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complete summary of Shakespeare's Hamlet, including Act summaries, major character analysis, themes, motifs, symbols

in context

1st performed July 1602; mirrors real story of Danish prince; transforms revenge story into play whose problems resonate with fundamental concerns of Renaissance; demonstrates how difficult it is to know people and to understand motivations, feelings, mental states

Act I

The ghost of King Hamlet demands that his son Hamlet kill Claudius, the current king and Hamlet's uncle.
*watchmen & Horatio first to see ghost, they tell Hamlet
*Hamlet reluctantly agrees to stay in Denmark
*Polonius forbids Ophelia to see Hamlet & Laertes leaves for France

Act II

Hamlet pretends to be crazy, hesitates to kill Claudius, and increasingly feels alienated from everyone else.
*Ophelia tells Polonius that Hamlet has accosted her, acting crazy
*Hamlet feels betrayed by school friends and worries Gertrude and Claudius with crazy behavior


Reeling from Claudius's violent reaction to a play, Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius.
*Hamlet contemplates suicide and spurns Ophelia when he suspects that she has betrayed him
*Hamlet almost kills Claudius but because Claudius is praying hesitates
*Hamlet kills Polonius behind the curtain

Act IV

Claudius sends Hamlet to England, but Hamlet manages to return, resolved to kill Claudius.
*On way to England, Hamlet encounters Fortinbras of Norway, resolves to stop wallowing and start acting
*Ophelia goes mad and drowns, Laertes demands revenge and plots with Claudius

Act V

Denmark is purged of corruption as Claudius's treachery is exposed and everybody dies.
*Hamlet meets gravedigger, realizes all men turn to dust
*Gertrude drinks poison wine, Laertes stabs Hamlet, Hamlet stabs Laertes and Claudius
*Hamlet tells Horatio to live to tell story, Fortinbras to become king

Characters in Hamlet

Bernardo and Marcellus
Queen Gertrude
The Ghost
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Voltimand and Cornelius


more than meets eye, but not forthcoming about true nature; becomes obsessed with proving Claudius's guilt, plagued with questions about afterlife, suicide, what happens to bodies after death; discontent with state of Denmark, family, and world; contemplates own death and option of suicide


Hamlet's antagonist; shrewd king, contrast with other male characters; most concerned with power; politician; craftiness undoes him in the end


actions and feelings are hard to read; craves affection and has strong instinct for self-preservation; best in social situations


Hamlet's close friend. Loyal and helpful throughout the play. Only major character to survive past the last act.


Polonius's daughter, Laertes's sister, and Hamlet's sometime love. A sweet and innocent young girl, Ophelia obeys both Polonius and Laertes. Ophelia is smart and loving, but madness and death overtake her.


The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius's court, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Polonius is a pompous, conniving old man.


the impossibility of certainty
the complexity of action


incest and incestuous desire
ears and hearing- language is slippery


Yorick's skull

the impossibility of certainty

Hamlet questions what people around him take for granted- ghosts exist, ghost of Hamlet's father is what it appears to be, ghost has reliable information; wonders if our actions have intended consequences; refusal to act paralyzes Hamlet

the complexity of action

Hamlet questions if can act in controlled way; Claudius's power grab leads to his death


Hamlet ponders spiritual aftermath and physical remainders of death

incest and incestuous desire

Gertrude and Claudius were siblings-in-law, subtle hint found in Laertes' relationship with Ophelia; strongest overtones found between Hamlet and Gertrude

ears and hearing

language is slippery; communicate facts, but also distort truth, manipulate people, further corrupt quests for power

Yorick's skull

makes Hamlet think about inevitability of death and bodily disintegration; reveals fascination with physical consequences of death


draw explicit connections between moral legitimacy of ruler and the health of a nation; upright Fortinbras's rise to power suggests Denmark will be strengthened

major conflict

Hamlet struggles with doubts and difficulties as he considers killing his uncle Claudius to avenge his father's death.

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