Summary of ‘Hamlet’

The following are some of the key points to note in the plot of ‘Hamlet’.

Act 1

  1. The soldiers arre convinced that the ghost they have seen is real; they are expecting it to appear again and so the audience is prepared to accept the sight of the ghost.
  2. There is a state of unrest in Denmark. There are war-like preparations, ‘post-haste and romage in the land’.
  3. Hamlet suspects foul play even before he meets the ghost.
  4. We learn of Hamlet’s courtship of Ophelia. According to Polonius, Ophelia has been ‘most free and bounteous’ with her time and, according to Ophelia, Hamlet has ‘made many tenders of his affection’.
  5. By the end of Act 1, Hamlet is already struggling between his impulse to avenge his father’s death and his reluctance ‘to set it right’.


Act 2

  1. Hamlet does not reappear until the middle of the second scene. His absence creates an impression of inactivity.
  2. We see how world-weary Hamlet has become from his description of his disposition to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  3. Hamlet despises ‘tedious old fools’ like Polonius, just as he despises Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their hypocrisy.
  4. Hamlet is full of anguish over his mother’s lack of grief at his father’s death.
  5. By the end of Act 2, Hamlet has thought of a plan to entrap the king and prove his guilt.


Act 3

  1. In Scene 1 we have a direct admisssion of guilt from Claudius.
  2. The perfect opportunity for Hamlet to turn his resolution into action is provide in Scene 3. Hamlet’s failure to seize the opportunity marks the turning point of the play.
  3. Hamlet strikes blindly at the figure behind the arras but in doing so he proves that he is capable of action.
  4. The killing of Polonius is to have very important consequences in the subsequent development of the plot.
  5. Although the ghost is not seen by Gertrude this does not necessarily mean that he is intended as a figment of Hamlet’s imagination. The Elizabethans accepted that a ghost could be visible to some and not to others.


Act 4

  1. There is a sense of greater speed of action in the sequence of very short scenes in Act 4.
  2. Hamlet submits to the king’s plan to send him to England so he is not yet ready for action.
  3. Hamlet’s encounter with Fortinbras is extremely important as it provides him with a new incentive for action.
  4. The lack of cause in Fortinbras’ fight emphasises the very real cause for revenge which Hamlet has.
  5. Theere is a feeling of discontent in Denmark: ‘the people muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thought and whisper, / For good Polonius’ death’.
  6. Laertes is now in the same position as Hamlet – if he does not avenge his father’s death he is not a loyal son.
  7. The alliance of Laertes with the King is a significant element in the plot as the King can now use Laertes to kill Hamlet.


Act 5

  1. The tension of the previous act is momentarily broken as the grave-diggers indulge in jokes about their trade. Yet underlying the humour is the constant awareness of death.
  2. Ophelia’s death is part of Hamlet’s tragedy. It is the consequence of his failure to kill Claudius.
  3. Hamlet fights with skill an courage and in the end does not hesitate to do what he knows to be justified.
  4. Before he dies Hamlet settles the matter of the succession so that Denmark may flourish once more as a land of law and order.


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