Read our short Hamlet summary to help you understand the play. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a much loved – and studied – play, set in Elsinore, a bleak region of Denmark. The main themes are revenge, reality, deceit and mortality, and is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies.
Here’s a brief plot synopsis of Hamlet:
Prince Hamlet’s student friend, Horatio, goes to the battlements of Denmark’s Elsinore castle late at night to meet the guards. They tell him about a ghost they have seen that resembles the late king, Hamlet. It reappears and they decide to tell the prince. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, having become king, has now married Hamlet’s widowed mother, Gertrude.
In the court, after envoys are sent to Norway, the prince is dissuaded from returning to university. Hamlet still mourns his father’s death and hearing of the ghost from Horatio he determines to see it for himself. Laertes, son of the courtier, Polonius, departs for France, warning his sister, Ophelia, against thinking too much of Hamlet’s attentions.
The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him that he was murdered by Claudius. The prince swears vengeance and his friends are sworn to secrecy as Hamlet decides to feign madness while he tests the truth of the ghost’s allegations. He rejects Ophelia, as Claudius and Polonius spy on him seeking to find a reason for his sudden strange behaviour. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, former student friends of Hamlet, are summoned by Claudius and their arrival coincides with that of a group of travelling actors. The prince knows these players well and they rehearse together before arranging to present Hamlet’s choice of play before the king and queen, which will include scenes close to the circumstances of the old king’s death. At the performance Hamlet watches closely as Claudius is provoked into interrupting the play and storming out, resolving to send the prince away to England. Hamlet is summoned by his distressed mother and, on the way he spares Claudius whom he sees kneeling, attempting to pray. To kill him while he is praying would send his soul to heaven rather than to the hell he deserves.
Polonius hides in Gertrude’s room to listen to the conversation, but Hamlet detects movement as he upbraids his mother. He stabs the concealing tapestry and so kills the old man. The ghost reappears, warning his son not to delay revenge, nor to upset his mother.
As the army of Norway’s King Fortinbras crosses Denmark to attack Poland, Hamlet is sent to England, ostensibly as an ambassador, but he discovers Claudius’s plan to have him killed. Outwitting this plot Hamlet returns alone, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his stead. During Hamlet’s absence, Ophelia goes mad as a result of her father’s death and she is drowned.
Hamlet returns and meets Horatio in the graveyard. With the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral Hamlet confronts Laertes who, after attempting a revolt against Claudius, has taken his father’s place at the court. A duel is arranged between Hamlet and Laertes at which Claudius has plotted for Hamlet to die either on a poisoned rapier or from poisoned wine. The plans go wrong and both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded, while Gertrude unwittingly drinks from the poisoned cup. Hamlet, in his death throes, kills Claudius, and Horatio is left to explain the truth to the new king, Fortinbras, who returns, victorious, from the Polish wars.