Act 1, Scene 1
Hamlet opens on the battlements of the castle at Elsinore, in Denmark, where the guard is being changed. Bernardo and Marcellus, accompanied by Horatio, come to relieve Francisco. The first words spoken, ‘‘Who’s there?’’ a nervous inquiry by Bernardo indicating suspicion and the need to find something out, set the tone for the rest of the play. Francisco reports that his watch has been uneventful. Alone, Bernardo and Marcellus recount to Horatio how a Ghost appeared the night before but would not stay. Now they are waiting to see if it will appear again. If it does, they hope that it will speak to Horatio, who as a scholar may have more success in speaking to the Ghost than they did.
As they wait, the Ghost appears. Horatio’s attempt to speak to it fails, however, and the Ghost vanishes. After the men note the Ghost’s resemblance to the deceased King Hamlet, the guards ask Horatio why they are keeping the watch and why war preparations are being made in Denmark. Horatio tells them of a feared invasion by Norwegian troops under the command of young Fortinbras. Fortinbras’s father, in a war with the old King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, was killed by King Hamlet. Fortinbras is set on avenging his father’s death and recapturing the territory lost to King Hamlet. As they speak, the Ghost appears again, then vanishes again. The three decide to inform Hamlet of what they have seen.
Act 1, Scene 2
Inside the castle, the new king, Claudius, is delivering a state address, touching on his ascension to the throne, the old king’s death, and his marriage to Gertrude, old King Hamlet’s widow and Hamlet’s mother. Next on his agenda is the impending war with Norway. He dispatches Cornelius and Voltimand to Norway to negotiate with Fortinbras’s uncle, the king of Norway, and prevent a war.
Claudius then turns his attention to Hamlet, who stands among the courtiers, dressed in mourning black. Claudius calls Hamlet ‘‘our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.’’ Hamlet’s first words, an aside, showing his alienation from and disgust with Claudius, are ‘‘A little more than kin, and less than kind,’’ acknowledging their kinship but indicating that he thinks of himself as entirely unlike Claudius. When Claudius asks, ‘‘How is it that the clouds still hang on you?’’ Hamlet answers with a pun: ‘‘Not so, my Lord. I am too much in the sun.’’ Hamlet is cryptically suggesting that he is too loyal a son for Claudius’s treacherous world.
Claudius’s apparent solicitude is fraught with purpose. In marrying Gertrude, he has effectively usurped Hamlet’s place as successor to the Danish throne. He speaks to Hamlet directly about the prince’s grief for his dead father, arguing that to persist in grief for the dead is actually an offense against heaven, since it seems to reflect rebellion against the will of heaven. In this address, Claudius also informs Hamlet that he is rejecting the prince’s request to return to school in Germany, in Wittenberg, and wishes him to remain at court, especially since Queen Gertrude, his mother, wishes him to remain near her. Claudius’s refusal to let Hamlet leave Denmark is particularly pointed because he has just previously granted a similar request by Laertes, the son of his Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, to return to Paris. Hamlet agrees to stay; when his mother asks him why his grief for his dead father seems so strong, he tells her that his grief does not just seem strong but actually is strong. Moreover, he tells her that the black mourning clothes he wears and his dejected behavior are outward manifestations of his internal woe.
After the court disperses, Hamlet remains behind and in a soliloquy reveals his internal state. He expresses his disgust with the world, which ‘‘is an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / possess it merely.’’ He himself would prefer to be dead, even by his own hand, if such an act were not against the laws of God. Beyond his father’s death, a cause of his despair is his mother’s quick and unseemly marriage to Claudius. Hamlet says nothing about his own royal ambitions, presumably not having any. He is powerfully troubled, however, by the differences between his father and his uncle. To him, his father was a god; his uncle is a lecher. Hamlet is most incensed not only at Gertrude’s disloyalty to her dead husband but at her apparent hypocrisy, in that she could cling to his father and grieve for him as deeply as she had and nevertheless be so quickly seduced by his uncle. ‘‘Frailty,’’ Hamlet generalizes from his mother to the sex as a whole, ‘‘thy name is woman.’’
As Hamlet is finishing his painful meditation, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo enter the chamber and report the night’s encounter with the Ghost of his dead father. Hamlet arranges to meet them on the battlements and watch with them that night and vows to talk to the Ghost should it appear.
Act 1, Scene 3
In the third scene, Shakespeare shifts the focus of the play to Polonius and his two children, Ophelia and Laertes. As the scene begins, Laertes, about to embark on his return journey to France, in parting from his sister, advises her to guard herself against Hamlet’s advances. She promises that she will and reminds him not to counsel chaste and prudent behavior to her while leading a reckless life himself. Polonius enters to bid Laertes farewell and to give him some precepts that he hopes will guide his behavior in France. Once Laertes has departed, Polonius asks Ophelia what they had been speaking about, and Ophelia reports that her brother had warned her to be wary of Hamlet’s courtship. Polonius affirms this warning, telling her that Hamlet is in all likelihood only toying with her and that he wishes her to no longer speak to Hamlet.
Act 1, Scene 4
In the middle of the night, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo wait on the battlements of Elsinore to see if the Ghost will appear. In the meantime they comment on the nightly carousing and revelry at the court of Denmark, which Hamlet acknowledges give Denmark a reputation of being a place of drunkenness. Hamlet then philosophizes about human faults, observing that one fault can overwhelm a person who is in all other respects decent. His discourse is interrupted by the appearance of the Ghost, who signals him to follow. Hamlet’s companions try to hold him back, fearing that the Ghost may drive him mad or move him to take his own life, but Hamlet resists, drawing his sword, and follows the Ghost. The others follow after.
Act 1, Scene 5
Alone with the Ghost, Hamlet says that he will go no further. The Ghost identifies himself as Hamlet’s father’s spirit, ‘‘doomed for a certain term to walk the night’’ because he died without having had the opportunity to repent. More significantly, he tells Hamlet that although he is said to have died sleeping in his orchard, the truth is that his brother killed him by pouring a ‘‘leperous distillment’’ in his ear; through this lie, Claudius has abused the ear of Denmark. Hamlet tells the Ghost that he had suspected some foul play by his uncle, and the Ghost tells Hamlet that he is obliged to avenge the murder. Further, the Ghost instructs Hamlet not to hurt his mother but to ‘‘leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her.’’ With the approach of morning, the Ghost vanishes, leaving in Hamlet’s ears the words ‘‘Remember me.’’ Hamlet believes the Ghost and tells Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo that the Ghost is honest, but he refuses to reveal what the Ghost imparted. Hamlet instructs the men to mention nothing of what has just occurred and, if they see Hamlet acting oddly, not to indicate even by the smallest gesture that they know the reason why. He commands them to swear that they will be silent. When they resist, saying that such an oath is not necessary, the Ghost’s voice calls out, ‘‘Swear,’’ and they do. Hamlet calls the Ghost a perturbed spirit and tells it to rest. He then remarks that ‘‘the time is out of joint’’ and that it is his misfortune that it is his task ‘‘to set it right.’’
Act 2, Scene 1
Polonius is alone with Reynaldo, a courtier whom he is sending to Paris to find out how Laertes is behaving. Polonius instructs Reynaldo in methods of gathering information, emphasizing how he ought to offer demeaning observations about Laertes’s character to see if others confirm them or even reciprocate with further accounts of his faults. Once Reynaldo is dispatched, Ophelia enters and tells her father of a recent, disturbing encounter with Hamlet, who entered her chamber with his clothing in disarray, took hold of her by the wrist, sighed, gazed at her, and left. Polonius interprets the behavior as indicating lovesickness and asks her if she has ‘‘given him any hard words of late’’; Ophelia tells him that she has not, that she has, as Polonius instructed, returned Hamlet’s letters and ‘‘denied / His access to me.’’ Polonius determines to tell the king of the episode.
Act 2, Scene 2
Claudius and Gertrude greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old school friends of Hamlet’s, thank them for answering their summons, and explain that neither Hamlet’s ‘‘exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was.’’ The king and queen hope that the two might be able to spend time with Hamlet and find out what has caused his ‘‘transformation.’’ The two friends then leave to let Hamlet know of their arrival.
Polonius enters and informs Claudius that the ambassadors to Norway, Cornelius and Voltimand, have returned and that he thinks he knows the cause of Hamlet’s madness; he advises the king to first hear from the ambassadors. After Polonius leaves to fetch the ambassadors, Claudius tells Gertrude that Polonius thinks he knows the cause of Hamlet’s madness. She remarks that she does not doubt that the cause is the combination of his father’s death and their ‘‘o’erhasty marriage.’’
Voltimand and Cornelius report that the king of Norway was grieved to learn that Fortinbras was raising an army against Denmark, as he had thought the army was being assembled for an attack against Poland. When he learned the truth, he suppressed Fortinbras’s war effort against Denmark but asked for passage through Denmark for the Polish campaign.
With the ambassadors’ business concluded, Polonius informs the king and queen with characteristic long-windedness that he believes the cause of Hamlet’s apparent madness to be love for Ophelia; he reads a letter from Hamlet to her that expresses love and desperation. The queen finds the hypothesis credible, and the king wishes to know how they might test it. Polonius suggests that he will arrange for Hamlet and Ophelia to meet and converse while the king, queen, and Polonius hide behind an arras, or long heavy curtain, and eavesdrop. Claudius accepts, and Polonius, noticing Hamlet walking toward them, instructs the king and queen to leave while he engages Hamlet in conversation.
Polonius greets Hamlet and, as if talking to a madman, asks Hamlet if he knows him. Hamlet answers that he knows him very well, that he is a fishmonger. Hamlet often speaks in double entendres, expressions that have two meanings, with one of them usually sexually suggestive; a fishmonger is not only a person who sells fish but also a procurer, or pimp. Indeed, Polonius is in a sense using Ophelia (‘‘I’ll loose my daughter,’’ he has told Claudius and Gertrude) to snare Hamlet. Hamlet continues to lead Polonius on, teasing him with references to love, sexuality, Ophelia, and death. Polonius takes leave of Hamlet convinced that he is mad and that love for Ophelia is the cause.
As Polonius leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and greet Hamlet, who asks what ill fortune brings them to Denmark, which he calls a prison. They respond that they do not find it to be such, and he tells them that it is one only to him, then, ‘‘for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’’ They observe that he must have too much ambition, but Hamlet dissents and, as he had toyed with Polonius, toys with them, telling them he could live happily in a small space but has bad dreams. After they discuss the nature of dreams, Hamlet again asks why they have come to Elsinore, and they answer that it was to visit him. But Hamlet protests that their visit is not voluntary, remarking, ‘‘Were you not sent for?… Come, come, deal justly with me.’’ They equivocate, not knowing what to say, and Hamlet tells them that they need not answer; he knows that they were summoned. Still, they do not respond honestly, asking, ‘‘To what end?’’ Hamlet replies, ‘‘That you must teach me.’’ Finally, the two admit that they were summoned, and Hamlet says that he will tell them why so that they will not be guilty of revealing their mission.
Hamlet proceeds to inform them that he has lost his ability to take pleasure in being alive and that ‘‘man,’’ though a wonderful creature with great capabilities, ‘‘delights not me’’; when they smile, he suspects they have a bawdy understanding of his words and adds ‘‘nor woman neither.’’ Rosencrantz asserts that he was thinking no such thing; rather, he recalled that they encountered traveling players on their way to the court, and if Hamlet takes no pleasure in the ways of men, he will not enjoy the players. Hamlet responds that they will be welcome, especially the one who plays the king. After discussion on the current state of the theater, with reference to the stage in Shakespeare’s own London and the rise of children’s theater companies, which has forced adult troupes to travel, Polonius enters to inform Hamlet that the players have arrived. Hamlet and Polonius banter about theater and once again about fathers and their daughters. Hamlet refers to the biblical figure of Jephthah, who vowed to God that if he was victorious in battle, he would offer as a sacrifice to God the first thing he saw on his return home. On his return, the first thing Jephtha encountered was his daughter coming out to greet him. ‘‘Still on my daughter,’’ Polonius notes, without realizing that Hamlet is suggesting that Polonius is sacrificing his daughter to his own interests. The players enter, and Hamlet greets them and asks one of the players to recite a speech about the fall of Troy to the Greeks in the Trojan War and the suffering of the king and queen of Troy, Priam and Hecuba. Polonius notes that as the player recites the speech, he is filled with emotion. Hamlet then asks the players if they know a play called The Murder of Gonzago; they do. Hamlet arranges for them to play it before the court the following night with the addition of some lines Hamlet will write.
Alone, Hamlet compares himself to the player, who was moved to a passion by his own speech, and berates himself in a soliloquy for his lack of determination in real life in his quest for revenge. His meditation leads him to the idea that ‘‘guilty creatures’’ watching a play that mirrors their misdeeds might become so moved as to confess their crimes, if not verbally then by some facial expression or bodily gesture. Thus, Hamlet plans to watch the king’s response to The Murder of Gonzago, which features a murder similar to King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet remarks in closing, ‘‘The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.’’
Act 3, Scene 1
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to the king and queen that they were unable to learn much from Hamlet, who, they say, greeted them like a gentleman but avoided their inquiries with a crafty madness. The two inform the king of the players’ arrival and of the performance scheduled for that evening. The king is glad that Hamlet seems to be pursuing pleasure and instructs them to continue trying to lead him to reveal the root of his mad behavior. The king then asks Gertrude to leave them. Gertrude tells Ophelia that she hopes it is for love of her that Hamlet is mad; she would not oppose their marriage. Polonius positions Ophelia with a book to wait for Hamlet; he and the king will watch in hiding when Hamlet arrives.
Hamlet enters and recites perhaps the most famous speech from any play, the soliloquy ‘‘To be or not to be,’’ in which he ponders the pain of being alive and the fear of death and of what the afterlife may hold. He concludes that fear of the unknown makes people bear the burdens, injustices, and woes of being alive. He breaks off his meditations when he sees Ophelia, who is reading from a book that Hamlet takes to be a prayer book. In greeting her, he asks her to include him in her prayers. She tells him that she has ‘‘remembrances’’ of his, gifts and letters he has given her that she wishes to return to him. He says that he never gave her anything, but she asserts that he knows he did; when he did, he gave them with sweet words, but now that he is cold to her, the gifts no longer have the richness they once had. He interrupts her to ask if she is honest, suspecting that she is the bait in a trap to catch him. She does not understand his question, and he declares that if she is honest and fair, her honesty would not permit her to be used (as she is being used to lure Hamlet into revealing himself). I
n a speech full of words with double meanings, Hamlet tells Ophelia ‘‘Get thee to a nunnery,’’ meaning both ‘‘sequester yourself in a convent to be away from this sinful, dangerous world’’ and ‘‘go into a brothel, for you are being a prostitute, in being used by Claudius and Polonius.’’ At length, he berates himself and all of mankind. He concludes by asking, ‘‘Where’s your father?’’ and she answers with a lie, ‘‘At home, my lord.’’ Hamlet then calls her father a fool, tells Ophelia that if she marries she ought to be chaste, and concludes with a condemnation of women who apply makeup and act affectedly, making a mockery of God’s creation. He rails against marriage and makes a veiled threat to kill the king. He concludes by once more telling her, ‘‘To a nunnery, go.’’
Alone, Ophelia grieves at Hamlet’s apparent madness. The king and Polonius come out of hiding, and the king remarks that Hamlet did not seem to be talking like a disappointed lover, that his words were not really like those of a madman. Furthermore, the king feels that Hamlet is a threat and so resolves to send him to England in an ambassadorial function, to collect some tribute money that England has neglected to pay Denmark. Polonius tells Ophelia that she need not tax herself to relate the conversation as they have overheard everything, thus offering no comfort to the broken-hearted girl. Polonius suggests that after the play, Gertrude ought to talk to Hamlet to see what she can learn; he will hide behind an arras and listen to their conversation. The king agrees and adds that ‘‘madness in great ones’’ must not go unwatched.
Act 3, Scene 2
Before the performance of The Mousetrap, Hamlet’s adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet instructs the players how to act, telling them not to play the scene that evening too broadly and with great gesticulation—not to go for big effects but to perform realistically and to ‘‘hold … the mirror up to nature.’’ When the players leave, Horatio enters. Hamlet first tells him how much he loves and admires him for his balanced, stoical disposition, as he is not a flatterer or a slave to the whims of fortune. Hamlet asks Horatio to observe the king’s reactions during the play, which will mirror the circumstances of King Hamlet’s death as the Ghost has related them.
With ceremonial flourish the king and the court enter. The king greets Hamlet, asking how he ‘‘fares,’’ and Hamlet responds with a cryptic pun, since ‘‘how do you fare’’ means ‘‘how do you eat?’’ as well as ‘‘how do you do?’’ Hamlet says that he ‘‘eats the air, promise crammed,’’ punning also on ‘‘heir,’’ suggesting that Claudius, by marrying Gertrude and becoming king, has usurped Hamlet’s rightful place in the royal succession. Claudius says that he does not understand Hamlet’s meaning— ‘‘these words are not mine’’—and Hamlet retorts that now that they have been spoken, the words are not his either. Hamlet then turns to banter with Polonius about his past as an actor. The queen invites Hamlet to sit beside her, but Hamlet indicates that he would prefer to sit by Ophelia and proceeds to make a series of obscene sexual puns and cutting references to his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage.
The play begins with a ‘‘dumb show’’ or pantomime of the action to come. After a spoken prologue, the Player King and Player Queen enter. They are loving, but the king is not in good health and speaks of the possibility of dying. The queen says that she will never marry again; to do so would be like a second death of her husband. But the king objects; as circumstances change, he asserts, so will she. She protests that she will be constant and then leaves the stage, and the king lies down for a nap. As the scene changes, Hamlet asks his mother what she thinks of the play, and she says that it seems to her that ‘‘the lady doth protest too much.’’
A new character then enters and pours poison into the sleeping king’s ear, as Hamlet, like a chorus, narrates what is happening, noting, ‘‘You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.’’ At this point, Claudius rises, Gertrude asks how he fares, Polonius orders the play stopped, and Claudius calls for ‘‘some light’’ and leaves; all the court except Hamlet and Horatio follow. Hamlet is euphoric, and he and Horatio agree that the king’s reaction confirms the Ghost’s honesty and the king’s guilt. As they talk, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell Hamlet how disturbed the king and queen are at his behavior and also that the queen wishes to speak with him in her chamber. They apologize for their boldness in speaking somewhat reproachfully to Hamlet, citing the great love they bear him as an excuse. Hamlet takes a flute from one of the players and asks Guildenstern to play it; Guildenstern protests that he lacks the skill to do so. Hamlet remarks on how cheaply, then, Guildenstern must hold Hamlet, in that Guildenstern was trying to ‘‘play upon’’ him. Polonius enters to also announce that the queen wishes to see Hamlet in her chamber. Hamlet then taunts Polonius, too, and the scene ends with Hamlet leaving for Gertrude’s chamber, vowing to be severe with her and reprimand her for her remarriage but not to be abusive or violent.
Act 3, Scene 3
Feeling himself to be in danger, Claudius commissions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England and tells them to arm themselves for the task. They flatter him, telling him how important a king is and how he must protect himself in order to protect all the people of the kingdom who depend on him. As they leave, Polonius enters; he tells the king that Hamlet is going to Gertrude’s chamber and that he will hide behind the arras there to listen to their conversation. Polonius adds that a mother is too partial to her son to be trusted in such circumstances.
Alone, Claudius contemplates his crime, admitting to himself how terrible the murder of a brother is. He tries to pray but realizes that his prayer is meaningless as long as he still enjoys the fruits of his crime. Meanwhile, Hamlet passes on his way to Gertrude’s chamber and realizes that he might kill the king—but he refrains from doing so because killing Claudius while he is in prayer would send his soul to heaven. That, Hamlet says, would be unfair: ‘‘A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven.’’ He leaves Claudius alive. Claudius, alone, ends the scene saying, ‘‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’’ Ironically, prayer did, this time, despite his ambivalence, protect him.
Act 3, Scene 4
In Gertrude’s chamber, Polonius tells her that Hamlet is coming and that she should scold her son for his ‘‘pranks’’; meanwhile, Polonius will hide behind the arras. As Hamlet approaches, she tells Polonius not to worry and to hide. Hamlet asks his mother, ‘‘What’s the matter?’’ and she answers that he has much offended his father, meaning Claudius, his stepfather. He retorts that she has much offended his father, meaning her first husband, King Hamlet. She tells him that his answer is idle, he tells her that her question is wicked, and they begin to quarrel. She asks if he has forgotten who she is; he says that indeed he has not, that she is her husband’s brother’s wife and, though he wishes it were not so, his mother. She says that if he will not listen to her, she will have others speak to him, and he takes hold of her and sits her down, saying that he will hold up a mirror for her to see her innermost self. Frightened, she cries out, ‘‘What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? / Help, ho!’’ Polonius, hearing her cry, calls out ‘‘Help!’’ too, and Hamlet stabs the man behind the curtain without seeing who it is. When his mother asks, ‘‘What hast thou done?’’ he says that he does not know. He asks if the man was the king, but she only says that it was a ‘‘bloody deed.’’ Hamlet responds that the act is ‘‘almost as bad, good Mother, / as kill a king, and marry with his brother.’’ She responds with the question, ‘‘As kill a king?’’ apparently not knowing what he is referring to. He then lifts the curtain and sees the dead Polonius, to call him a ‘‘wretched, rash, intruding fool.’’
The murder seems to spur them to speak more openly, for Gertrude then asks what she has done to leave him so incensed. Hamlet proceeds to answer, and what he does not say is as interesting as what he does, for he fails to mention his meeting with the Ghost, nor does he explain the expression ‘‘as kill a king.’’ Rather, he focuses on the differences he perceives between the two brothers, elevating the old King Hamlet to a divine level and depicting Claudius as a depraved man. He chides his mother for being able to go from a man so fine to a man so base. She breaks down and tells him that he has torn her heart in two. He tells her to throw away the rotten part, the part attached to Claudius. As he speaks, the Ghost enters to remind Hamlet that he has nearly forgotten his mission, to avenge his father’s death. Gertrude sees Hamlet talking to the air and grows afraid that he truly is crazy. Hamlet warns her not to think that he is mad rather than realize that she is at fault; he tells her not to go again to Claudius’s bed or to be seduced into revealing Hamlet’s true condition. She agrees. Hamlet then tells his mother that he is being sent to England, that he suspects a plot against him, that he does not trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that he will beat them at their own game. He leaves, dragging Polonius’s body behind him to deposit it in another room.
Act 4, Scene 1
The king asks Gertrude how the interview with Hamlet went. She asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to withdraw and tells Claudius that Hamlet is as mad as the raging sea during a tempest and that he killed Polonius. The king reflects on how he himself might have been killed and on how the people will hold him partly responsible for the killing, as he failed to keep Hamlet in check. He reiterates that he will send Hamlet to England. When Claudius asks Gertrude where Hamlet is now, she reports that he has gone to stow Polonius’s body somewhere. The king summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back into his presence, tells them of the murder of Polonius, and orders them to find Hamlet and the body.
Act 4, Scene 2
No longer as friends but as agents of the king, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern demand Polonius’s body of Hamlet. He does not give them a straight answer, insults them, and runs away as if playing hide-and-seek; they pursue him.
Act 4, Scene 3
The king tells two or three courtiers that he has sent to find Hamlet and the body and that Hamlet is dangerous, though the ‘‘multitude,’’ the people, love him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell the king that Hamlet is outside the chamber under guard but will not say where the body is. The king orders Hamlet brought in and asks him where the body is. Hamlet answers cryptically first that Polonius is ‘‘at supper,’’ ‘‘not where he eats, but where he is eaten,’’ then that perhaps Polonius is in heaven and the king ought to send a messenger there to find him; if he is not there, the king might look in the ‘‘other place’’ himself. Finally, Hamlet says that if the king cannot find him in either place he will soon smell him by a certain staircase. Claudius tells Hamlet that for his own safety he is sending him to England aboard a ship, and Hamlet is removed under guard. In a short soliloquy, the king reveals that he has sent letters to England ordering Hamlet’s murder and that he will not know peace until Hamlet is dead.
Act 4, Scene 4
Fortinbras, of Norway, crosses the stage with his troops, passing through Denmark on his way to fight for a barren piece of land in Poland, as a captain tells Hamlet when he inquires. Hamlet is astonished that men should fight and so many should die for the possession of a worthless piece of ground. He concludes that to be great is to ‘‘find quarrel in a straw,’’ and reproaches himself for not having accomplished the Ghost’s commission yet. He vows that his thoughts will be bloody from then on, thinking that if they are not, they will be worth nothing.
Act 4, Scene 5
In the castle, Gertrude refuses to speak with Ophelia until a courtier tells her that Ophelia is distracted and talks madly in incoherent snatches about her father; Horatio then advises Gertrude to speak with Ophelia lest she bring people to think ill of the king, and Gertrude agrees. Ophelia enters, deranged by grief and singing songs about sexual promiscuity, abandonment, and death. Claudius enters and speaks gently to Ophelia, but she leaves them talking of her father’s burial in the cold ground and how her ‘‘brother shall know of it.’’ Claudius instructs Horatio to keep an eye on Ophelia, as he is worried that seeing her grief will turn the people against him; Claudius then tells Gertrude that Laertes has secretly returned from France to avenge his father’s death, for which he blames the king. As Claudius speaks, there is a commotion, as Laertes has incited a mob looking to overthrow Claudius and make Laertes king. They break down the doors of the castle and enter, and Laertes commands the mob to stand outside and demands to know where his father is. Gertrude unsuccessfully tries to calm Laertes, and Claudius bids her let him go, saying that he is not afraid, for a king is protected by God. The king persuades Laertes to be patient and tries to convince Laertes that they are partners in grief, that he is not responsible for Polonius’s death, and that he does not begrudge Laertes his revenge but also does not want Laertes to punish the innocent with the guilty. As Laertes’s passion subsides, Ophelia enters again, mad and strewing flowers, rousing that passion again. Once Ophelia has gone, Claudius tells Laertes that he will answer any questions regarding Polonius’s death and will satisfy Laertes regarding his own innocence.
Act 4, Scene 6
Sailors bring Horatio a letter from Hamlet, who writes that he is back in Denmark, as pirates boarded their ship at sea, and during the battle Hamlet boarded the pirates’ ship. They have dealt fairly with him and for a reward are returning him to Denmark. He requests that Horatio take the sailors to the king and give the king letters from him. Hamlet has much to tell Horatio of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are still traveling to England. Horatio promises the sailors to do as Hamlet requests and asks them to bring him to Hamlet.
Act 4, Scene 7
Explaining what has happened to Polonius, Claudius convinces Laertes of his own innocence regarding Polonius’s death and of Hamlet’s guilt. When Laertes asks why Hamlet was not punished, Claudius explains that he could not punish him outright because of the love his mother and the people both bear him. Laertes vows to take revenge himself, but the king tells him that more news will soon come to satisfy him. As they speak, a messenger enters with Hamlet’s letters, and the king reads that Hamlet has returned to Denmark alone and wishes to see him. Laertes asserts that he must now take revenge, and the king concocts a scheme to make Hamlet’s death look accidental. He tells Laertes how much Hamlet admires his skill in fencing and proposes a match between the two. Laertes’ sword, however, shall not have a blunt on its tip. Laertes, roused by the king’s goading to a passion that would allow him to cut Hamlet’s throat in church, agrees. Besides the sword’s being naked, the king proposes that its tip be wetted with a deadly poison and that, should Hamlet become thirsty during the duel, the king will offer him a cup of poisoned wine. Gertrude interrupts their conversation to announce that Ophelia has drowned in a brook near the castle, and Laertes is shattered. The king and Gertrude follow him offstage, with the king noting how terrible Ophelia’s death is, since he has had so much trouble calming Laertes’ rage, and her death has now inflamed it once again.
Act 5, Scene 1
In the graveyard, two clowns are joking and singing as they dig a grave. By their conversation, the audience or reader understands that the grave is Ophelia’s and that owing to a dispute over whether her drowning was accidental or suicidal, she will not be given full burial rites. Hamlet and Horatio then enter, and Hamlet is astonished that the First Clown can go about his gravedigging business in such a carefree fashion and engages him in conversation. The First Clown says that he has been employed at his trade for thirty years, since the young Hamlet was born. They speak of mortality, and the clown shows Hamlet a skull, saying that it was the skull of Yorick, the king’s jester; Hamlet then meditates on the passing of time.
As they speak, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, a Priest, and members of the court enter for Ophelia’s burial. When she is laid in the earth, Laertes jumps into the grave after her. Hamlet, seeing everything, his passion aroused, jumps in, too, and there grapples with Laertes, proclaiming his greater love. The king has them parted, and Hamlet protests that Laertes has no cause to be angry with him, that he has always esteemed him. Claudius bids Horatio look after Hamlet, and when he is alone with Laertes, the king asks him to be patient in his desire for revenge, reminding him of the plan they have to murder Hamlet in the dueling contest.
Act 5, Scene 2
Hamlet tells Horatio how he found the letter that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying from Claudius to the king of England commissioning Hamlet’s immediate execution. He then notes that he substituted another letter that he wrote and sealed with his own royal signet ring, ordering instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for whose deaths he feels no guilt, so willing were they to go about the king’s business. In the course of this discussion, Hamlet reveals a new calmness of temperament founded on his acceptance that things, with time, will be as they are ordained to be.
As they are speaking, Osric, a foppish courtier, enters and tells Hamlet of the fencing wager the king has placed on him against Laertes. Hamlet agrees to the contest and says that he is available immediately. The king, queen, Laertes, and the court then enter, and the contest begins. Hamlet asks Laertes for forgiveness, claiming that his madness, not himself, wronged Laertes, and Laertes, yet planning to kill Hamlet, lies and says that he forgives him, provisionally. They choose their foils, with Laertes taking the bare, poisoned one and Hamlet accepting the blunted one without checking the other, as the king had said he would. Between rounds, the king offers Hamlet a drink of poisoned wine, but Hamlet declines until later. The queen then begins to take a sip, and the king tries to stop her, but she protests that she will drink; after drinking, she swoons and realizes that she has been poisoned. Hamlet and Laertes then both wound each other with the poisoned sword, for in a scuffle their foils are exchanged. Laertes then has a change of heart and tells Hamlet of the king’s plot; Laertes asks Hamlet’s forgiveness and dies receiving it. Hamlet then strikes the king with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink some of the wine, and the courtiers call out treason. As Hamlet is dying, Horatio says that he will take the cup and drink as well, thus, like a Roman, following his friend in death. However, Hamlet prevents him, imploring him rather to put off the joys of death for a while and, in the cruel world, to draw his breath in pain and tell Hamlet’s story, for as it stands he dies with a sullied reputation. Hamlet notes that he imagines Fortinbras will be selected king of Denmark, and he approves of that. Fortinbras, indeed, then enters, returning across Denmark from victory in Poland, and has Hamlet placed on a funeral platform and given military rites.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007