OK friends, this is one of the Big Ones. If you ask most people to name a Shakespeare play they’ll likely give you one of three answers: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or Hamlet. This is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and for good reason: it’s absolutely amazing.
It’s also incredibly long. At 4,042 lines and 29, 551 words, this play is a comparative monster. And as a result, so is this post. So sit down, tuck in, and immerse yourselves in the prison that is Denmark.
Onto the play!
The night watch is uneasy; for the past two nights they’ve seen a ghost resembling the late king walking the fields. Horatio, a classmate of Hamlet’s, doesn’t believe the watch until he sees the ghost with his own eyes. He attempts to speak to the apparition but it won’t answer him. The watch and Horatio decide to inform Hamlet of the ghost when morning breaks.
We then see the current King, Claudius, on the throne holding court. Claudius is the late king’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle; he’s also married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. [Awkward.] Laertes, son of Polonius, asks Claudius for leave to head back to France, which Claudius grants. Claudius then goes on to lament about Prince Fortinbras.
(A bit of backstory: Hamlet’s father [also named Hamlet] slew King Fortinbras of Norway years prior to the setting of the play. The Norwegian crown went to King Fortinbras’ sickly brother rather than the King’s son [also named Fortinbras]. Denmark currently fears an invasion from Prince Fortinbras, hence Claudius’ lament.)
Claudius tells Hamlet that he thinks of him as a son and that Hamlet is the (current) rightful successor to the throne after Claudius dies. Basically, Claudius is trying to make nice even though Hamlet’s a sullen little emo-thing at the moment (and understandably so). When everyone leaves the throne room Hamlet proceeds to lament his father’s death and the unnatural speed with which his mother, newly-widowed, married her late husband’s brother. He thinks it unseemly and a show of weakness on his mother’s part. As Hamlet’s lamenting Horatio and two men from the watch enter and tell Hamlet of the ghostly figure they saw. Hamlet vows to see the apparition himself that night.
As Laertes departs for France he cautions his sister Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet’s designs towards her; not that Hamlet’s intentions are malevolent, but he wants his sister to guard herself regardless. Their father Polonius seconds this advice and commands his daughter not to meet with Hamlet anymore.
That night Hamlet goes with Horatio and the men from the watch to find the ghost. They see it and the spirit beckons to Hamlet. Against the protests of the others Hamlet proceeds to follow the spirit offstage. They re-enter the stage alone and the spirit tells his tale: he is indeed Hamlet’s father and he wants Hamlet to avenge his murder. This is the first Hamlet’s heard of murder; as far as he, and everyone else, knew the king died after a snake bit him while he was sleeping in his garden. In fact, Claudius poured poison into his own brother’s ear (and then seduced the queen). This quick, surprise death meant that the king didn’t get his last rights and is condemned to purgatory for a period of time. (Purgatory, mind you, isn’t a happy place; souls are tormented to cleanse them before they can enter heaven.) The ghost leaves as morning breaks and Horatio and the others catch up to Hamlet. Hamlet tells them very little of what he learned and makes them swear to never tell another of what transpired that night.
A while later Polonius sends notes and money to Laertes in Paris and also requests that the messenger, Reynaldo, find out and spy on Laertes’ personal life. As Reynaldo leaves Ophelia enters, clearly upset. Hamlet, who’s been acting insane lately, came to her the night before with his clothes in disarray but apparently didn’t say anything, just grabbed her by the arms and sighed heavily before leaving. Polonius takes this as proof that Hamlet is deeply in love with Ophelia, who’s been rejecting Hamlet’s advances as per her father’s request. Polonius decides to go to Claudius and inform him of the situation.
Just before Polonius arrives to speak with Claudius we see him and Gertrude speaking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s old friends, whom they ask to discover the cause of Hamlet’s insanity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree and leave. Polonius then enters but waits to tell his news until after messengers from Norway inform Claudius of certain happenings: the King of Norway has scolded Prince Fortinbras for his intention to fight against Denmark. Instead, the force Prince Fortinbras has assembled will be diverted to fight against Poland, though the army will have to traverse a small area of Denmark on their way. Claudius is, understandably, relieved by this.
Polonius then informs Claudius and Gertrude that he believes Hamlet has been driven mad by love of Ophelia and states that he’ll try to test his theory. Hamlet then arrives after Claudius and Gertrude leave. The Prince feigns insanity while constantly insulting Polonius, though Polonius never realizes. Polonius then leaves and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. Hamlet happily greets them but realizes quickly that they were sent to spy on him, which annoys him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that they’ve brought a troupe of actors they met on the road. Hamlet decides to have the troupe put on a play changed to depict his father’s death to gauge Claudius’ reaction and guilt.
Later, Polonius and Claudius hide while Hamlet “accidentally” meets up with Ophelia. Ophelia returns Hamlet’s love letters and Hamlet accuses her of being a tease, telling her to enter a convent rather than drive other men mad. He then leaves. Claudius concludes that the reason for Hamlet’s recent behavior isn’t due to unrequited love and that he didn’t sound particularly insane. Instead, Claudius thinks Hamlet’s actions are due to a deep-seated depression and decides it might be best to send Hamlet to England for a change of scenery.
When the players put on the play with Hamlet’s requested amendments Hamlet pays close attention to Claudius’ reaction, as does Horatio at Hamlet’s request. When one player acts out pouring poison into the King’s ear Claudius rises abruptly and leaves the room. Hamlet takes this as proof of his uncle’s guilt.
Both Guildenstern and Polonius then approach Hamlet and tell him that his mother wishes to speak with him. On his way to see his mother Hamlet happens upon Claudius. Claudius has just spoken to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he charges with accompanying Hamlet on his journey to England. Claudius also speaks with Polonius, who intends to hide in the Queen’s room to overhear the conversation between her and Hamlet. When Claudius is alone he laments his inability to make up for killing his brother and marrying his brother’s wife; he kneels to pray, which is when Hamlet happens upon him. Hamlet considers killing Claudius but reasons that Claudius will go straight to heaven if he’s killed while praying, which would be unacceptable since Hamlet’s father is condemned to purgatory since he wasn’t able to repent his sins before he was murdered. Instead, Hamlet vows to kill Claudius at another time and continues on to his mother’s rooms.
When Hamlet arrives he berates her for marrying Claudius and not seeing him for what he really is. The queen begins to fear that Hamlet means her harm and calls for help. Polonius, not able to see what’s happening, takes up the cry and also calls for help. Hamlet, believing the spy to be Claudius, proceeds to stab the hiding figure and kills Polonius. Upon seeing who he’s killed Hamlet continues to berate his mother. While doing this the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes and tells Hamlet he’s taking too long to enact his revenge. Gertrude can’t see the ghost and takes Hamlet’s conversation with apparent thin air as a sign of his madness. Hamlet tells her he’s talking to his father’s ghost, tells her to stay out of Claudius’ bed, and reminds her that he’ll be heading to England shortly before leaving with Polonius’ body.
Upon hearing Gertrude’s crying Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter her chambers. Claudius asks what’s happened and she requests Rosencrantz and Guildenstern give them a moment alone. After the two men leave Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet killed Polonius out of madness. Claudius calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back and tells them what’s transpired. He asks that they find Hamlet and bring Polonius’ body to the chapel. Hamlet refuses to tell them where he’s hid the body but goes with them to Claudius. Hamlet also refuses to tell Claudius where he hid Polonius’ body, but he gives a bit of a hint and Claudius sends people to search. Claudius then tells Hamlet that he’s sending him away to England, which Hamlet accepts. When he’s alone, Claudius reveals that he’s sending a letter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern requesting that Hamlet be immediately executed.
Laertes rushes home from France to avenge his father’s death and confronts Claudius but his rage is calmed when he sees that Ophelia has been driven mad with grief over her father’s death. Claudius tries to calm Laertes and asks to speak with the young man in private. Meanwhile, Horatio gets a letter from Hamlet telling him that he’s been taken prisoner by pirates and that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still on their way to England. Hamlet requests that Horatio come to him after helping the messengers deliver letters to Claudius as well.
Claudius convinces Laertes that the fault of his father’s death lies solely with Hamlet and Laertes vows revenge. Just then the messenger arrives with Hamlet’s letter to Claudius, informing him that he’ll be returning shortly. Realizing that his plan to have England execute Hamlet has failed Claudius suggests Laertes fight a duel with Hamlet to enact his revenge. Laertes is all-too eager, stating that he’s bought a poison that he’ll put on his blade to make certain he’ll kill Hamlet. Claudius also suggests that he’ll poison Hamlet with wine as well, just to make certain of his fate. Gertrude then interrupts them and informs Laertes that Ophelia drowned, though we don’t know if it was suicide or an accident.
Hamlet and Horatio arrive at Ophelia’s grave (neither knowing that Ophelia is dead) and speak with the gravedigger. The gravedigger unearths the skull of the former court jester, a man named Yorrick whom Hamlet knew well. Hamlet reminisces about the man and ruminates on mortality before he and Horatio see Claudius and Gertrude approaching in a party for Ophelia’s funeral. Laertes speaks and Hamlet realizes what’s happened. He emerges from his hiding place and confesses his love for Ophelia. Laertes lunges for him and the two men grapple before being separated; Hamlet and Horatio exit while Claudius councils Laertes to have patience.
Hamlet explains to Horatio how he came to be taken prisoner by the pirates. Hamlet discovered a letter from Claudius charging that he [Hamlet] be beheaded as soon as he landed on English soil. Hamlet created a new letter that charged that the bearers (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) be put to death instead. A courtier named Osric then enters and tells Hamlet that Claudius has set a fencing challenge between Hamlet and Laertes. Hamlet accepts the challenge. Claudius tries to get Hamlet to drink poisoned wine after his first win but Hamlet declines. Hamlet later offers the goblet to his mother and she takes the first drink of poisoned wine, with Claudius looking on and unable (or unwilling) to do anything to stop her. Laertes and Hamlet continue to fight and Laertes realizes that he’ll be found out once the queen feels the effects of the poison; he lashes out and cuts Hamlet. Hamlet then realizes that Laertes is fighting with an actual blade (rather than the blunted, buttoned blade Hamlet is using). The two men scuffle and Hamlet gets Laertes’ blade, which he uses to cut Laertes (thus poisoning him as well).
Gertrude then collapses, stating that the wine is poisoned before she dies. Laertes also reveals that both he and Hamlet have been poisoned and that it was all part of Claudius’ plan. Hamlet, still holding the poisoned blade, rushes to Claudius and stabs him; he also pours the rest of the poisoned wine down Claudius’ throat, just to be certain of his death. With Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes dead, Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story after he dies. Horatio attempts to drink the last of the poisoned wine but Hamlet stops him.
In the aftermath of this commotion Prince Fortinbras enters; his troops have succeeded in Poland and he decided to make a detour and continue his quest to avenge his father and take Denmark by force. He’s greeted by the site of four dead bodies and Horatio. An English ambassador also enters stating that Claudius’ decree has been fulfilled and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Horatio says he’ll tell them all that’s transpired and Fortinbras takes the crown for himself.
There’s far too much in this play for me to cover everything. (Granted, I’m never successful at covering everything in any play, but it’s particularly impossible with Hamlet.) This play is amazingly layered and complicated.
Remember in the Nota Bene on my post on The Comedy of Errors where I discussed Artistotle’s Poetics? Basically, Aristotle laid out the parameters for a play. Most of Shakespeare’s plays don’t follow certain tenants that Aristotle laid out, such as the tenant that all the action should occur in a single day. In Hamlet, however, Shakespeare goes against another tenant: that action, not character should drive a story. There’s very little action in this play; almost everything is driven by Hamlet’s character, by his monologues, etc. (Granted, when we do get action it’s a hurricane.) I contend that many of Shakespeare’s tragedies are led more by character than by action, but here it’s especially obvious.
But onto the language in this play, which makes my nerdy little heart go pitter-pat. The language is exceedingly courtly throughout. I think this might be one of the most beautifully-written plays Shakespeare ever wrote, along with Richard II and the sentiments of love in Romeo and Juliet. There are so many layers to the lines in this play. For example, Hamlet telling Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” is a bit more complex than it seems. A nunnery could refer to a convent, of course, but it was also Elizabethan slang for a brothel. If we then look at the entire scene and see the entirety of what Hamlet says to Ophelia (women are pure, women are teases, they drive men crazy, etc.) we can see that Hamlet’s a bit confused. After all, he’s also grappling with the fact that his mother, who seemed so happy with his father, now seems extremely happy with his uncle so very soon after her first husband’s death. Gertrude went from being a wife to being a widow (an understandable progression), but then her quick change back to wife threw Hamlet for a loop. As such, he’s not too certain about women at this moment; hence the paradoxical double entendre with “nunnery”. The language is also very intelligent and says a good deal about the characters themselves. Hamlet routinely interrupts his own musings with points of reason or logic.
There is one point that I want to completely disagree with. People have argued that Hamlet is an Oedipal character; he wants to kill his father and “marry” his mother (to be delicate). They argue that not only does Hamlet want to kill Claudius as the father figure here, he also wants to get revenge on Claudius for doing what he wanted to do himself: kill his real father. Friends, I call bull. At no point does Hamlet utter anything that can be construed as non-filial love for his mother. I’m a bit biased, though; in my non-philosophic opinion, I think Freud is an idiot. (Again, I’m being delicate.)
Let’s go back to the language for a moment. I’ve read Hamlet before (in high school, granted), but I didn’t realize how many famous lines came from this play. I’ll list some of them below, because I can. But first, a story:
One night years ago my two brothers and I were sitting in my parents backyard enjoying a fire. Out of nowhere, and apropos to nothing, my usually-reticent younger brother began to recite the “To be or not to be” speech from memory in his most dramatic voice while staring into the fire. He began with the first line and my older brother and I laughed. Then he recited the second and third line and my brother and I exchanged glances. By the time he finished the speech my older brother and I were flabbergasted.
“When did you learn that entire speech?” we asked him (he wasn’t one to read Shakespeare).
His answer? “Calvin and Hobbes.”
My point? Shakespeare is everywhere.
Act I Scene 2
“A little more than kin, and less than kind.”
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”
“Frailty, thy name is woman!”
Act I Scene 3
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Act I Scene 4
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Act I Scene 5
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“Murder most foul…”
Act II Scene 2
“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
“What a piece of work is man!”
“…The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Act III Scene 1
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.”
“Get thee to a nunnery.”
“O, woe is me…”
Act III Scene 2
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”
Act V Scene 1
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”
“Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.”
Act V Scene 2
“The rest is silence.”