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Hamlet: the Summary, Themes, and Symbolism of Shakespeare’s Classic Play

Hamlet: the Summary, Themes, and Symbolism of Shakespeare’s Classic Play

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark or otherwise known as Hamlet, is well-known and revered as William Shakespeare’s most famous play. It is believed to have been written sometime around 1600, and is set in Denmark.

The play sees young Prince Hamlet set on a quest for revenge. His evil uncle Claudius has killed the King of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. But Hamlet is not just a blind revenge seeker who wants to kill his evil uncle and usurp the throne. He is intellectual, seeking moral ground, questioning himself and the justice of his actions. This inner dialogue of Hamlet is what makes the character such a compelling study, and so relevant a character model to present day.

Hamlet has been retold and readapted countlessly, like in our childhood’s favorite film The Lion King, and is widely considered one of the all time greatest works of literature.


Table of Contents

Hamlet Characters

Hamlet

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, son of the deceased King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet had just returned from his studies to find his father dead, and his mother married to his Uncle Claudius. Hamlet’s darkest suspicions are confirmed when the ghost of his father, the deceased King Hamlet, appears to tell that Uncle Claudius was behind his death. This inciting incident sends Hamlet on a mission of revenge.

Claudius

King Claudius is the brother of King Hamlet Sr. He kills the King, and takes his wife and throne. Claudius is portrayed as a cunning and manipulative character, driven by basic instincts. Unlike Hamlet, Claudius kills and manipulates without putting much thought into the morals behind his actions. Before the play opens, Claudius seizes the throne by pouring poison into King Hamlet’s ear, killing him, and passing it off as an attack by a snake.

Gertrude

Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother who was formally married to King Hamlet Sr. After his death, she became married to Claudius. Gertrude does not seem guilty in her marriage to the man who killed her husband, and Hamlet resents her for that.

Polonius

This character is the chief counselor of the King. He is also the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia and her brother Laertes. Polonius is an unlikeable character in the play, described as a big disrespectful mouth. Hamlet refers to him in Act II as a “tedious old fool.” After Polonius convinces Claudius to spy on Hamlet, he is killed by Hamlet by accident, triggering Ophelia’s madness and death and play’s climax duel between Hamlet and Laertes.

Ophelia

Ophelia is Hamlet’s girlfriend in the play. She is the daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. Ophelia’s brother and father try to break her up with Hamlet, Polonius even forbidding her to marry him. After her father’s death, Ophelia becomes mad, talking in riddles and rhymes, acting very strange. She dies by suicide.

The Ghost

The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is often referred to King Hamlet to distinguish him from his son. The ghost has three appearances throughout the play. He appears once to soldiers in the beginning, once to Hamlet sending him on a mission of revenge, and lastly to Hamlet again, rebuking him for not having killed Claudius yet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

These two characters always appear together. They are childhood friends of the protagonist who were commanded by King Claudius to watch over the prince and find out the source of his madness. They are portrayed as flatterers and sycophants, and Hamlet sees through their guise. Pirates kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shortly before Act V.

Horatio

Horatio is described as Hamlet’s friend. He is the only person in the play who is actually on Hamlet’s human side. It is unclear what the origins of Horatio are, or whether he is noble and holds a position in court. Horatio is the only major character who survives the events of the play.

The Play: Hamlet Summary

This Hamlet summary deals with the plot, and can be used as a reference for what happens in the play. The Hamlet play is actually around six hours long and very detailed, but you can still ace your Hamlet essay by just knowing the sequence of events, themes, and the symbolism used in the play. Read on until the end to learn more about the themes prevalent throughout the play.

Act 1

Prince Hamlet is the protagonist of the play. Before the play begins, Claudius murders King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father, marries his widow Gertrude, and seizes the throne.

The Kingdom of Denmark, where the play is set, has had a long-time feud with Norway and have feared an invasion from their neighbors for quite some time. During a casual cold night patrol, two sentries Bernardo and Marcellus and Hamlet’s friend Horatio see the ghost of the late King Hamlet. They vow to tell Hamlet about the ghost.

The next day, during the court of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet is in despair. He finds it hard to believe that his mother married Claudius so rapidly after his father’s death.

Hamlet, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude

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

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 daughter Ophelia. Polonius says his farewells to Laertes, who is heading off to France, giving him solid fatherly advice:

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

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 act opens up with Ophelia rushing to her father and telling him that Hamlet is behaving very strangely. Polonius tells her to ignore all of Hamlet’s advances, saying says that love has driven Hamlet mad. Next, he and goes to inform Claudius and Gertrude about the prince’s behavior. Here, in the King and Queen’s chambers, we also meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two childhood friends of Hamlet. The royal couple tasked the two to investigate the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior.

Polonius tells the King and queen about Hamlet’s behavior and his theory about Hamlet being in love. He even speaks to Hamlet himself, but Hamlet fakes being mad and insults Polonius. When Hamlet meets his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he quickly realizes that they are spies.

The two scholars came from Elsinore with a troupe of actors, whom Hamlet asks to put on several plays. They stage a play about the Trojan War, and Hamlet, being impressed, plots to stage another play called The Murder of Gonzago in front of Claudius. The events of this play are similar to what Claudius did with King Hamlet, and Hamlet seeks to study Claudius’s reaction 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 not trusting the ghost, and seeking 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.

“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 musing on life and death, saying he’s at a point that he only sees suffering in life, and that the only thing stopping us from killing ourselves is fear of the unknown.

Ophelia and Hamlet

When Ophelia enters to return Hamlet’s tokens of love, he lashes out at her, and it is unclear whether he is sincere or he is just playing the mad prince. Claudius sees Hamlet’s reaction, concluding that he is not mad for love.

During thee Murder of Gonzago play organized by Hamlet, the prince watches Claudius closely and studies his reactions. The play disturbs Claudius and he storms out of the room, resolving to send Hamlet away to England. After studying his reaction, Hamlet is confident that Claudius is guilty of killing his father.

Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, summons Hamlet to her chambers in distress. On the way he stumbles upon Claudius who is kneeling, attempting to pray and repent. Hamlet believes that if he kills Claudius in prayer his soul will go to heaven, therefore deciding to spare his life.

At Gertrude’s chambers, Polonius is hiding behind some curtains to protect Gertrude from her unpredictable son. Hamlet arrives and has a loud fight with his mother. He hears something moving behind the curtain, and stabs the tapestry thinking it’s Claudius, accidentally killing Polonius instead.

The ghost reappears to Hamlet, warning him to not delay his revenge or to upset his mother. Gertrude cannot see the ghost, which further fuels her belief that Hamlet has gone mad. The scene ends with Hamlet dragging the corpse of Polonius away.


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Act 4

Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet killed Polonius. Hamlet is sent to England by Claudius, who conspires to have him killed there. He leaves a sealed letter for the King of England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The letter instructs the King to kill Hamlet. Hamlet discovers Claudius’s letter and forges an alternative letter, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed in his place. Around this time, King Fortinbras of Norway is crossing Denmark with his army, aiming to attack Poland.

Meanwhile, Ophelia had gone mad at the death of her father and at Hamlet’s rejection. She goes around handing out symbolic flowers and talking in rhymes. Her madness reaches a climax and she drowns. It is uncertain whether her drowning is accidental or suicide.

Ophelia has drowned

Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, who had just come back from France, is enraged by Polonius’s death and his sister’s madness. After a session with Claudius, Laertes is convinced that Hamlet is responsible for everything. After learning that Claudius’s plan with killing Hamlet failed, he proposes that he and Laertes face off in a fencing match. Laertes will be given a poison-tipped foil, and Claudius will poison Hamlet’s wine glass (in case he wins) to make sure he dies. The scene is interrupted by Gertrude, who reports that Ophelia has drowned.

Act 5

In the fifth act, we have an iconic scene with two gravediggers discussing the death or suicide of Ophelia while preparing her grave. Hamlet comes by with Horatio and talks with one of the gravediggers, who takes out a skull of a jester which Hamlet remembers from his childhood. Hamlet looks at the skull and says “alas, poor Yorick” and thinks about death and mortality.

“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)

Hamlet thinking how even those trying to evade God’s punishments cannot escape death.

Ophelia’s funeral procession comes with Laertes in the lead. Hamlet and Horatio hide, but as soon as Hamlet finds out that this is Ophelia who died, he reveals himself. Laertes and Hamlet have a showdown at the graveside, but the fight is broken up.

At Elsinore, Hamlet tells Horatio what happened on his journey, that Claudius ordered his death, but Hamlet reforged the letter to order the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. This is when a courtier delivers the fencing challenge to Hamlet, who accepts it despite Horatio’s pleas.

Before the duel, Hamlet learns that Claudius bet on him winning the duel against Laertes. The bet is part of Claudius’s scheme to cover up the fact that he tried to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet has no interest in gaining his evil uncle’s respect, even less winning him the bet.

King Claudius

During the match, Hamlet is in the lead. Gertrude raises a toast for him, using the poisoned glass that Claudios intended for Hamlet. Claudius tries to stop her, but she drinks the glass. Laertes, realizing that it is all about to go south, slashes Hamlet with the poisoned rapier. In a scuffle, they switch weapons, and Laertes also gets wounded by the poisoned blade. Gertrude falls to the floor, poisoned, and dies. In his dying seconds, Laertes reconciles and tells the whole plan to Hamlet. Before he dies, Laertes reconciles with Hamlet, and both accept each other’s apology. Hamlet then runs to Claudius and kills him.

As the poison is about to take Hamlet too, he hears that the Norwegian King Fortinbras and army is marching through the Danish area. He names Fortinbras as his successor to the throne. Horatio almost commits suicide in Hamlet’s honor, but Hamlet tells him to live to tell the story before dying in Horatio’s arms.

Fortinbras arrives at the palace to bring news of the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Seeing the whole Danish royal family dead on the floor, the prince takes the crown and orders an honorable military funeral for Hamlet. He is buried as a soldier.

Hamlet Themes

There are many themes within this iconic play, causing it to be one of the most discussed pieces of literature ever. One of the most prominent themes is the theme of action vs. inaction, where Hamlet continuously questions the morality of his decisions, whether he should kill or not kill, to be or not to be. The most exciting thing about Hamlet is not his actions, but rather his inactions that fuel these discussions of morality. This theme ties in directly with the theme of death.

The theme of religion, honor, and revenge is very prominent in this play. Characters in Hamlet constantly lecture each other on how to act; Claudius ‘parent talks’ Hamlet on how to properly show grief; Polonius lectures Laertes on how he should behave at university; Hamlet lectures himself in his monologues on what he should do. The codes of conduct in this play are largely based on religion and aristocratic values which demand honor, stating that revenge is necessary if honor has been spoiled.

However, as the play progresses, Hamlet finds out that these codes of conduct are contradictory. Religious codes oppose revenge, saying that revenge could put Hamlet’s soul in danger. The idea of justice becomes confused, and Hamlet’s own musing on the idea of revenge slowly muddies his judgement. Some scholars even say that after Hamlet returns from his trip to England and encounter with pirates, he behaves very differently, as if he’s talked himself out of killing Claudius. The theory goes that Hamlet’s lust for revenge is refuelled with the death of Ophelia and Claudius’s intimidations and attempts at having him killed.

Another prevalent theme is appearance vs. reality as each character is trying to find out what the other characters think. Everybody is spying and deciphering everybody else.

Women are another often discussed theme of the play. Especially how the protagonist sees women and their social positions. Hamlet’s view of women is dark, and his pretend madness sometimes becomes actual madness when he gets furious at women. His mother’s actions prove to him that women are not to be trusted, that their beauty is just deceit and sexual desire.

Other themes of Hamlet dive less into the actual play but the history and societal values. Many scenes from Hamlet exemplify the English codes of conduct at the time or expose the corrupt and greedy nature of the English monarchy.

Symbolism in Hamlet

This play does contain symbols but does not exaggerate their use. The symbols are evident and apparent, for example, the Ghost. The Ghost is usually understood as a symbol of hard times coming ahead, being regarded as a bad omen in the state of Denmark.

The second symbol we see are the flowers of Ophelia, which appear just as she begins losing her mind. She gives everybody flowers, describing what it stands for, and expressing her feelings of betrayal by offering the flowers so symbolically. It can be interpreted as a cry for help in disguise and could be seen as Shakespeare poking fun at how nobody understands symbols and what they mean.

For an in-depth look at symbolism, check our article:
What Is Symbolism? Reviewing Examples in Literature

The third symbol is probably the most famous one for the play; it’s the skull of the jester, which Hamlet picks up. In the play, its regarded as the symbol of death, decay, and the uselessness of a person after their death. The skull makes Hamlet think about his destiny and how we all turn to dust when we die.

Poison is another symbol in the play, representing deceit, betrayal and corruption. Claudius uses the poison to kill King Hamlet, foreshadowing the ending. The innocent fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, appears to be deceitful and corrupted, as each blade is poisoned, along with Hamlet’s wine. Poison also works as a metaphor, as the whole royal family has been ‘poisoned’ from the very beginning, betraying and corrupting each other.

Shakespeare also uses things like the weather to set the scene; when the weather is bad, it’s an omen. When it’s good, it means good times are coming. However, the symbols are ambiguous and can be over-interpreted while just being props to set the mood.

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