Scene i: The play opens in the dead of night on the walls of Elsinore Castle. Gloom, uncertainty and anxiety hang over the kingdom of Denmark, the first words spoken coming as the sentinel’s challenge, “Who’s there?” In short order we learn from the guard of the night watch that the long-time King of Denmark, “Old Hamlet” or “Ur-Hamlet,” died mysteriously just two months earlier, that his brother, Claudius, has taken the throne, and that Claudius has married the dead king’s wife, Queen Gertrude. The members of the watch, including Prince Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio, are further alarmed over the recent appearance of a ghost who resembles Hamlet’s late father, and they plan to tell Hamlet about this disturbing apparition.
(Jump to the text of Act I, Scene i)Scene ii: The play now shifts to the royal court of King Claudius and his new wife, Queen Gertrude, as we first see Hamlet’s uncle dealing capably with affairs of state. In this, he is advised by his chief counselor, Polonius, and the King has a cordial exchange with his minister’s son, Laertes. Hamlet, however, remains in the background, a surly figure muttering resentful asides. Claudius rejects Hamlet’s request to return to college at Wittenberg, and urges him to cease his “unmanly” mourning for his father. When the royal entourage departs, Hamlet speaks a soliloquy about his resentments toward his stepfather, his mother, and their incestuous marriage. Horatio and his cohorts arrive and tell the prince about the ghost they have seen.
Hamlet vows to observe it himself. (Jump to the text of Act I, Scene ii)Scene iii:The scene is comprised of an exchange among Polonius, his son Laertes and his daughter, Ophelia. The young maiden Ophelia reveals to her father and brother that Prince Hamlet is “madly” in love with her. Both Polonius and Laertes strongly warn her about any romance with a prince of the realm, particularly one who seems to be mentally unbalanced. (Jump to the text of Act I, Scene iii)Scenes iv-v: Back at the walls of the castle, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks to his son directly and urges him to follow him to a one-on-one encounter. Hamlet has misgivings, but he obeys and the ghost then confirms that he is, in fact, the dead King. He also discloses that he was the victim of a murder, that Claudius poured poison into his ear while he was asleep.
The Ghost tells Hamlet that this heinous crime must be avenged and that it falls to his son to exact justice by killing Claudius. The Ghost also says that the Queen’s fate must be left to heaven. The Ghost departs and the Hamlet swears Horatio and Marcellus (another member of the watch) to secrecy. He then reveals to them that he will pretend to be mad as a ruse to further his emerging plan of revenge.
(Jump to the text of Act I, Scene iv-v) Act IIScene i: Polonius sends a servant to spy on Laertes who has returned to Paris to continue his studies. Ophelia enters and tells her father that Hamlet is acting in an insane way. Polonius says that he will tell King Claudius about his stepson’s lunacy. (Jump to the text of Act II, Scene i)Scene ii: In the royal court the King and Queen welcome two of Hamlet’s college friends—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—and Claudius asks that they keep an eye on the melancholy Prince. Polonius enters with the report about Hamlet’s madness from Ophelia, and suggests that he arrange for the King to eavesdrop on a conversation between his daughter and the Prince.
Polonius encounters Hamlet, and the Prince acts in a seemingly “mad” way, although the aged counselor suspects that there may be a “method” (ulterior purpose) behind Hamlet’s insanity. A troupe of actors arrive at Elsinore, and Hamlet arranges for them to perform a modified version of a play titled “The Murder of Gonzago.” His intention is to watch Claudius during the performance for telltale signs of guilt. (Jump to the text of Act II, Scene ii) Act IIIScene i: Polonius and Claudius carry out their plan to watch Hamlet while he speaks with Ophelia. Hamlet enters and issues a wild diatribe against women, insulting and rejecting Ophelia and thereby showing his madness.
Claudius tells Polonius that he has decided to send Hamlet on a mission to England in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (Jump to the text of Act III, Scene i)Scene ii: With lines added to their script by Hamlet, the actors, including a Player King and a Player Queen, perform a silent introduction to a play-within-a-play with a plot that closely resembles Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father. As Hamlet expects, Claudius is visibly distressed by the guilt that this dumb-show evokes. Hamlet is then summoned to a talk with his mother. Before going to see Gertrude, Hamlet expresses great anger toward her but he recalls his ghost father’s words to leave her punishment to heaven.
(Jump to the text of Act III, Scene ii)Scene iii: Polonius informs the King that Hamlet is about to speak with his mother, and that he plans to eavesdrop on their talk. Alone on stage, Claudius reveals profound guilt about his crime, and says that it so evil a deed that he is unable to seek God’s forgiveness for it. The King nevertheless falls to his knees in prayer. Hamlet sees the King in this vulnerable posture and considers killing him. But he exercises restraint instead, justifying the delay through the thought that killing Claudius while at prayer might yield the villain-king’s salvation. He decides that he will wait until Claudius is provoked into anger before slaying him. (Jump to the text of Act III, Scene iii)Scene iv: In Queen Gertrude’s chambers, Polonius hides behind a curtain to secretly witness her interaction with the Prince.
Hamlet appears, and his irate demeanor causes the Queen to become frightened and to call out for help. Polonius also cries out for help, and Hamlet then stabs him behind the curtain, mistaking the counselor for King Claudius. Hamlet expresses only modest regret for this mistake. He immediately proceeds to condemn his mother, comparing the virtues of her first husband to the vices of Claudius.
The Ghost re-appears to Hamlet (although not to Gertrude), and reminds his son of the vow to treat Gertrude with pity. Hamlet urges his mother to confess her part in Old Hamlet’s death and leaves carrying the body of Polonius with him. (Jump to the text of Act III, Scene iv) Act IVScenes i-ii: Gertrude tells Claudius about the death of Polonius, and the King directs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to recover the counselor’s corpse. The two students confront Hamlet, who mocks them, refuses to tell them where the body is hidden, but then agrees to see the King. (Jump to the text of Act IV, Scenes i-ii)Scene iii: At court, Claudius tells his noblemen that Hamlet has become a threat to the kingdom, yet he fears to act directly against him because of the Prince’s popularity. Instead, Claudius tells his liegemen that he will exile Hamlet to England.
Now in custody, Hamlet is informed of his “mission” to England. When all save Claudius have left the stage, Claudius confides that he is sending sealed letters to the King of England, asking that monarch to kill Hamlet. (Jump to the text of Act III, Scene iv)Scenes iv: On a field in Denmark, Hamlet and his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, come across a captain from an army led by the Norwegian prince Fortinbras. They learn that this armed force is on its way to war with Poland over a small plot of land.
Hamlet derides himself for being unable to kill Claudius while the men of Fortinbras’s army die for a far less justifiable cause. (Jump to the text of Act IV, Scenes iv)Scene v: Gertrude is informed that Ophelia has gone insane. Ophelia enters and her behavior attests to this news, as she sings a morbid, distracted song about a dead lover. A messenger arrives and tells the King and Queen that Laertes, angered at news of his father’s death, has returned from France and is now at the castle gates with a large army, demanding an explanation of Polonius’s death. Claudius enlists the irate Laertes in a plot to kill Hamlet.
(Jump to the text of Act IV, Scene v)Scene vi-vii: Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet which tells of the Prince’s being captured by pirates who have agreed to release him while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue on to England. Claudius and Laertes conspire to kill Hamlet during a “sporting” duel using a sharpened and poisoned fencing sword. The King puts forth a back-up plan to offer Hamlet a poisoned glass of wine during this context. Word comes that the troubled Ophelia has committed suicide. (Jump to the text of Act IV, Scene vi-vii) Act VScene i: The action takes place in a graveyard as preparations are made to give Ophelia a Christian burial even though she has committed the sin of suicide. Hamlet meditates upon the subject of human mortality, some of his thoughts coming as he holds the skull of the dead court jester, Yorick, in his hand. Laertes and a funeral procession arrive with Ophelia’s corpse. Hamlet and Laertes grapple with each other, literally falling into the grave.
(Jump to the text of Act I, Scene i)Scene ii: In the play’s concluding scene, Hamlet tells Horatio that he has altered the King’s sealed document so that it asks for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Through the foppish character Osric, Hamlet is challenged to a duel with Laertes. Hamlet suspects foul play, but expresses his resolve to take part in the contest even if it means his own death. In a rapid series of events, Hamlet is mortally wounded, as is Laertes, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup, and a dying Hamlet first wounds Claudius and then forces him to drink from the same lethal cup. Hamlet and Laertes forgive each other, and Hamlet then names Fortinbras as his successor to the throne after dissuading Horatio from joining him in death. Fortinbras arrives and orders a hero’s funeral for Hamlet.
(Jump to the text of Act V, Scene ii)