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'Hamlet' Summary – What Happens in 'Hamlet'?

The Story of Shakespeare's Longest Play

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Scene From Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'
Kean Collection - Staff/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is visited by a mysterious ghost resembling his recently deceased father, the King of Denmark. The ghost tells Hamlet that his father was murdered by Claudius, the King’s brother, who then took the throne and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The ghost encourages Hamlet to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius.

The task before Hamlet weighs heavily upon him. Hamlet’s uncertainty is what makes the character so believable – he is arguably one of literature’s most psychologically complex characters. He is slow to take action, but when he does it is rash and violent. We can see this in the famous “curtain scene” when Hamlet kills Polonius.

Hamlet’s Love

Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia, is in love with Hamlet, but their relationship has broken down since Hamlet learned of his father’s death. Ophelia is instructed by Polonius and Laertes to spurn Hamlet’s advances. Ultimately, Ophelia commits suicide as a result of Hamlet’s confusing behavior towards her.

A Play-within-a-play

In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet organizes for players to re-enact his father’s murder at the hands of Claudius in order to gauge Claudius’ reaction. He confronts his mother about his father’s murder and hears someone behind the arras – believing it to be Claudius, Hamlet stabs the man with his sword. It transpires that he has actually killed Polonius.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Claudius realizes that Hamlet is out to get him and professes that Hamlet is mad. Claudius arranges for Hamlet to be shipped to England with his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have been informing the king about Hamlet’s state of mind.

Claudius has secretly sent orders for Hamlet to be killed on arrival in England, but Hamlet escapes from the ship and swaps his death order for a letter ordering the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

“To Be or Not To be …”

Hamlet arrives back in Denmark just as Ophelia is being buried which prompts him to contemplate life, death and the frailty of the human condition.

Tragic Ending

Laertes returns from France to avenge the death of Polonius, his father. Claudius plots with him to make Hamlet’s death appear accidental and encourages him to anoint his sword with poison – putting a cup of poison aside in case the sword is unsuccessful.

In the action, the swords are swapped and Laertes is mortally wounded with the poisoned sword. He forgives Hamlet before he dies.

Gertrude dies by accidentally drinking the cup of poison. Hamlet stabs Claudius but is himself fatally wounded. Hamlet's revenge is finally complete. In his dying moments, he bequeaths the throne to Fortinbras.

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