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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE PLAY

THE PLOT

Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is at school in Wittenberg, Germany, when his father, King Hamlet, dies. He comes home to Elsinore Castle to find his mother, Queen Gertrude, married to his uncle Claudius, the late king's younger brother. Claudius has had himself crowned king. Soldiers guarding Elsinore report to Hamlet through his friend Horatio that his father's ghost has been seen on the battlements. Hamlet goes with them to see the ghost, which speaks to him, saying that Claudius has murdered the king by pouring poison in his ear and that he, Hamlet, must avenge his father's murder. Hamlet swears to do this, but his philosophic mind is deeply upset at the shock of his uncle's treachery and his mother's possible involvement in it.

In the meantime, three related series of events are happening at the Danish court. First, the nations of Denmark and Norway have been engaged in border disputes with each other and with the neighboring country of Poland; King Hamlet became a hero in the eyes of his people by winning one such battle. Now Fortinbras, son of the late king of Norway, and nephew of the present, ailing king, wants Claudius' permission to march his army through Danish territory on the way to fight the Poles.


Second, Claudius' chief adviser, the elderly Polonius, is troubled by the behavior of his hot-headed son, Laertes, and his sensitive daughter, Ophelia. He is sending Laertes off to Paris to acquire polish and courtly manners, and instructs young Reynaldo to spy on him and report back if he falls into bad company. As for Ophelia, both Polonius and Laertes are concerned that she may be becoming too attached to young Hamlet, who has been sending her trinkets and love poems. They caution her to be careful, since it's not likely that the heir to the throne would marry someone below his royal station.

Third, Claudius and Gertrude are concerned over Hamlet's behavior, which was moody before the ghost spoke to him and has become increasingly disturbed, though they of course do not know why. They send for two of his school friends from Wittenberg, the Danish nobles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to try to discover the source of his moodiness. Arriving at the court, these two try to cheer Hamlet with news of a traveling company of actors on their way to Elsinore. This gives him a solution to one of his major worries- how to determine whether the ghost is really his father's spirit and is telling the truth, or is an evil spirit sent to tempt him into sin. He will have the actors put on a play about a courtier who poisons a king and seduces the queen. Claudius' reaction to the play will reveal the truth.

Meanwhile, Ophelia tells her father about a disturbing encounter she has had with Hamlet, who was behaving strangely. Polonius concludes that Hamlet's frustrated love for her has made him go mad. To prove this to Claudius, he has his daughter confront Hamlet in a corridor where he and the king can spy on them. Hamlet comes in, musing on death and whether or not he has the right to take a man's life. When Ophelia interrupts him, he becomes emotionally violent, denies he ever loved her, and urges her to go into a convent. Claudius is greatly upset by the scene, which makes him begin to fear that Hamlet has found out the truth about his father's death.

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