The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Act I
Scene 1: Horatio and guards see the ghost of the dead king.
Scene 2: King and queen with Hamlet contrasted with Laertes and his father Polonius; the dark mood of Hamlet illuminated in Soliloquy 1 (line 129) "O that this too too sullied flesh". Horatio tells him of the ghost.
Scene 3: Laertes warns Ophelia against Hamlet's approaches. Polonius (their father) gives Laertes parting advice, warns Ophelia.
Scene 4: (midnight). The Ghost appears, Hamlet follows it.
Scene 5: Ghost tells Hamlet of his murder. "Remember me!" Soliloquy 2 (line 93) "O all you host of heaven"

Act II
Scene 1: Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris. Ophelia tells of Hamlet's strange behaviour in her room.
Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Solution to Fortinbras crisis announced, he had been intending to attack Denmark. Polonius comments on Hamlet's madness, explaining it as frustrated love for Ophelia; Hamlet plays with him. Hamlet on "Man" (line 300); the coming of the Players announced. Polonius mocked. Hamlet and the players, the "Phyrrus" speech, ending in the actor's tears for Hecuba: Soliloquy 3 (line 515) "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I".

Scene 1: King etc prepare to spy on Hamlet's talk with Ophelia. Soliloquy 4 (line 56) "To be or not to be"; Hamlet with Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery".
Scene 2: (The Play Scene) Hamlet's advice to the Players on acting; he warns Horatio to watch the king during the play. The Court enters. The dumb show, the Play-within-the-play ("The Mousetrap", "The Murder of Gonzago"), the king storms out. The queen sends for Hamlet; dialogue about recorders. Soliloquy 5 (line 387) "Now could I drink hot blood".
Scene 3: King makes a plan with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to send Hamlet to England. Polonius promises to hide behind the arras to hear what Hamlet will say to his mother. King's Soliloquy (line 36) "O my offense is rank". Hamlet comes in, refuses to kill the praying king. Soliloquy 6 (line 73) "Now might I do it pat".
Scene 4: Polonius hides; Hamlet comes to the queen, and suddenly kills Polonius through the curtain. Hamlet talks with queen, compares the portraits of her two husbands. The Ghost appears to calm and encourage Hamlet. Hamlet asks his mother to tell the king he is mad, not to sleep with him, mentions the journey to England.

Act IV
Scene 1: The queen tells the king what has happened to Polonius. The king sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help.
Scene 2: Hamlet rejects them
Scene 3: Hamlet and the king, the king orders him to go to England. The king reveals his plot to kill Hamlet in a soliloquy (line 55).
Scene 4: Fortinbras passes through Denmark, resolved to capture a small piece of useless ground in Poland. Hamlet compares himself with him: Soliloquy 7 (line 32) "How all occasions do inform".
Scene 5: Queen with the mad Ophelia; the king comes. Laertes arrives seeking revenge, forces his way in. Ophelia enters, the flower gifts; king and Laertes agree to work together.
Scene 6: Horatio receives letter telling of Hamlet's escape from ship going to England during battle with pirates.
Scene 7: King and Laertes talk about Hamlet; Hamlet's letter arrives, announcing his return; they prepare a plot involving poisoned rapiers, with poison in a cup in case. Queen announces Ophelia's death.

Act V
Scene 1: The Grave-diggers joking and singing are overheard by Hamlet and Horatio; Hamlet joins the game, "Alas, poor Yorick!" Death theme. Ophelia's very simple funeral enters. Laertes and Hamlet fight in her grave. Hamlet: "I loved Ophelia".
Scene 2: Hamlet tells Horatio how he discovered the king's plot against him by reading the sealed letter asking for him to be killed, his revenge on R and G (sending them to their deaths in England), his escape. Osric, a comic courtier, brings the challenge to a test of skill. All enter, the duel begins. The queen toasts Hamlet with the poisoned cup. Hamlet is wounded, the rapiers change hands, Laertes is wounded. The queen collapses, Laertes tells Hamlet they will both die, "the king's to blame". Hamlet wounds king with rapier, then forces him to drink the poison. Hamlet and Laertes are reconciled, as Laertes dies. Horatio wants to join them in death, Hamlet asks him to stay alive to tell their story. Arrival of Fortinbras announced, Hamlet names him as next king. Hamlet dies. "Good night, sweet prince." Fortinbras enters, ambassadors from England announce deaths of Rosencrantz and Goldenstern. Bodies carried off. Guns fire salute.

One of the intriguing features of Hamlet is its great length; it cannot be acted without being heavily cut. The length of the text suggests a play which Shakespeare was writing for a private reason that we cannot know. Hamlet is often a play about the words people use, their limits, their futility and their fascination. The fact that he was revising, or re-creating, a once-familiar play may have inspired Shakespeare to fill his text with references to the theater in a way that makes it a prime example of Renaissance "meta-drama" or "self-conscious dramaturgy" in which the audience is invited to view a "mirror image" of the theatrum mundi (theater of the world) to which they belong.

Since the Romantic period, Hamlet has been considered the greatest of plays because the hero seems to be the essential intellectual, full of ideas but unable to act. Hamlet is the paradigm of modern humanity, but there is no character more variously interpreted. Hamlet is the focus of the audience's sympathy, yet certain critics have been very hostile to him.

The source is a primitive Scandinavian story of madness used as a disguise until revenge becomes possible. There is a similar tale told about the Roman hero Brutus who drove the Tarquins out of Rome. The story is found in a 12th century Latin History of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus, from which it was developed by the French writer Belle- forest in his Histoires Tragiques first published in 1570. Since the play by Kyd (?) known as the Ur-Hamlet does not exist, it is not possible to judge whether Shakespeare knew Belleforest's French text, or simply applied his own imagination to the earlier play that was based on it.

The theme of revenge recalls Kyd's Spanish Tragedy; but in Hamlet the ghost intervenes directly in the plot in a way unparalleled in other revenge plays. Without the Ghost of his father (also called Hamlet), the son would not have known of his murder. Part of the theatricality of the play comes from this sudden call to become an Avenger addressed to a student who is not equipped for that role, by a ghost dressed in the old- fashioned armour of another age.

At the heart of Hamlet's predicament is the question of a son's relationship to his father, and to his mother. The strong sexual disgust Hamlet feels at his mother's remarriage with his father's brother is almost the first thing we know about him, continues to the end of the play, and is expressed with greater feeling than any distress at his father's death. Psychological interpretations based on Freud's theory of oedipal conflict have been popular, and in many productions Hamlet is shown in a more or less incestuous closeness to his mother.

One striking aspect of Hamlet is the use of soliloquies; in this way we are brought into Hamlet's mind in a unique way. In terms of plot action, the play is striking for what does not happen. More than any other tragedy, the centre of our interest is the mind of the protagonist. Hamlet takes each aspect of his situation and generalizes it by referring to universal realities of the human predicament. The most famous speech in the play comes in the first scene of Act III:

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,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'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
And lose the name of action... (Act III.i)

It is often said that in this speech Hamlet is thinking of committing suicide, that the question is whether to go on living or not. On the contrary, he is reflecting on the kind of life he cannot avoid living because suicide is not a possibility. The "question" of the first line is a "topic for discussion" in an academic disputation at university. The words "to be or not to be" are the familiar abbreviation of a popular debate topic: "even when there is pain, it is better to be alive (though unhappy) than not to be alive." The stress on the impossibility of suicide, or of any easy way out, leads to the conclusion that we have to waste a lot of time and energy thinking (conscience) because there seems to be nothing we can do! The university dispute was always inconclusive, there was never a single right answer to the question/topic proposed.

At the end of the play, when Hamlet first wounds the king and then forces him to drink the poison, he seems to be making him pay first for his own and Laertes's deaths (by the sword) and then for the queen's (by the cup). In this sense, the king's death is not in revenge for his brother's death at all, although it is a direct consequence of it. Shakespeare uses the conventions of revenge tragedy, but in a radically different direction from Seneca or Kyd, since Hamlet never looses his human dignity.