him for Claudius’ reaction to the play, which mirrors in many ways the circumstances surrounding the death of King Hamlet. Horatio agrees to do this and the play takes place. Claudius reacts strongly to the piece and hurriedly exits. Hamlet now believes Claudius’ guilt to be confirmed and the Ghost to have been telling the truth. As for Claudius, he is now determined to send Hamlet away to England, since he now considers Hamlet to be a real threat. He therefore arranges for him to go abroad in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
- Another important scene occurs in this act when Hamlet finds the King alone in prayer and contemplates killing him.He reconsiders, however, thinking that to kill the King while he is praying would send the King to heaven and therefore do the King a favour.
- The final and climatic scene in this act happens when Hamlet confronts his mother in her chamber.Unbeknown to Hamlet, Polonius hides in the room to overhear their conversation. During their exchange, in which Hamlet berates his mother for her marriage to Claudius, Gertrude calls for help, fearing Hamlet is about to become violent. Polonius, too, calls aloud for help and as a consequence is killed by Hamlet with his sword; Hamlet perhaps mistaking Polonius for Claudius. The scene continues after Polonius’ death with Hamlet further criticising his mother’s behaviour. As Hamlet does so, the Ghost appears again. Gertrude, however, cannot see the Ghost and becomes certain Hamlet is mad when she sees Hamlet addressing it.
- Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius’ death. Claudius responds by telling Gertrude that they must get Hamlet out of the country immediately. Hamlet later appears before Claudius and is told that he must leave for England. Hamlet agrees to go, although he is suspicious of Claudius’ motives. Afterwards we learn Hamlet’s suspicions to be justified as Claudius has prepared a letter for the King of England demanding that Hamlet be executed there.
- As Hamlet is leaving Denmark we meet for the first time the character of Fortinbras. Prince Fortinbras, through the pressure of his uncle, the present King of Norway, has given up his plans of attacking Denmark and instead, is on his way to fight a war with Poland over some disputed territory. To get to Poland he must pass through Denmark and has gained permission to do so.
- Some months have passed. Ophelia we learn has become insane, driven mad with grief over her father’s death and her failed relationship with Hamlet. Also, Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, has returned from France on hearing of the death of his father. Not knowing the full facts surrounding his father’s death and believing Claudius to be the agent of Polonius’ death, Laertes storms in upon the King, hell-bent on revenge. Claudius tells Laertes his version of what happened and then proposes a course of action, whereby Laertes can kill Hamlet, yet have it appear to be an accident. (The plan involves a fencing match or sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet, the latter having recently and unexpectedly returned to Denmark, aided in his return by pirates, who had boarded his ship and captured him.) As Claudius and Laertes plot Hamlet’s death, news comes, by way of the Queen, that Ophelia has drowned. Ophelia fell by accident into a brook, but allowed herself to be carried away, singing snatches of songs until the weight of her clothes caused her to drown.
- Act 5 begins at the cemetery at Elsinore where Ophelia’s grave is being dug. Hamlet comes upon the scene and talks with the gravedigger and his companion (characters sometimes called the clowns). He asks the gravedigger to tell him whose grave he is digging, but the gravedigger is unwilling to co-operate, responding to Hamlet’s questions with comic banter. Hamlet then muses on the theme of death and the meaning of life to Horatio, who accompanies him. Soon, however, Ophelia’s funeral procession arrives. The funeral is simple, conducted with the minimum of rites. Hamlet comments on this, saying to Horatio that the funeral must be of someone who had committed suicide. Hamlet then learns that the funeral is Ophelia’s.
- Meanwhile, at the funeral service Laertes appears to become overwrought with anger and grief over Ophelia’s death and leaps into Ophelia’s grave, cursing Hamlet. Hamlet, annoyed at what he sees as Laertes’ excessive behaviour, also leaps into the grave, where he proclaims his past love for Ophelia. The two struggle. They are eventually separated, however, with Horatio leading Hamlet off and Claudius telling Laertes to hold back his urge for revenge until the fencing match can be arranged.
- Also in this act we learn how Hamlet foiled the plan by Claudius to have him killed in England. Hamlet tells Horatio how he instituted his own scheme to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed in England instead. Shortly after telling Horatio this, a courtier named Osrick comes to Hamlet with a message from the King. The message asks Hamlet to take up a wager which the King has supposedly entered into with Laertes. The wager, concerning a fencing match, is of course part of the plot by Claudius to have Hamlet killed with the help of Laertes. Hamlet accepts the challenge.
- Before the match Hamlet apologies to Laertes for his behaviour at the grave site earlier. The match then takes place. Claudius and Laertes have taken various precautions to ensure than Hamlet is killed. Claudius intends using poisoned wine to kill Hamlet, while Laertes sword is also tipped with poison. During the contest, however, things go awry. Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned wine and both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded with the poisoned sword. Gertrude dies from the wine, thus alerting Hamlet to the situation he is in. Next, the dying Hamlet, on hearing of Claudius’ treachery from a repentant Laertes, wounds the King with the “envenomed” sword and makes Claudius drink the poisoned wine. Horatio wishes to die too, but Hamlet asks him not to kill himself. He asks Horatio to live so that the truth of what has happened can be told.
- The act ends with the stage littered with the dead bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius. Prince Fortinbras, having returned from his war in Poland, arrives on the scene and claims the throne of Denmark.