Hamlet Act I, Scene I – It is midnight and bitter cold. On a platform (a level space on the battlements) outside the castle at Elsinore in Denmark, a sentry (Francisco) is being relieved by another (Bernardo). Later, Marcellus and Horatio join Bernardo. Horatio is there at Marcellus’s request but doubts the sentries’ story that on two previous nights they have seen a ghost. But the ghost reappears, and Horatio, seeing its resemblance to the dead king.
Hamlet, asks it to speak. Instead, it stalks away. Horatio interprets the ghost’s appearance as an omen that strange is about to happen in Denmark. He tells the sentries that Fortinbras, a young. hot-headed Norwegian, has gathered an army and intends to march on Denmark to take back the lands which his father, King Fortinbras, lost to King Hamlet.
The ghost then reappears. Again, Horatio faces it and asks it to speak. Before it can, a rooster crows, signaling the dawn, and the ghost retreats once more. Horatio and the others agree that Prince Hamlet must be told of the night’s happenings. Act II, Scene II – King Claudius is transacting state business.
(Claudius, brother of the dead king, Hamlet, has succeeded him to the throne. He has married the widow, Queen Gertrude, prince Hamlet’s mother.) In an attempt to avoid combat with Fortinbras, Claudius is sending messengers. Cornelius and Voltimand, to the elderly king of Norway. He wants to inform him of his headstrong nephew’s (Fortinbras) intention to wage war against Denmark. Next, Laertes, son of Claudius’s trusted elderly counselor, Polonius, asks permission to return to France now that Claudius’s coronation is over. Having granted Laertes’s request, Claudius turns to Hamlet, his nephew (and now his stepson).
Claudius says that he and the queen are troubled to see Hamlet still grieving over his father’s death. He asks Hamlet to accept him as his new father and assures Hamlet that he will be the successor to the throne. He and Gertrude entreat Hamlet to remain at court rather than resume his studies at Wittenberg. After everyone else leaves, Hamlet reveals that he is depressed almost to the point of suicide. His anger and disgust are directed toward his mother because so soon after his father’s death, she has married a man inferior to King Hamlet in every way.
Bernardo and Marcellus join Hamlet and tell him of the previous night’s event. He resolves to watch with them this night. Act I, Scene III – In Polonius’s house, Laertes and his sister, Ophelia, are saying good-bye. Laertes warns her against Hamlet, saying a prince must choose his wife carefully and Hamlet is probably not seriously interested in her. At that moment, Polonius comes in and gives Laertes some fatherly advice about what his behavior should be in France.
When he finds out that they have been talking about Hamlet, he adds his opinion that Hamlet is probably amusing himself with Ophelia. He tells her to avoid Hamlet. She says she will obey. Act I, Scene IV – At midnight, Hamlet. Horatio, and Marcellus are on the platform.
wondering if the ghost will appear. It does, and although Hamlet is not certain if it is his dead father or an evil spirit, he speaks to it. He asks why it has returned from the tomb. The ghost does not answer, but beckons Hamlet to follow it. Horatio and Marcellus beg him not to.
but he does follow the ghost. Act I, Scene V – When they are alone. the ghost tells Hamlet that if he loved his father, he must avenge his father’s murder. The ghost (King Hamlet) describes how his brother, Claudius, murdered him, then took his throne and queen. Although offended that Gertrude remarried so soon after his death, he warns Hamlet to take no revenge on her. Her guilty conscience will punish her enough.
Because it is almost dawn. the ghost then disappears. Hamlet does not tell the others what the ghost has said, but makes them promise to tell no one what they have seen. Act II, Scene I – Polonius is sending a servant, Reynaldo, to France to spy on Laertes and see how he is behaving. Polonius tells Reynaldo to talk to Laertes’s acquaintances, pretending to know him slightly, and suggest that he is immoral. Thus, Polonius tells Reynaldo he can trick people into telling whatever they know about Laertes’s behavior. Reynaldo leaves.
Ophelia comes in, excited and troubled because Hamlet has just visited her and he was acting very strange and agitated. He never spoke. but studied her face for a long time, then sighed, and left her. Polonius interprets his behavior as an indication that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia has driven him mad since Ophelia has been avoiding Hamlet as Polonius told her to do. Polonius decides that he misjudged Hamlet and that King Claudius must be told how matters stand. Act II, Scene II – Just as Polonius has arranged to have Reynaldo spy on Laertes, King Claudius has summoned two old friends of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on Hamlet.
He tells them to spend time with Hamlet and try to discover what troubles him. Queen Gertrude also entreats them to find out what is on Hamlet’s mind, promising them that ‘they will be well paid for their efforts. Polonius brings in Voltimand and Cornelius, who have just returned with the good news that the king of Norway has made Fortinbras promise never to take up arms against Denmark. The king does request though that Fortinbras be allowed to take his army across Denmark, for he now intends to do battle with the Poles. In his long-winded way, Polonius then begins to tell Claudius and Gertrude that he has discovered the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. He is in love with Ophelia, and since she has spurned him (obeying Polonius’s order) Hamlet has begun to act like a madman.
To prove his point, Polonius proposes to set a trap for Hamlet. He will arrange to have Ophelia meet Hamlet accidentally. The king and Polonius will conceal themselves behind a wall hanging and eavesdrop on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia. At that point, Hamlet appears; he is completely engrossed in a book that he is reading as he walks. Polonius asks Claudius and Gertrude to leave him alone with Hamlet so he can see what is on Hamlet’s mind. Hamlet’s answers to his questions make Polonius more certain that Hamlet is crazy.
Actually, Hamlet is baiting Polonius: after Polonius leaves, Hamlet calls him a tedious old fool. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive and begin to question Hamlet, trying to prove their suspicion that Hamlet’s strange behavior is a result of disappointed ambition because he did not succeed his father to the throne. Hamlet outwits them and shows that he is aware that they have come because the king and queen sent for them. When they admit that he is right, he tells them how disillusioned he feels. Nothing in life gives him pleasure. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell him they passed some actors coming to perform at court.
Polonius comes in and tells Hamlet what he already knows, the news about the players (actors). Again, Hamlet makes fun of Polonius, but Polonius takes no offense since he is so certain that Hamlet is deranged. Hamlet greets the players and reminds them of a scene from a play he once saw them perform. He begins a speech he remembers, and the first player picks it up where Hamlet stops. Then Hamlet tells Polonius to take the players to their quarters and to be certain to treat them kindly.
The first player lingers. Hamlet asks him if he knows a play called The Murder of Gonzago. When the player says he does, Hamlet requests it for the next night’s performance and tells the player that he will write twelve or sixteen lines to be added to the play. He then dismisses the player and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then, in a soliloquy, Hamlet berates himself for not yet having avenged his father’s murder. Still troubled by the possibility that the ghost is an evil spirit, not his dead father, Hamlet has decided to test Claudius.
He will have the players perform a murder scene. If his uncle acts guilty, Hamlet will have his proof and take his revenge. Act III, Scene I – With Polonius and Ophelia present, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to the king and Queen that they have failed to find the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. When they leave, Claudius asks Gertrude to leave too, for he and Polonius are about to eavesdrop on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia. After the queen leaves, Polonius instructs his daughter to pretend to read her prayer book.
He generalizes that by such pious pretense people often conceal evil actions. His remark troubles Claudius who has much to conceal himself. Hamlet comes in, talking to himself about suicide. He says that because life is so difficult, people might use suicide as an escape if they were not deterred by fear of what might happen after death. Hamlet then sees and greets Ophelia.
She tries to return the gifts he once gave her, but he denies the giving. He is harsh to her, saying, I did love you once. He talks cynically of marriage and women, then leaves her. Poor Ophelia grieves to see him so changed and, like her father, is certain he is mad. Having heard the conversation, Claudius doubts that Hamlet is mad but believes he is a threat. He decides to send him to England.
Polonius still thinks Hamlet is lovesick and suggests that Gertrude sound him out. Polonius will eavesdrop on their conversation. Act III, Scene II – After instructing the players about their performance, Hamlet talks to Horatio. praising his even temper and sound judgment. He then tells Horatio his plan to test the king.
They agree that they will both watch Claudius to see if he acts guilty when the stage murder takes place. Just before the play, the members of the court come in. Instead of sitting with his mother as she asks, Hamlet sits beside …