Presenting an overview of Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, including quick facts, a plot summary, a character review, setting summary, answers to commonly asked questions about Hamlet and links to more indepth reviews.
Quick Hamlet Facts
When was Hamlet written?
What type of play is Hamlet?
Hamlet is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Where is Hamlet set?
Hamlet is set in the cold, dark isolation of Elsinor a bleak, snow-covered region of Denmark. It’s the royal court of the King of Denmark. The atmosphere is established on the cold, windy battlements of the castle. Most of the action takes place in the interior rooms and corridors of the castle and one scene is set in a nearby cemetery. Read more detail on the settings in Hamlet.
What themes run through Hamlet?
The play falls into the genre of the ‘revenge tragedy’, which was very popular in the Jacobean era with its taste for violence and intrigue. Revenge is the most obvious, and one of the main, themes of the play. Although explorations of the idea of appearance and reality are present in all Shakespeare’s plays, it’s more fully developed in Hamlet, with all it’s plotting, intrigues, deceit and hypocrisy. Other themes are the question of what a human being is; death and mortality and suicide. In common with several other Shakespeare plays, there is a clear Christian parallel.
Who are the main characters in Hamlet?
Hamlet, the son of the recently murdered King is the heir to the throne. He has had the crown stolen from him by his father’s villainous brother, Claudius whom the late king’s widow, Gertrude – Hamlet’s mother – has married. Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells him on the battlements that Claudius murdered him. Hamlet is continuously spied on by Polonius, the garrulous Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. His eavesdropping results in his being accidentally killed by Hamlet. Ophelia is Polonius’ daughter. Led on to a possible relationship by Hamlet, then rejected, she commits suicide by drowning. Her brother, Laertes seeks revenge by plotting with Claudius to kill Hamlet.
Other characters are Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, in whom he confides, Rosencranz and Guidenstern, Hamlet’s fellow university students who spy on Hamlet for Claudius, Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway and a troupe of strolling actors and a pair of gravediggers. See a full list of characters in Hamlet.
What’s the main storyline of Hamlet?
- Hamlet is summoned home to Denmark for his father’s funeral where a ghost appears who claims to be the former king, Hamlet’s father. The ghost claims Hamlet’s father was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who then married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and took the throne.
- Hamlet tries to uncover the truth, making himself appear crazy and mistreating his girlfriend Ophelia so as to deflect Claudius’ suspicion. He arranges for a group of actors to perform a play reenacting King Hamlet’s murder by poisoning to gauge Claudius’ response.
- Hamlet spies on Claudius, then getting angry accidentally kills Polonius, Ophelia’s father. Claudius sends Hamlet to England on a diplomatic mission, but secretly plans to have Hamlet executed. Hamlet escapes and returns in time to see Ophelia’s funeral, who has drowned herself.
- Claudius arranges a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother. During the duel Gertrude drinks poison intended for Hamlet. Laertes and Hamlet fights, wounding each other with a poisoned rapier and eventually both die. Read a more indepth summary of Hamlet.
Common Questions About Hamlet
Is Hamlet a true story?
Hamlet is not a true story. It is a work of fiction inspired by the tale of the mediaeval Danish ruler, Amleth, from Gesta Danorum a 1200 AD history of Denmark by historian Saxo Grammaticus. The play is a drama in the tradition of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, and influenced by a play by Thomas Kyd, Ur-Hamlet, now lost.
What kind of person is Hamlet?
Hamlet is a highly intelligent, introspective young man. He is witty and entertaining, showing a strong sense of humour throughout, even in the midst of his mental suffering. He is sociable but inclined to be cruel in the way he speaks to people he doesn’t like. Ultimately, he is a serious, thoughtful man.
Who killed Hamlet?
Hamlet dies in a duel with Laertes, the son of Polonius, a courtier who Hamlet has killed by mistake. The duel is a trap, laid by Laertes and the king, Claudius, in which Laertes is armed with a poison-tipped rapier. During the duel the rapiers are swapped a few times and both men are killed by the poison.
How does Ophelia die?
Ophelia commits suicide. Driven mad by the pressures laid on her by the men in the story – her father, Polonius, the king, Claudius, and her lover, Hamlet – she becomes demented and drowns herself. Hamlet, himself under unbearable emotional pressure, rejects her, and that is the last straw for her.
Famous Hamlet Quotes
Hamlet is quite possibly Shakespeare’s most quoted play, with some huge lines throughout the entire play – many from Polonius, the King’s counsellor. And, of course, Hamlet includes perhaps the most famous of all Shakespeare’s lines, spoken by Hamlet himself:
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”
(Polonius, act 1 scene 3)
This above all: to thine own self be true”
(Polonius, act 1 scene 3)
(Polonius, act 2 scene 2)
(Hamlet, act 3 scene 1)
Read all of the top quotes from Hamlet listed on this page.