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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE PLAY

THE PLOT

The performance of the play confirms Claudius' worst fears. During the pantomime prologue, Hamlet starts making double-edged remarks that drive Claudius out, angry and ashamed, when the actors have barely begun to speak. The court scatters in confusion, and Hamlet tells Horatio he is now totally convinced the ghost was telling the truth. Gertrude, furious with her son sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to tell him she wants to see him in private, in her chambers. On the way there Hamlet sees Claudius, defenseless, kneeling and attempting to pray. Hamlet thinks about killing him then and there, but holds back, believing that a man killed while praying would go to heaven, hardly a suitable punishment for Claudius' crimes. Hamlet cannot of course hear Claudius' thoughts, which are preoccupied with his inability to pray and his unwillingness to show true repentance by renouncing both the throne and his marriage to Gertrude.

Arriving at his mother's room, Hamlet is harsh and bitter with her, despite having promised himself (and earlier the ghost) to treat her gently. He accuses her of murder and incest- her new husband is her brother-in-law- attacking her so forcefully that Polonius, who has hidden behind a tapestry ("arras") in case she needs assistance, cries for help. Hamlet stabs what he thinks is Claudius, and is disappointed to learn he has killed only the meddling old man. Over the corpse, he tries to convince the now-frantic Gertrude to give up her second marriage. He is interrupted by the ghost, who reminds him that he has sworn to kill Claudius and leave his mother in peace. Their conversation convinces Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, that her son is indeed mad.


In the meantime, Claudius has worked out a plan: He will send Hamlet, guarded by his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on a diplomatic mission to England, carrying a sealed letter that asks the English king to arrest the troublesome heir and put him to death. After a bitter confrontation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern capture Hamlet and bundle him off to the ship bound for England. On the way there they pass Fortinbras' army marching to Poland. The sight makes Hamlet reflect on his failure to avenge his father, while Fortinbras is bringing honor to his.

When Ophelia learns of her father's death, she goes insane. Laertes returns from Paris, swearing vengeance on his father's murderer. The sight of his mad sister deflates his anger, and he allows Claudius to convince him that her madness is all Hamlet's fault. Meantime, Horatio learns that an unexpected stroke of luck has saved Hamlet's life: The ship he sailed on was attacked by pirates, who took him prisoner but let the others continue. Since Hamlet had discovered the treachery in Claudius' letter and replaced it with one requesting instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two have sailed to certain death. In return for the promise of ransom Hamlet is released by the pirates on the Danish coast.

Claudius, told of Hamlet's return, persuades Laertes to take his revenge in a formal duel, in which he will wound Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Before it takes place, the two have an unexpected clash in the graveyard where Ophelia, who has drowned herself, is being buried. Hamlet, who did not know of her death, is shocked into anger at the sight of Laertes leaping emotionally into the grave, and the two young men nearly get into a brawl over her coffin.

Having received Laertes' formal challenge, Hamlet apologizes to him graciously before the assembled court and the duel begins. They are evenly matched, so Claudius attempts to improve the odds by offering Hamlet a cup of poisoned wine, which, however, Queen Gertrude drinks. Laertes manages to wound Hamlet with the poisoned sword, but in the scuffle that follows they switch weapons and Laertes is wounded with it, too. Feeling the effect of the poisoned wine, Gertrude collapses, and the court finally realizes what Claudius has been up to. Hamlet at last achieves his revenge by stabbing Claudius with the poisoned weapon. Laertes, dying, confesses and begs Hamlet's forgiveness. Hamlet has just enough strength left to stop Horatio from drinking the dregs of the poisoned wine, and dies in his friend's arms, begging him to tell the world the true story. Fortinbras, whom Hamlet names as his successor, arrives in time to claim the throne and lament the horrible events.

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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