Hamlet Short Summary
Hamlet is a play written by William Shakespeare. It is classified as a tragedy centered around revenge. The play follows Hamlet as he struggles to make decisions about avenging his father’s death.
While Hamlet feels that he has to avenge his father’s death out of honor, he often seems to wish that he could just forget the whole thing and move on without taking any action. The play is fueled by this inner turmoil and asks the audience to ponder the significance of free will in opposition to fate.
Literary Elements of Hamlet
Author: William Shakespeare
Type of Work: Drama
Published Date: First performance believed to be 1602
Setting: Elsinore, Denmark
Main Characters: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio, Ophelia, Polonius
Antagonist: Claudius; Hamlet
Major Thematic Elements: The uncertainty of life; The complexity of action vs. inaction; The concept of death and its meaning; How rulership affects a nation’s health; Genuineness vs. performance; Indecision leading to madness
Motifs: Incestuous desire; misogynistic rulership; hearing
Exposition: Hamlet is in crisis—the nation he is bound to rule over in under attack, his family structure is coming apart, and he feels deeply depressed.
Plot: Five acts take the action chronologically
Major Symbols: The skull
Climax: Hamlet debates whether or not to kill himself as he is wrestles with his own growing madness as a result of his inability to take action
Literary Significance of Hamlet
William Shakespeare is widely considered to be the most influential Western writer of all time. His plays and poems provide wonderful examples for students studying literature to learn how different devices, methods, and creative wordplay can be used to tell impressive stories that touch audiences authentically. Hamlet is no exception and is one of the most widely studied Shakespeare plays to this day. Many students first study Hamlet in high school as they begin to widen their literary scopes.
In its time, Hamlet resonated with audiences because its themes spoke to problems that people of the Renaissance faced. The Renaissance was a time in which arts and literature focused heavily on humanism and what it meant to reflect life’s struggles in various artforms. Out of this type of artwork came an intense focus on using reason to understand the purpose of life, with all its pain and heartache. Many people hoped that exploring these sorts of questions would lead to better navigation of life with less pain.
Shakespeare’s approach to this trend in artistic expression with Hamlet adds the possibility that sometimes we can never know the answers to make life easier. Since it first came on the dramatic and literary scenes, Hamlet has intrigued audiences with this idea, and it is at once deeply troubling and somewhat soothing to know that sometimes there just are no right answers to life’s major quandaries.
Hamlet Synopsis and Overview
The play opens on a dark night in Elsinore; it is the dead of winter. The recently deceased king’s ghost is seen wandering the castle. Watchmen and the scholar Horatio interpret this sight as a bad omen and they call for King Hamlet’s son, Prince Hamlet, to see the ghost. The ghost confirms that he is indeed King Hamlet and demands that his son seek revenge on his brother Claudius, who usurped the throne and then married his wife, Gertrude.
Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his father’s death and earnestly sets the intention to do so. However, his contemplative and brooding nature is revealed as he is unable to find a good course of action in order to get his revenge. Hamlet begins acting erratically as his indecision causes him to feel deeply troubled. Claudius and Gertrude notice that something is astray, and they ask Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch over him. Lord Polonius even suggests that perhaps Hamlet is acting so strange because he has fallen in love with Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia. Claudius then uses the impressionable Ophelia to spy on Hamlet as well.
In Act III, a traveling troupe of actors comes to Elsinore and Hamlet becomes inspired to have the actors act out what he imagined happened as his uncle, Claudius, murdered his father. He hopes that in seeing this, the guilty Claudius will react and reveal himself. Claudius does in fact react, leaving the room as the scene of the murder approaches. This confirms to Hamlet that his uncle is, without a doubt, guilty of murdering his father. Hamlet finds Claudius to finally kill him and end the whole problem, but he finds Claudius in a moment of secret prayer and decides to wait. Claudius orders that Hamlet be sent to England.
Hamlet decides to confront his mother about everything. Polonius has hidden himself behind a tapestry in order to spy on Hamlet. Hamlet hears a noise from behind this tapestry and believes that it is Claudius. He stabs through the fabric and kills Polonius. As a result of his crime, he is banished to England at once. However, Claudius has enlisted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to put Hamlet to death, believing that banishment is not a hefty enough punishment for his crime. However, Hamlet already suspects that his two “friends” have been spying for Claudius.
Later in Act IV, it is revealed that Polonius’s son, Laertes, has secretly returned from his time abroad in France. He is furious about his father’s death and wishes to seek revenge on Hamlet. Claudius and Gertrude both insist that Claudius was not in the least responsible for Polonius’s death, instead hinting that Hamlet is solely to blame.
Later, Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet who says that his ship to England was captured by pirates and returned to Denmark. Hamlet waits in the countryside near the castle. Claudius and Laertes learn that Hamlet has returned to Denmark, and Laertes is excited for his chance to get revenge for his father’s and sister’s deaths. Laertes intends to use a poisoned sword in a duel with Hamlet to kill him. Ophelia, driven completely mad with grief over her father’s death, has not received the kindness and pity she so deeply wants. She drowns in the river, sending Laertes further into a rage.
In Act V, Hamlet visits the graveyard in which Ophelia will be buried. Hamlet becomes fascinated by the skulls that the gravediggers have moved in order to make room for Ophelia’s grave. He wonders about death and its role in a life cycle—whose magnificence was cut short, and whose life was exalted with an honorable death. In the end, he sees that all men simply turn to dust and ashes.
Once Hamlet realizes that the grave he’s been watching being dug is meant for Ophelia, he becomes frenzied. As Laertes is mourning his sister’s burial, Hamlet reveals himself and proclaims that he loved Ophelia more than anyone else could. Hamlet and Laertes briefly fight but are pulled apart. Claudius and Gertrude declare Hamlet mad without a doubt and order him to be taken away.
Later, Hamlet agrees to a duel with Laertes. Hamlet asks Laertes for forgiveness, telling him that all of his actions have been a result of his madness. Laertes refuses to accept madness as his reason, but accepts his offering of love. Hamlet and Laertes duel. Hamlet strikes Laertes and the king offers him a sip of wine, which the audience knows is actually poisoned. Hamlet refuses. He strikes Laertes again, and in the scuffle ends up with Laertes’s sword, wounding him with his own poisoned weapon. Hamlet is enraged when he sees that his mother has drunk from the poisoned cup and died, and he stabs Claudius with the poisoned blade as well and forces him to drink the rest of the poisoned wine that killed his mother. Exhausted and having finally achieved his revenge, Hamlet dies.