From Academic Kids


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy by William Shakespeare and one of his most well-known and oft-quoted plays.

Written between 1600 and the summer of 1602, this masterpiece of Elizabethan theatre first appeared in print in 1603 in a version known as the Bad Quarto, a pirated version with no authority. The authorised Second Quarto (Q2) followed shortly after the first, while a slightly altered and reduced version was published in the First Folio of Shakespeare's complete works. See Folios and Quartos (Shakespeare). The text in modern editions is a compromise between the Second Quarto text and the Folio text.

In theatre, Hamlet is possibly the most often produced work in almost every western country and it is considered a crucial test for mature actors (somewhat unfortunately, since Hamlet is supposed to be a young man). Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy (Act Three, Scene One), the most popular passage of the play, is so well known that it has become a stumbling-block for many modern actors.

Missing image
The play-within-the-play scene, 1875-1876.


Main characters

Missing image
British stage actor Al Weaver as the lead in Trevor Nunn's 2004 production of Hamlet at the Old Vic in London. Here Hamlet contemplates the skull of Yorick in the famed "Gravedigger Scene."

Prince Hamlet, the title character, is the son of the late King of Denmark, who was also named Hamlet. He is charged by the ghost of his father to avenge his murder, which he finally succeeds in doing, but only after the rest of the royal house has been wiped out and he himself has been mortally wounded with a poisoned rapier by Laertes.

Claudius is the current King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle, who succeeded to the throne upon the death of his brother. The ghost of King Hamlet tells Prince Hamlet that he was murdered by brother Claudius, who poured hebenon in his ear while he was asleep. Claudius is killed with a poisoned rapier by Hamlet who, for good measure, also forces him to drink the wine with which he had intended to poison Hamlet.

King Hamlet (Ghost) was Hamlet's father. At the start of the play, he is not long dead. He appears to Hamlet as a ghost and urges him to avenge his murder. He is referred to in the stage direction as Ghost. King Hamlet was killed by poison emptied into one of his ears.

Gertrude is Hamlet's mother, the widow of King Hamlet who became the wife of Claudius, a relationship considered incestuous in Shakespeare's time. She dies by drinking poisoned wine intended for Hamlet.

Polonius is Claudius's chief councillor, who is distrustful of Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia. He is a fatuous bore, and Hamlet frequently teases him while pretending to be mentally unbalanced. He is fatally stabbed by Hamlet while hidden behind an arras while trying to eavesdrop upon a conversation between Hamlet and his mother.

Laertes is Polonius' son, who kills Hamlet with a poisoned rapier to avenge the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. He is killed by Hamlet with the same rapier, although at the time Hamlet did not realise it was poisoned.

Ophelia is Polonius' daughter. She and Hamlet have had romantic feelings for each other, although she and Hamlet (at least implicitly) have been warned that it would be politically inexpedient for them to marry. Jilted by Hamlet as part of his insanity ruse, her father's death causes her to actually go insane, and she drowns herself, possibly accidentally.

Horatio is a friend of Hamlet's from university. He is not directly involved in the intrigue among the royals, which enables the author to use him as a foil or sounding board for Hamlet. He is the most important character alive at the end of the play, though he threatens to commit suicide.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are old school-fellows of Hamlet, who were summoned to the castle by Claudius to keep a watch on Hamlet. Hamlet soon suspects that they are spies. Though their roles in the play are relatively minor, Tom Stoppard created a popular play and movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in which the two title characters contemplate their roles as minor players in a bigger drama. They die off-stage in England, executed by the King's warrant for Hamlet's death, altered by Hamlet to name them.

Fortinbras is the Norwegian crown prince who has only a couple of brief scenes in the play, but who delivers its final lines and appears to represent the hope for a better future for the Danish monarchy and its subjects.

Plot summary

The play concerns the dilemma of Prince Hamlet, whose father, the erstwhile King of Denmark, died suddenly while Hamlet was away at university. The King's brother Claudius had himself proclaimed king, and cemented his claim to the throne by marrying Hamlet's mother Gertrude, the widowed Queen.

Hamlet expresses his anger at the accession of his uncle Claudius and particularly with his mother's hasty remarriage. Hamlet soon encounters the ghost of his dead father, who informs him that he was murdered by Claudius, and commands Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet then decides to put on an "antic disposition" (act insane) in order to kill Claudius, but Hamlet is unsure whether the ghost he has seen is truly his father, and suspects that it might be the devil taking his father's appearance in order to cause havoc. He therefore sets out to test the king's conscience through feigning insanity, and by enlisting a traveling company to stage a play he has written re-enacting the circumstances of the murder.

                  The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
                            (Act II, scene II)

The king's outrageous reaction to the performance convinces Hamlet of his guilt. Shortly afterwards, Claudius privately expresses his disgust at what he has done, and offers up a prayer of repentance. Hamlet discovers him at prayer, and prepares to kill him, but then stops, reasoning that he does not want his revenge to have the result of sending the repentant Claudius to heaven. In a double irony, after Hamlet slips away, Claudius concludes that he is unable to repent in his current state of mind; thus, if Hamlet had not attempted to arrogate to himself the destiny of Claudius's soul, rather than just his life, he would have gotten the ultimate justice he sought.

Hamlet confronts his mother about the murder of his father and her sexual relations with her new husband, and during their conversation, he stabs Polonius, the king's councillor, who has been hiding behind a tapestry, thinking it may have been the King. King Hamlet's ghost makes a reappearance to chastise Hamlet for abusing his mother. The king, who has realised that Hamlet knows about the murder he committed, sends Hamlet to England with a message to the English ordering his death. On the way to England, Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, who take Hamlet prisoner but then return him to Denmark.

Meanwhile, Hamlet's romantic partner Ophelia goes mad, having been already disturbed by Hamlet's feigned rejection of her, and by the death of Polonius, her father. In what may have been a suicide attempt, she falls into a river and drowns. Hamlet, returning from his voyage, meets Horatio in a graveyard outside Elsinore just as Ophelia's funeral cortege arrives there. Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick (see skull as a symbol), and proclaims of it, "Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft."

Laertes, son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, who is standing in an open grave when Hamlet lands on top of him, is determined to kill Hamlet in revenge for the havoc that has been wreaked on his family. He and Claudius engineer a scheme to kill Hamlet while making the death look like an accident. To this end, Claudius instructs Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a fencing match. Unknown to Hamlet, Laertes will be fighting with a sharpened and poisoned foil, instead of the customary blunted blade. In addition, Claudius prepares some poisoned wine for Hamlet to drink as a toast, in the event that Laertes is unable to hit him.

After Hamlet wins the first two rounds of the match, Gertrude inadvertently drinks the poisoned wine. Hamlet is pricked with the sword and fatally poisoned, but in the ensuing brawl, he swaps blades with Laertes, and deals a deep wound to Laertes with the poisoned sword. Laertes dies from the poison, and in his dying breaths, Laertes confesses the whole plot to Hamlet. Enraged, Hamlet kills Claudius with the poisoned weapon, finally avenging his father's death.

Horatio, horrified at the turn of events, seizes the poisoned wine and proposes to join his friend in death, but Hamlet wrestles the cup away from him and orders him to tell the true story of the royal family's troubles to the world at large, thus restoring Hamlet's good name. Hamlet also recommends that the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, be chosen as the rightful successor to the Danish throne. Hamlet dies, and Horatio mourns his passing:

                           Good night sweet prince: 
   And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! 
                           (Act V, scene II)


Hamlet, or Amleth, was a legendary Danish prince (see: Hamlet (legend)) whose exploits were recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum around 1200 AD; Francois de Belleforest adapted Saxo's story in his Histoires tragiques (1570). Shakespeare's main source, however, is believed to be an earlier play about Hamlet (the Ur-Hamlet), which is attributed to Thomas Kyd and is known to have introduced a ghost to the story. Some scholars, however, believe that the Ur-Hamlet may have been written by Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare may also have taken some elements from Kyd's other play, The Spanish Tragedy, especially the hero's procrastination.

Hamlet as a character

Hamlet is possibly the most discussed and contentious character in the whole of world drama and indeed in the whole of Western literature. While conceding he is one of Shakespeare's greatest creations, critics are at loggerheads over the inner motivations and psyche of this character. His relationships with the various characters of the story, including his father, his uncle Claudius, his mother Gertrude and his beloved Ophelia, have all been subjected to multiple speculations, including modern psychological theories. Critics as varied as Goethe, Coleridge, Hegel, Nietzsche, Turgenev, Freud, T. S. Eliot, and Asimov have written essays on him, all with their own special insights. Besides being Shakespeare's most demanding role (with over 1,400 lines), Hamlet is also the most introspective. Actors have traditionally struggled with this role, and it can be safely said that any one performance can only capture some facets of the creation.

The plot summary above presents the simplest view of Hamlet, as a person seeking truth in order to be certain that he is justified in carrying out the revenge called for by a ghost that claims to be the spirit of his father. The most standard view is that Hamlet is highly indecisive. The 1948 movie with Laurence Olivier in the title role, considered by many a standard, is introduced by a voiceover: "This is a story of a man who could not make up his mind."

Others see Hamlet as a person charged to carry out a duty that he both knows and feels he must do, yet doesn't want to. In this view all of his efforts to satisfy himself of King Claudius' guilt or his failure to act when he can are evidence of this unwillingness, and Hamlet berates himself for his inability to carry out his task. After observing a play-actor performing a scene, he notes that the actor was moved to tears in the passion of the story and compares this passion for a fictional character, Hecuba, in light of his own situation:

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wan'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
For Hecuba?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? [...]

And he acknowledges to himself the terrible deed he must avenge, yet responds only with words:

Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
     [Act II, sc. ii]

Hamlet's verbose and painful analyses of his situation and actions encourage many others to see his struggle as something far more existential in nature, having less to do with the revenge drama than with the human condition.

 The time is out of joint: Oh cursed spite,
     That ever I was born to set it right.
                              [Act I, sc. v]

Another view of Hamlet, advanced by Isaac Asimov in his Guide to Shakespeare, holds that his actions are attributable not to indecision, but to multiple motivations: his desire to avenge the wrong done to his father, coupled with his own ambition to succeed to the throne. The tragic error committed by Hamlet, in Asimov's view, is his overreaching wish to see Claudius damned, and not merely dead, which prevents him from killing Claudius at the opportune moment.

Hamlet in cinema

According to the Internet Movie Database there have been 22 theatrical movies (http://us.imdb.com/Tsearch?title=hamlet&restrict=Movies+and+TV) with the simple title Hamlet plus another 16 with that title that were made for TV. Another 50 productions have included this name as part of the title or have used a foreign language variation of the name.

The first such movie, Le Duel d'Hamlet, was produced and directed by Clment Maurice in France in 1900, and starred Sarah Bernhardt (reprising her stage role) as Hamlet. Pierre Magnier played Laertes.

1948: Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier

Received four Academy Awards:
Best Picture - Laurence Olivier, producer
Best Actor - Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
Best Costume Design (Black and White) - Roger K. Furse
Best Art Direction and Set Decoration (Black and White) - Carmen Dillon and Roger K. Furse
It was nominated for a further three awards
Best Director - Laurence Olivier
Best Supporting Actress - Jean Simmons as Ophelia
Best Music Score - William Walton
Notable other appearances include Patrick Troughton as the player king, Stanley Holloway as the gravedigger, Peter Cushing as Osric, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, Terence Morgan as Laertes, John Gielgud as the uncredited voice of the ghost, and Christopher Lee as an uncredited spear carrier.

1960: Hamlet, directed by Franz Peter Wirth

A German television production used as a 10th-season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Hamlet played by Maximilian Schell; English dubbing of King Claudius by Ricardo Montalban and Polonius by John Banner

1969: Hamlet, directed by Tony Richardson

Hamlet played by Nicol Williamson, Claudius played by Anthony Hopkins, Ophelia played by Marianne Faithfull

1990: Hamlet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Hamlet played by Mel Gibson, Gertrude played by Glenn Close, Polonius played by Ian Holm, Ophelia played by Helena Bonham Carter

1996: Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh

A "full text" version, this movie runs in excess of 4 hours.
Hamlet played by Kenneth Branagh, Claudius played by Derek Jacobi, Gertrude played by Julie Christie, Ophelia played by Kate Winslet

2000: Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyda

Set in modern Manhattan
Hamlet played by Ethan Hawke, Polonius played by Bill Murray, Ophelia played by Julia Stiles

A number of films have also used lines from Hamlet's soliloquy as film titles. See To be, or not to be for a list of these films.

External links

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