Hamlet Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 45 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Hamlet.
This section contains 733 words
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Hamlet Summary & Study Guide Description

Hamlet Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

In the centuries since this renowned work by the legendary William Shakespeare was written, it has often been regarded by critics, scholars, and theater professionals alike as one of the greatest plays ever written. Praised and studied for its psychological accuracy and complexity, the essential story is simple, if perhaps excessively violent - a young man, urged to revenge the murder of his father, delays taking action. Several other deaths result, and the young man loses his own life in a battle with another more active, determined and vengeful young man. It is the play's contemplation and portrayal of the leading character's indecisive state of mind combined with other thematic considerations relating to human corruptibility and the transitory nature of physical life that give the play its timeless greatness.

The play is set in Elsinore Castle, the home of the royal family of Denmark. One night at midnight, as one shift of watchmen is replaced by another, a soldier named Horatio learns of the recurring appearance of a Ghost, believed to be that of the recently deceased King of Denmark, the father of Prince Hamlet. As the doubtful Horatio watches and waits, the Ghost appears. Horatio resolves to bring Hamlet, a good friend, to see the Ghost.

Soon afterward, the new king (Claudius, brother to the previous king) and his queen Gertrude (wife of the previous king, newly married to Claudius) hold court. Claudius deals with a military and political threat from an ambitious prince from nearby Norway, gives permission for a young courtier (Laertes) to return to France, and questions Hamlet as to why he's still in mourning. Hamlet responds that he has a great deal to mourn, and Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) urges him to stay at court and not return to university. Hamlet agrees, and Claudius leads the court away.

Left alone, Hamlet speaks the first of his several soliloquies, revealing his frustration and anger with his mother's actions in marrying his father's brother so soon. His thoughts are interrupted by Horatio, who tells him of the appearance of the Ghost. Hamlet quickly resolves to watch for the Ghost himself and later actually witnesses its appearance, confirming that it is, in fact, the Ghost of his father. The Ghost reveals that he was murdered by Claudius and urges Hamlet to take revenge. Hamlet reluctantly agrees, and after the Ghost disappears, he tells Horatio that he might need to appear mad in order to accomplish his goals.

Hamlet's apparent madness brings discord into the court. His relationship with Ophelia, the daughter of interfering courtier Polonius and sister of Laertes, falls apart, partly because of the courtier's meddling and partly because of Ophelia's fear. Meanwhile, Claudius brings other friends of Hamlet's to court in order to find out the truth of his madness, but Hamlet immediately realizes why and how they came to be there. At the same time, Hamlet arranges for a play to be performed, which contains references to Claudius' acts of murder. When he sees the play, the troubled Claudius withdraws to pray for forgiveness. Hamlet finds him and has an opportunity to take his revenge, but doesn't do so, speaking of his reluctance to give Claudius a blessed death (i.e., one that takes place while Claudius is seeking redemption).

Hamlet then confronts Gertrude with his disgust at her actions. During their confrontation, Hamlet seems to mistake the eavesdropping Polonius for a rat and kills him. He also has a vision of the Ghost, who reminds him of his purpose. Gertrude sees all this and concludes that Hamlet truly is mad. Upon hearing this, Claudius arranges for Hamlet's friends to take him to England, where he is to be executed. Hamlet, however, realizes what's going on, turns the tables on his friends, escapes, and returns to Denmark. There, he learns that Ophelia, driven mad by the abandonment of her lover and the death of her father, has killed herself. As he watches the returned Laertes mourn his sister, Hamlet is moved to confront him, and the two agree to resolve their conflict with a duel. Claudius conspires with Laertes to end the duel with Hamlet's death, but when the duel takes place, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude are all killed first. Hamlet himself dies in Horatio's arms after willing the care of the kingdom to the Norwegian prince referred to at the beginning of the play.

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