Summary of Hamlet: A Comprehensive Overview

hamlet summary
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Hamlet, also known as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is perhaps William Shakespeare's most famous play, believed to have been written around 1600 and set in Denmark. At its core, the story follows young Prince Hamlet's quest for justice after his uncle Claudius kills Hamlet's father, the King. However, Hamlet is not your typical revenge-driven character. He's complex, grappling with moral questions and constantly questioning his actions.

This inner turmoil makes Hamlet a compelling and relatable character, which is why the play has been retold and adapted countless times, even in popular culture like The Lion King. It's considered a masterpiece of literature, resonating with audiences throughout the ages.

Let's continue reading to explore the main themes and symbolism further with our essay writing service. Whether you're looking for a brief Hamlet summary in 100 words or a more detailed analysis, our seamless breakdown has you covered.


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Hamlet Characters

Let's first delve into a brief character analysis of the key figures in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Hamlet Characters

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is the son of the late King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude. Returning from his studies, he is confronted with his father's death and his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle Claudius. Hamlet's suspicions are confirmed when the ghost of his father appears, revealing Claudius as the culprit behind his murder. This revelation sets Hamlet on a path of vengeance.

King Claudius, the brother of the deceased King Hamlet, seizes power by murdering his brother and marrying Queen Gertrude. He is depicted as cunning and manipulative, driven by base desires. Unlike Hamlet, Claudius acts impulsively without much regard for morality, as seen in his poisoning of King Hamlet before the play begins.

Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, remarries Claudius shortly after King Hamlet's death. Despite the circumstances, she appears unconcerned about her husband's murder, leading Hamlet to resent her.

Polonius, the chief counselor of the King, is the father of Ophelia and Laertes. He is portrayed as an unlikeable character, described by Hamlet as a "tedious old fool." His meddling in Hamlet's affairs ultimately leads to his accidental death at the hands of the prince.

Ophelia, Hamlet's love interest, is Polonius's daughter and Laertes's sister. Despite her affection for Hamlet, she is manipulated by her father and brother, which contributes to her descent into madness and eventual suicide.

The Ghost of Hamlet's Father appears to Hamlet, urging him to seek revenge against Claudius. His appearances throughout the play serve as catalysts for Hamlet's actions.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, are tasked by Claudius to spy on the prince. However, Hamlet sees through their deception, and they meet their demise at the hands of pirates.

Horatio, described as Hamlet's true friend, is the only character who remains loyal to him. While his background remains unclear, he serves as a steadfast companion to Hamlet and survives the events of the play.

Hamlet Summary

This Hamlet summary offers a concise look at the play's plot, serving as a handy guide. Despite its lengthy and detailed nature, understanding the sequence of events, themes, and symbolism can greatly enhance your essay on Hamlet. Keep reading our Hamlet analysis to discover key themes explored in the play. And while you're at it, don't miss out on the Lord of the Flies book summary for more insights.

Act 1

Prince Hamlet serves as the central character in the play. Prior to the events of the play, Claudius kills King Hamlet, Hamlet's father, marries Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and claims the throne.

The setting of the play is the Kingdom of Denmark, which has long been at odds with Norway, fostering fears of invasion. One chilly night, while on patrol, two sentries, Bernardo and Marcellus, along with Hamlet's friend Horatio, encounter the ghost of King Hamlet. They pledge to inform Hamlet about the apparition.

The following day, during the court proceedings presided over by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet is consumed by despair. He struggles to come to terms with his mother's swift marriage to Claudius following his father's death.

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

Horatio meets Hamlet and tells him about the ghost, and Hamlet is determined to see it. Elsewhere, during the royal court, we meet Polonius, his son Laertes, and his daughter Ophelia. Polonius says his farewells to Laertes, who is heading off to France, giving him solid fatherly advice:

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

Before he leaves, Laertes warns his sister Ophelia to avoid Hamlet and to stop overthinking his attention towards her.

At night, on the ramparts, the ghost appears to Hamlet, and tells him that Claudius is behind is murder. The ghost urges Hamlet to avenge his death and vanishes. Hamlet tells his sentries and Horatio that they must put on an act, acting was if Hamlet had gone mad to disguise his plans for revenge. However, deep inside, Hamlet is unsure of whether to trust this ghost.

Act 2

The scene opens with Ophelia hurriedly reporting to her father, Polonius, about Hamlet's peculiar behavior. Polonius advises her to ignore Hamlet's advances, attributing his behavior to love-induced madness. He then proceeds to inform King Claudius and Queen Gertrude about Hamlet's demeanor. In the royal chambers, we are introduced to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, whom the king and queen have tasked with investigating Hamlet's odd conduct.

Polonius shares his concerns about Hamlet's behavior and his theory about Hamlet's love interest. He even attempts to converse with Hamlet directly, but Hamlet feigns madness and mocks Polonius. Upon meeting his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet quickly discerns their role as spies.

The two acquaintances, having arrived with a troupe of actors, stage a play about the Trojan War at Hamlet's request. Impressed by their performance, Hamlet devises a plan to present another play, 'The Murder of Gonzago,' before Claudius. The plot mirrors the circumstances of King Hamlet's death, and Hamlet hopes to gauge Claudius's reaction to determine his guilt or innocence.

Act 2, Scene 2 “The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil…

I’ll have grounds

More relative than this”

Hamlet does not trust the ghost and seeks firmer evidence against Claudius.

Act 3

In the next act, we see Polonius forcing Ophelia to return to Hamlet all of his tokens of love and study Hamlet’s reaction. Meanwhile, Hamlet is walking around the halls, giving his famous monologue.

Act 3, Scene 1 “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.”

Hamlet reflects on the bleakness of life, expressing his belief that suffering outweighs joy and that fear of the unknown prevents people from ending their lives.

When Ophelia returns tokens of love to Hamlet, he reacts with anger, leaving uncertainty about whether his emotions are genuine or if he is merely feigning madness. Claudius observes Hamlet's response and concludes that his madness is not love-induced.

During the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," organized by Hamlet, he closely watches Claudius and studies his reactions. The play deeply disturbs Claudius, prompting him to abruptly leave and decide to send Hamlet to England. Hamlet, having observed Claudius's response, becomes convinced of his guilt in King Hamlet's murder.

Gertrude summons Hamlet to her chambers in distress. On his way, he encounters Claudius praying. Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius while he is praying, fearing that it would send his soul to heaven.

Upon reaching Gertrude's chambers, Hamlet engages in a heated argument with his mother. Hearing a noise behind a curtain, he impulsively stabs through it, mistakenly killing Polonius, who was hiding there.

The ghost of King Hamlet appears to Hamlet, warning him not to delay his revenge or further distress his mother. As Gertrude cannot see the ghost, she becomes more convinced of Hamlet's madness. The scene concludes with Hamlet dragging Polonius's corpse away.

Act 4

Gertrude informs Claudius about Hamlet's actions, revealing that he has killed Polonius. In response, Claudius arranges for Hamlet to be sent to England, secretly plotting his demise there. He entrusts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a sealed letter for the King of England, ordering Hamlet's execution. However, Hamlet discovers the letter and switches it with a forged one, condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death instead. Meanwhile, King Fortinbras of Norway is mobilizing his army to invade Poland, crossing through Denmark.

As these events unfold, Ophelia descends into madness following her father's death and Hamlet's rejection. She wanders the countryside, distributing symbolic flowers and speaking in nonsensical rhymes. Her madness escalates until she drowns, though it remains unclear whether her death is accidental or intentional.

Laertes, Ophelia's brother, returns from France and is infuriated by his father's death and his sister's descent into madness. Convinced by Claudius that Hamlet is to blame, Laertes agrees to a plan for revenge. Claudius proposes a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet, with Laertes wielding a poison-tipped foil. Additionally, Claudius plans to poison Hamlet's wine as a backup measure. However, the match is interrupted by Gertrude's sudden announcement of Ophelia's tragic demise.

Act 5

In the fifth act, we encounter an iconic scene featuring two gravediggers discussing Ophelia's death or possible suicide while preparing her grave. Hamlet, accompanied by Horatio, joins the conversation and interacts with one of the gravediggers, who presents him with the skull of a jester from Hamlet's childhood. Reflecting on mortality, Hamlet muses, 'Alas, poor Yorick,' contemplating the inevitability of death.

Act 5, Scene 1 “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”.

Hamlet reflects on how even those attempting to evade divine punishment cannot escape death's grasp.

As Ophelia's funeral procession approaches with Laertes leading, Hamlet and Horatio conceal themselves. Upon realizing Ophelia's identity, Hamlet reveals himself, leading to a tense confrontation between him and Laertes at the graveside, which is ultimately interrupted.

Back at Elsinore, Hamlet confides in Horatio about his journey, revealing Claudius's plot to have him killed. Hamlet's manipulation of Claudius's letter to ensure the demise of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is disclosed. Soon after, a courtier delivers a fencing challenge to Hamlet, which he accepts despite Horatio's protests.

Before the duel, Hamlet discovers Claudius's bet on his victory, part of a scheme to cover up his attempt on Hamlet's life. Uninterested in earning his uncle's respect, Hamlet proceeds with the match.

During the duel, Hamlet gains the upper hand, prompting Gertrude to raise a toast with the poisoned goblet intended for Hamlet by Claudius. As she drinks, Claudius attempts to intervene, but it's too late. Laertes, realizing the plan is unraveling, wounds Hamlet with the poisoned rapier. In the ensuing struggle, they exchange weapons, and Laertes is also injured by the poisoned blade. Gertrude collapses and succumbs to the poison.

In his final moments, Laertes reconciles with Hamlet, revealing Claudius's treachery. Hamlet, accepting Laertes's apology, rushes to Claudius and kills him.

As Hamlet feels the poison taking hold, he learns of Fortinbras's approach and appoints him as his successor to the throne. Horatio, nearly succumbing to despair, is urged by Hamlet to live and recount their story before Hamlet breathes his last in his friend's arms.

Fortinbras arrives at the palace, where he discovers the entire Danish royal family deceased. Assuming the throne, Fortinbras orders a dignified military funeral for Hamlet, honoring him as a fallen soldier.

Understanding Main Hamlet Themes

There are many themes within this iconic play, causing it to be one of the most discussed pieces of literature ever.

Understanding Main Hamlet Themes

Action vs. Inaction: This theme revolves around Hamlet's internal conflict regarding whether to take action or remain passive. He constantly questions the morality of his decisions, particularly when it comes to seeking revenge for his father's murder. Hamlet's indecision drives discussions on morality throughout the play, ultimately leading to profound contemplations on life and death.

Religion, Honor, and Revenge: In Hamlet, characters often lecture each other on how to behave according to religious and aristocratic values. These values demand honor and justify seeking revenge to uphold one's reputation. However, as the story progresses, Hamlet becomes conflicted by the conflicting moral codes, leading to confusion about what constitutes justice and honorable behavior.

Appearance vs. Reality: This theme highlights the contrast between how things appear and their true nature. Characters in Hamlet often hide their true intentions behind facades, leading to misunderstandings and deception. Everyone is engaged in spying and attempting to decipher each other's true motives, adding layers of complexity to the relationships and events in the play.

Women's Roles: Hamlet's perception of women and their societal roles is explored throughout the play. He harbors a dark view of women, influenced by his mother's actions and his own experiences. Hamlet's disillusionment with women leads him to view them as deceitful and driven by sexual desire, shaping his interactions with female characters like Ophelia and Gertrude.

Historical and Societal Values: Hamlet also delves into broader themes related to historical and societal values prevalent in Elizabethan England. The play offers insights into the codes of conduct and power dynamics of the time, exposing the corruption within the monarchy and reflecting on the moral complexities of society. Through various scenes and characters, Hamlet sheds light on the social and political landscape of its time.

Dissecting Symbolism in Hamlet

This play does contain symbols but does not exaggerate their use. Here are a brief breakdown of the main symbols from our college essay writing service:

The Ghost: The Ghost in Hamlet serves as a symbol of impending doom and unrest in the state of Denmark. It is often interpreted as a harbinger of troubled times and represents the unresolved issues surrounding King Hamlet's death.

Ophelia's Flowers: Ophelia's flowers symbolize her descent into madness and her feelings of betrayal. As she distributes flowers to various characters, each flower carries symbolic meaning, reflecting Ophelia's inner turmoil and cry for help. Shakespeare may also use this symbolism to critique the characters' inability to understand or interpret symbols effectively.

The Skull of the Jester: Perhaps one of the most famous symbols in the play, the skull of the jester represents death, decay, and the futility of human existence. When Hamlet encounters the skull, it prompts reflections on mortality and the transient nature of life.

Poison: Poison serves as a symbol of deceit, betrayal, and corruption throughout the play. Claudius's use of poison to murder King Hamlet foreshadows the tragic events that unfold. The innocent-looking fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, tainted by poisoned blades and wine, underscores the pervasive corruption within the royal family.

Weather: Shakespeare utilizes the weather as a symbolic element to set the mood and foreshadow events. Bad weather often serves as an omen of impending trouble or unrest, while good weather symbolizes hope or positive developments. However, these symbols can be ambiguous and prone to overinterpretation, serving primarily to enhance the atmosphere of the play.

For an in-depth look at the symbolism, check our article: WHAT IS SYMBOLISM? REVIEWING EXAMPLES IN LITERATURE.

Final Words

In wrapping up, we hope this summary of Hamlet has shed light on its timeless brilliance, offering you valuable insights into its themes and symbolism. As one of Shakespeare's most celebrated works, Hamlet continues to captivate audiences with its exploration of morality, deception, and the human condition. And remember, you can always buy essay writing service from us whenever you need them.

We trust that our breakdown has provided clarity and depth, empowering students to engage more deeply with this iconic play. For those eager for more literary exploration, be sure to check out our Pride and Prejudice summary. Happy reading!


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Adam Jason

Adam Jason

is an expert in nursing and healthcare, with a strong background in history, law, and literature. Holding advanced degrees in nursing and public health, his analytical approach and comprehensive knowledge help students navigate complex topics. On EssayPro blog, Adam provides insightful articles on everything from historical analysis to the intricacies of healthcare policies. In his downtime, he enjoys historical documentaries and volunteering at local clinics.

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