Detailed Synopsis of ‘Hamlet’

Act One: Bernardo relieves Francisco as night watch on the guard platform of Elsinore Castle in Denmark.  It’s a cold night, and the threat of invasion looms in the air.  Another night watchman, Marcellus, arrives with Horatio, Prince Hamlet’s good friend, to see a ghost the guards have seen two times already.

Horatio is skeptical till the ghost appears, terrifying all the men.  The ghost is that of Old King Hamlet, who died less than a month before.  He is clad in his armour, from head to toe, with a sorrowful expression on his face.  Horatio would have the ghost speak, but it soon disappears.

Horatio tells the guards of how the ghost looks exactly as the late king did when he killed Old Fortinbras of Norway and took, for Denmark, Polish territory formerly occupied by Norway.  Horatio then explains the reason for Denmark’s preparations for war: young Prince Fortinbras wishes to avenge his father by taking back the Polish lands and invading Denmark.

The ghost reappears.  Horatio again entreats the ghost to tell them what can be done to do it ease, or what the fate of Denmark is, but it still won’t say a word.  As it disappears, Marcellus futilely tries to strike at it with his partisan.  They decide to tell Prince Hamlet about the ghost.

Hamlet’s uncle (see Quote 1 of my ‘Analysis of Hamlet‘), Claudius, has married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and become the next king of Denmark, thus stepping in the prince’s way of succession to the throne, committing incest with her, and dismaying Hamlet to the point of despair.

The king sends ambassadors Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway to entreat Fortinbras’s bedridden uncle, Old Norway, to stop the Norweigan prince from making war with Denmark.  Claudius then permits Laertes, son of Lord Chamberlain Polonius, to return to the university in France, since the young man has finished in his duty to the king by attending his coronation and wedding to Gertrude.

Now the king and queen turn to Hamlet, urging him to end his mourning for his father, for the prince seems to have mourned too long.  They also don’t want him to return to the university in Wittenberg; they’d have him stay in Elsinore.  He sadly acquiesces to their wishes.

Everyone except Hamlet leaves, and the prince in a soliloquy expresses his chagrin over his mother’s hasty, incestuous marriage to his father’s brother.  The weak will Gertrude has shown in allowing Claudius to win her over especially distresses him, causing him to assume all women have this fault (see Quote 2 of my ‘Analysis of Hamlet‘).

Horatio and Marcellus enter, Hamlet’s friend also noting how inappropriate it is, so soon after the old king’s death, that Gertrude has married Claudius.  Hamlet bitterly jokes of how economical it is to have the funeral leftovers for the wedding feast before they go bad.  Horatio then tells Hamlet of seeing his father’s ghost at night with the guards.  Suspecting foul play, Hamlet will join Horatio and Marcellus that night to see the ghost again.

At the docks and ready to sail for France, Laertes says goodbye to his sister Ophelia, warning her not to take Hamlet’s love too seriously.  As the prince and, therefore, future king of Denmark, Hamlet’s choice for a bride must result in a political alliance good for the health of the nation.  She, on the other hand, must guard her virtue in not yielding it to the prince.

Polonius comes over, telling Laertes to hurry and get on the boat.  He also gives his son a prolix speech of advice on how best to conduct himself in France: Laertes should avoid fights, but if in them, he should fight so as to make his enemies fear him; he should listen more than speak; he should dress well, but not overly so; he should neither borrow nor lend money (see Quote 3 of my ‘Analysis’); and most importantly, he should be true to himself (see  Quote 4).

Laertes leaves, and the ever-nosy Polonius asks his daughter what she was talking about with Laertes.  When Ophelia says the conversation was about Hamlet, Polonius berates her for her naiveté about the prince’s intentions, which she believes to be those of honourable love, but which her father believes to be no such thing.  Accordingly, Polonius forbids her to encourage Hamlet’s suit of love.

That night, on the guard-platform of the castle, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost to reappear.  They can hear trumpets and canons go off; the king is indulging in drunken revelry, something he does habitually, which gives Denmark a bad reputation among other nations.

Hamlet then mentions how some people, however virtuous in all other ways, nonetheless may have one particular fault or another, a vice that corrupts those people utterly, their other virtues incapable of reversing the corruption.

The ghost appears, frightening all three men.  It beckons Hamlet to go with it to a removed place for private conversation, and Hamlet would eagerly follow; but Horatio and Marcellus restrain the prince, fearing that further contact with the ghost may drive him mad.

Hamlet pulls free of Horatio’s and Marcellus’ restraining arms, pulls out his rapier, and threatens to kill them if they continue to stop him from following the ghost and facing his fate.  Hamlet and the ghost leave, while Horatio and Marcellus fear for him (see Quote 5).

When Hamlet and the ghost are alone, it tells him of the horrors of Purgatory, which it must suffer by day, then at night it haunts Elsinore Castle.  All of Denmark has been deceived, the ghost tells Hamlet, with a lie that Old Hamlet was killed by the bite of a poisonous snake.  The ‘snake’ that poisoned Old Hamlet is now the new king; this confirms Hamlet’s suspicions that Claudius murdered his father.  Old Hamlet was killed before he even had a chance to go to confession: hence his suffering in Purgatory.  The prince is horrified.

When Old Hamlet, as was his habit, was sleeping in his orchard in the afternoon, Claudius snuck up to him with a vial of poison and poured it into the sleeping king’s ear.  The poison coursed through Old Hamlet’s body, killing him.  Then, most heartbreaking of all, the would-be virtuous Gertrude accepted Old Hamlet’s brother as her new husband.

Now, if Hamlet truly loves his father, he must avenge Old Hamlet’s murder.  He mustn’t allow Denmark to be ruled by an incestuous royal couple: Claudius must be killed.  The ghost urges Hamlet, however, not to be violent against his mother; her guilt will punish her during all her sleepless nights.

The dawn is approaching, and the ghost must leave.  It says, “Adieu, adieu, adieu!  Remember me.”  Wild with excitement, the prince rants and raves about how he must focus his every single thought, to the exclusion of anything else, on avenging his father and killing his uncle, that “smiling, damned villain!”

Horatio and Marcellus come to him, asking him what’s happened.  Still speaking wildly, (Quote 6), Hamlet makes them swear four times, hands on his rapier, never to reveal to anyone what they’ve seen this night.  The ghost’s voice can be heard commanding them to swear each time.  Even if Hamlet seems to be acting like a madman, Horatio and Marcellus mustn’t imply knowledge of his plans.  As the sun is rising, the three men head back inside the castle (Quote 7).

Act Two: In his house, Polonius tells Reynaldo to go to France and spy on Laertes.  Reynaldo is instructed to imply, in his conversations with any Frenchman who may know what Laertes is up to, that he perhaps is indulging in such vices as gambling, swearing, or even seeking prostitutes.  Though Reynaldo thinks this last vice would dishonour Laertes, Polonius insists it’s an acceptable sullying; and if those Frenchmen Reynaldo is speaking with confirm any of the vices mentioned, Polonius can know what naughtiness his son is really indulging in.  Reynaldo leaves.

Ophelia bursts into the room frightened and in tears.  She tells her father that Hamlet came to her room, with his clothes all in disorder, and with the wild look of a madman in his eyes.  He said nothing to her: he just approached her, held her hard by the wrist, put his hand over his brow, perused her face a long while, moved his head up and down three times, and let out a heavy sigh; then he walked away, still looking back at her, leaving the room without needing to see where he was going.

Polonius assumes Hamlet has gone mad from her rejection of his love (for she has indeed obeyed her father in not allowing the prince to continue wooing her).  Polonius now realizes that Hamlet wasn’t merely playing with Ophelia as he’d assumed; Polonius will tell the king and queen.

Claudius has sent for two old school friends of Hamlet’s, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch the prince and report to the king and queen about anything Hamlet says or does that may give insight to his erratic behaviour.  Claudius and Gertrude thank the two young men for coming.

After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, Polonius comes and tells Claudius that the ambassadors, Cornelius and Voltemand, have returned from Norway; Polonius also tells the king that he believes he knows the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.  Claudius is eager to hear this, but first he speaks to the ambassadors.

Voltemand tells Claudius the good news that Old Norway, the sick uncle of Fortinbras, has stopped the Norwegian prince from invading Denmark.  Instead, Fortinbras will pass with his army through Denmark and into Poland to reclaim the territory Norway lost.  The threat of him invading Denmark seems to be no more.

The ambassadors leave, and Polonius goes into a needlessly wordy speech about the cause of Hamlet’s madness, claiming, fantastically, that he’ll be brief about it (Quote 8).  He says that Hamlet has gone mad.  Then he reads to Claudius and Gertrude a love letter Hamlet has written to Ophelia, showing the sincerity of the prince’s love for her.  Polonius explains that he told Ophelia to reject any further wooing from Hamlet; when she did, he went mad from a broken heart.

Polonius tells the king and queen they should plan to hide and watch Hamlet as he walks through the halls of the castle, a habit of his.  Polonius can arrange for Ophelia to be there, so they can watch the prince’s interactions with her.

Just then, Gertrude sees Hamlet walking with a book in his hand.  Polonius asks her and Claudius to leave while he talks with Hamlet.  The king and queen go; Polonius approaches Hamlet.

During their conversation, Polonius notes that Hamlet speaks in the erratic manner of one mentally ill, yet there’s an odd rationality to what the prince says.  (Quotes 9 and 10)  Polonius also notes with interest Hamlet’s references to Ophelia.  Polonius leaves.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and after exchanging a few bawdy remarks about the ‘strumpet’ goddess of Fortune, Hamlet asks them why they have come to the ‘prison’ of Denmark.  The two school chums wonder why the prince thinks Denmark is a prison, but he insists it is, since anything can seem good or bad according necessarily to our thoughts (Quote 11).

Hamlet quickly realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have come to see him not of their own accord, but because Claudius sent for them.  Assuming they want to find out, for the king’s sake, what’s troubling Hamlet, he gives them a vague, general explanation of his melancholy (Quote 12).  Rosencrantz laughs at these musings, thinking Hamlet won’t enjoy the entertainment the arriving actors will give.

Hamlet is delighted to see them in Elsinore.  He asks the First Player to give a “passionate speech”, one of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, avenging his father’s death by killing King Priam during the sacking of Troy.  The First Player vividly describes the weak old king’s pitiful attempts to defend his besieged, burning city, then Pyrrhus’ raising of his sword against Priam, briefly pausing, and finally bringing his sword down to kill him.

Polonius interrupts the speech for being too long.  Hamlet snaps at him, contemptuously dismissing his tastes as philistine.  The prince asks the First Player to “come to Hecuba”, the Queen of Troy.

The First Player’s powerful description of Hecuba lamenting the slaying of Priam is such that the actor has tears in his eyes.  Hamlet is profoundly moved (one imagines that the prince wishes his mother would have shown similar love for Old Hamlet, rather than marrying his brother less than a month later).

Hamlet tells Polonius to accommodate the actors, and asks the First Player to have his actors perform The Murder of Gonzago before Claudius and Gertrude the next evening, and to include a speech Hamlet will write and insert into the play.  Polonius leads the actors away, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also leave, and Hamlet is alone at last.

In the ensuing soliloquy (Quote 13), Hamlet confronts, for the first time, his inability to act, to go ahead with his revenge and kill his uncle.  Hamlet is amazed that an actor can show so much emotion–to the point of actually weeping–for the suffering of Hecuba, a mere mythical character!

Had the actor been portraying Hamlet’s situation, he’d weep an ocean of tears and shock his audience utterly.  Hamlet himself, however, having really lost his father to murder, and his mother debauched, can do nothing.  Imagining himself a coward, he acts out the taking of his revenge, as if in a play; now he’s disgusted with himself that he can only talk about getting revenge.

Knowing that guilty people often confess their crimes when watching their wicked acts performed in a play, Hamlet decides to have the king watch, in The Murder of Gonzago, a murder and usurpation exactly like that which Claudius is accused of by the ghost.  If his uncle winces at the performed murder, Hamlet will know he’s guilty.

After all, the ghost Hamlet’s seen may be a demon in disguise, deceiving the emotionally vulnerable prince into murdering an innocent man.  This would send Hamlet straight to Hell.  Better assurances than the dubious testimony of a ghost will be needed; Claudius’ viewing of the play will determine whether or not he’s guilty.

Act Three: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet speaks only of a general sadness; they also tell the king and queen of the play about to be performed.  The two young men leave, as does Gertrude.

Polonius and Claudius will hide while Ophelia waits for Hamlet, ever wandering in the halls, to meet her.  As the king and Polonius listen to her conversation with the prince, they hope to gain further insights into Hamlet’s madness.  Claudius and Polonius hide nearby, and Ophelia waits.

Hamlet appears, contemplating suicide in a soliloquy (Quote 14).  If death is like eternal sleep, with no more of the pain of sentient life, doesn’t that sleep include dreaming (i.e., an after-life–heaven, or, for suicide, Hell)?  If the everlasting nightmare of Hell results from suicide, then killing oneself doesn’t end one’s pain, and therefore suicide is useless.  Too afraid to risk Hell, Hamlet chooses to continue living.

He sees Ophelia, who wishes to return gifts he’s given her during their wooing.  He flies into a rage and accuses her of being a whore (Quote 15).  He also rightly suspects that Polonius is listening to their conversation.  After continuing his abusive ranting at her for a while longer, he leaves.  She weeps copiously, devastated that the man she loves has lost his mind.

Polonius and Claudius come out of hiding, her father comforting her and the king suspecting danger in Hamlet.  Claudius decides the prince should be sent to England, ostensibly to calm him.

With the actors now, Hamlet tells them not to overact, but to play their roles naturally and realistically.  (Quote 16)  Then he tells Horatio to watch Claudius carefully as the play is performed, and to note his reaction when the murder happens.

The king and queen come, as do Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Hamlet sits by Ophelia and makes bawdy remarks about her ‘lap’.  Polonius still assumes Hamlet’s madness is all about her.  The prince’s erratic behaviour and outbursts continue during the play, which now begins, with a pantomime to summarize the play’s action.

The First Player (as King Gonzago) enters with another actor playing Gonzago’s queen.  (One can safely assume that this dialogue is what Hamlet wrote and had inserted into the play.)  The aged ‘king’ tells his ‘queen’ that he will die soon, and she then presumably will find a new husband.  She protests lengthily that doing so would be tantamount to treason against Gonzago; sleeping with another man would be like killing the ‘king’ a second time.

She leaves him, and he takes a nap.  The scene is over, and Claudius and Gertrude have been made very uneasy by what ‘Gonzago’s queen’ has said, implying that Gertrude is guilty of such treason with Claudius.

Hamlet asks his mother how she likes the play; she doesn’t like the, to her, prating ‘queen’ (Quote 17).  Claudius, clearly offended by the play, asks Hamlet about the story.  As the play continues, Hamlet comments on the action in his usual wild manner. When the ‘villain’ pours poison in the ‘king’s’ ear, Claudius can bear no more.  He gets up and demands to be given some light.  Polonius stops the play, and pandemonium ensues.  Claudius and Gertrude leave.

Hamlet is gloating deliriously over confirming his uncle’s guilt; Horatio attests that he, too, saw the king’s guilty reaction.  The ghost told the truth!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet of how angry the king is; the prince’s gloating is most inappropriate.  Though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern insist they are Hamlet’s friends, he knows better.

He gets a recorder and asks Guildenstern to play it; the false friend insists he can’t.  Hamlet angrily wonders how Guildenstern can imagine he can ‘play’ the prince, but not a pipe.  Is Hamlet so unworthy that he is easier to play than a mere pipe?

Polonius tells Hamlet the queen wishes to speak to him in her bedroom.  Ever erratic and wild in his behaviour, Hamlet says he’ll be with her “by and by”.  Everyone leaves him: he’s thinking bloody thoughts, but he reminds himself not to be violent to his mother in any more than words.

In his room, Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they must take Hamlet to England.  The two boot-lickers are prolix in saying that the safety of Denmark depends on the king’s safety.  Polonius tells Claudius he will hide in Gertrude’s room and eavesdrop on her conversation with Hamlet.  Claudius is left alone.

In a soliloquy, the king gives full vent to his guilt over killing his brother.  He knows that in this corrupt world, one can hide one’s crimes, but one can’t hide them from heaven’s all-seeing eyes.  He would be free from his sins, but he can’t repent; for to do so would mean giving up everything–his crown, his queen, and his life.  Hopelessly groping for forgiveness, he tries praying.

Hamlet sneaks over, seeing a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius.  If he kills the king while he’s praying, however, he’ll send him to heaven.  He’d rather kill Claudius when he’s enraged, swearing, committing incest with Gertrude, or doing anything contrary to piety. Hamlet would ensure his uncle goes straight to Hell.  He leaves Claudius, who finishes praying.

In his despair, the king knows that his insincere prayers will never be heard in heaven (Quote 18).

In Gertrude’s room, Polonius advises her to be firm in showing her displeasure with Hamlet, who can be heard approaching.  Polonius hides behind an arras.  Hamlet enters.

Mother and son exchange angry words, her accusing him of offending his adoptive father (Claudius), him accusing her of offending his real father by marrying Claudius.  Their anger escalates, and when he pulls out his rapier to stop her from walking out, she thinks he’s threatening to kill her.  She screams for help, as does ever-nosy Polonius.

Hamlet impulsively stabs through the arras and kills Polonius.  She is horrified at her son’s violence, but he continues ranting at her for her disloyalty to his father.  He compares pictures of his father and uncle, respectively on his and her necklaces, noting the nobility of his father and baseness of Claudius.

He can’t imagine how she could choose Claudius to replace Old Hamlet.  She can’t bear to hear his dagger-like upbraiding.  Then the ghost appears.

Only Hamlet can see it, so when he speaks to it guiltily of how he hasn’t obeyed its command to kill his uncle, she assumes he’s mad, hallucinating.  It reminds him to get on with the revenge, but also tells him to comfort his frightened mother.  When she asks him who he’s talking to, he says it’s the ghost of his father, which is now leaving.

When she says the ghost is a mere figment of his mad imagination, he insists he’s perfectly sane.  He begs her to stop sleeping with Claudius, to bring herself back into a virtuous frame of mind.  He also tells her not to tell Claudius that he’s only pretending to be mad.

As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet reminds her that he must go with those false friends to England.  He knows they’re working with the king against him: he’ll allow their plan to be played out, while he figures out a way to turn their plan against them (Quote 19).

He leaves her, lugging Polonius’ dead body away and finding a place to stow it.

Act Four: When the king arrives with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, she tells them about mad Hamlet’s killing of Polonius.  Shaken with knowing how dangerous the prince is growing, Claudius has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find him.

They find him, and take him to Claudius, who asks where Polonius’ body is.  After making a number of cryptic remarks that try the king’s patience, Hamlet tells him.  Claudius tells Hamlet he must go with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England.  When everyone else leaves, Claudius expresses his exasperation with, and wish to have England kill, Hamlet.

Outside, Fortinbras tells a soldier of his to go and ask Denmark permission to pass through so his army can invade Poland.  The soldier goes.

Hamlet, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are by the boat to take them to England.  The prince sees the Norwegian army, and asks Fortinbras’s soldier, who’s passing by, what they’re all doing.  The soldier tells Hamlet that Fortinbras is leading them to invade a worthless patch of Polish land.  Though Hamlet doubts the Poles will defend it, the soldier says they’ve already garrisoned it.  The soldier leaves.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get on the boat first, and before Hamlet follows them on, he contemplates again his delayed revenge in light of the activity of the Norwegian army.  A man who only eats and sleeps is no more than an animal; surely God didn’t give us brains so they’d sit unused in our heads.

Everywhere Hamlet sees people inspiring him to revenge, yet he’s done nothing to achieve it.  An army eagerly marches to its death for a worthless piece of land; Hamlet’s father is murdered and his mother made a whore, and he doesn’t know why he hasn’t acted.  If his next thoughts aren’t of killing Claudius, they’re worth nothing!

Back in Elsinore Castle, Horatio and a gentleman tell Gertrude that Ophelia has gone mad.  They explain the wildness of her condition to the queen, who tells them to let the girl in.

Ophelia enters, speaking incoherently and singing songs, apparently either about Hamlet or about Polonius.  The king enters, as shocked by her behaviour as the others are.  Her singing turns bawdy, implying that Hamlet has enjoyed her in bed and abandoned her.

Then she laments of her father being buried, warns everyone that Laertes will hear of their father’s murder, then leaves.  Claudius tells Horatio and the gentleman to watch her closely.  He bemoans the deplorable situation (Quote 20).

The king and queen hear a noise from outside.  A gentleman comes in to tell them that Laertes, furious, has returned from France and, backed by a mob of angry men, would overtake the castle, kill Claudius, and be the next king!

The queen is incensed by their treason.  The doors are broken open, and Laertes enters.  He wrathfully demands revenge for the murder of his father, screaming contemptuously of allegiance to the king.

Claudius and Gertrude tell him they are not responsible for Polonius’ death, but are as grieved of it as Laertes is.  He calms down.  Then Ophelia returns with flowers.  At the sight of his sister’s obviously insane manner, her handing out the flowers to everyone, his rage has turned to heartbreak.  She leaves.

Claudius will explain to Laertes who killed his father, and will help him get satisfaction.  The two men leave together.

Elsewhere in the castle, an attendant tells Horatio of sailors who have letters for him.  One of the sailors gives Horatio a letter, which he reads (it’s from Hamlet).

The prince has written that there are letters for Claudius, too.  When Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sailing to England, pirates attacked their boat.  During the ensuing fight, Hamlet went on the pirates’ boat; he is now their prisoner.  Horatio must take the sailors to the king, and if Claudius does the pirates a good turn, Hamlet will be freed.  When he meets with Horatio, he’ll tell him shocking things about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Horatio takes the sailors to Claudius.

In another room of the castle, Claudius explains to Laertes that Hamlet killed his father, and meant to kill Claudius.  Laertes asks why the king didn’t have Hamlet executed.

Claudius gives two reasons: first, Gertrude loves her son, and Claudius loves her so much that he can’t act against her wishes; second, Hamlet is well loved of the Danish people, so executing him would make the king unpopular.

A messenger gives Claudius letters from Hamlet, saying that he’s back in Denmark, and–begging the king’s pardon–wishes to return to the castle.

Laertes would be happy to have the prince return, so he can have his revenge.  The king will, of course, help: they plan to arrange a game of duelling with rapiers, Laertes’ having a sharp point.

Laertes adds that he’ll dip his sword in a powerful poison he bought.  Being merely scratched with the envenomed sword, Hamlet will surely die: no antidote will save him.  Claudius will offer Hamlet poisoned wine in case the plan fails.

Gertrude enters with sad news: Ophelia has drowned.  While picking flowers by a brook, she fell in; and instead of pulling herself out, she just lay floating on her back, in her madness still singing her songs.  Soon the water filled her stretched-out clothes, and weighing her down, pulled her under the water.  Too insane to save herself, she stayed under and drowned.

Laertes, though ashamed to weep, nonetheless does so for his dead sister.  He leaves.  Now the king must calm him down again.  Claudius and Gertrude follow Laertes out of the room.

Act Five:  In a churchyard, two clowns are digging a grave for Ophelia, and debating–in a parody of legal language–whether or not she, an apparent suicide, deserves a Christian burial.  Did she intend to drown, or was her fall into the brook an accident?  In any case, it seems unfair to the clowns that a woman of high birth can kill herself and still be considered Christian.

Hamlet and Horatio appear.  The second clown leaves, while the first continues digging while singing merrily.  Hamlet can’t imagine how the gravedigger can be so cheerful in such a ghoulish setting; Horatio assumes he’s simply inured to it.

As the clown is picking up skulls and tapping them with his spade, Hamlet thinks it grossly disrespectful: after all, those could have been the skulls of lawyers, politicians, or courtiers, men of much higher social standing than that of the clown.

Hamlet asks the gravedigger whose grave it is: after a stretch of comically equivocal questioning and answering, the clown says it’s a woman’s grave.  At one point in their conversation, the clown shows Hamlet the skull of Yorick, the king’s old jester.  Hamlet asks to look at it.

Now with Yorick’s skull in his hand, Hamlet tells Horatio about the jester (Quote 21).  Hamlet reminisces about how witty and beloved Yorick was, and meditates sadly on how death has reduced the jester to nothing, as it also did Alexander the Great.  Hamlet tosses down the skull.

A funeral procession is approaching: Hamlet and Horatio hide while watching.  They see, among the mourners, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and a priest.  Hamlet wonders who has died.

Laertes is annoyed with the priest for making a brief ceremony of Ophelia’s funeral.  The priest insists that he cannot do any more, for her death may have been a suicide.    She is interred.

As the dirt is being poured on her body, Laertes jumps in the grave in a fit of passion.  Imagining his sister a better angel in heaven than the “churlish priest” will be one day, Laertes demands to be buried alive with his sister.

Horrified to know that it’s Ophelia who has died, and enraged by what to him seems excessive grief on the part of Laertes, Hamlet emerges and jumps into the grave.  Laertes and Hamlet briefly grapple before being separated.  They come out of the grave.  Claudius tries to calm Laertes by reminding him of Hamlet’s madness.

Hamlet rants of how he loved Ophelia more than forty brothers could.  He could far outdo Laertes in the proof of his love, including live burial with her.  The two men calm down, and Hamlet, not yet understanding why Laertes attacked him, leaves with Horatio soon following (Quote 22).

Inside the castle, Hamlet tells Horatio what happened in the boat with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Unable to sleep, Hamlet groped about in the dark and found the commission Claudius had written to the authorities in England.  It demanded that they execute Hamlet!

The prince wrote a new commission, with all the pompous, flowery language conventional in such writing, to replace what Claudius wrote: it asked, instead, for the execution of the commission’s bearers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!

Hamlet feels no guilt over sending those false friends to their deaths.  Horatio is shocked at so evil a king, though Hamlet isn’t surprised, knowing he killed Hamlet’s father and shamed his mother.

Hamlet regrets, however, his rage against Laertes, since he knows the son of Polonius has the same cause for revenge as he has.

Osric, a foppish and loquacious courtier, enters with news of Laertes’ challenge to a sword-fighting game with Hamlet.  The prince and Horatio sigh in annoyance with Osric’s prolix praises of Laertes, but Hamlet accepts the challenge.  Osric leaves.

A lord then enters, asking if Hamlet would play with Laertes now, or later.  Hamlet is at leave to play at any time.  The lord leaves to tell everyone to get ready.

Horatio is worried that the game is a plot to kill Hamlet, who assumes the same thing.  Nonetheless, Hamlet must confront his fate, as long as he’s ready for it (Quote 23).

Everyone in the castle assembles in a large room for the sword-fighting game.  Before choosing their rapiers and daggers, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes, using his madness as an excuse.  Laertes says in as gentlemanly a way as possible that he will accept no apology.  They choose their weapons, Laertes ensuring that he has the sharp, poisoned rapier.

Claudius tells Hamlet that if he wins the first or second hits with his sword, the king will drink to Hamlet, put a pearl in the cup of wine (the pearl is poisoned), and pass it to Hamlet to drink.  The game begins.

Hamlet is clearly the better swordsman, winning every time and frustrating Laertes.  Claudius drinks to Hamlet, drops the pearl in the cup, and has it passed to Hamlet, who sets it aside, not wishing to drink yet.

Gertrude goes up to him and with a handkerchief wipes his brow.  She picks up the cup to drink; Claudius tries to stop her, but she still drinks from the poisoned cup…it’s too late for her.

As the two young men continue playing, Laertes cheats and scratches Hamlet with the poisoned sword; rightly suspecting treachery, the prince now angrily fights with Laertes, managing to switch swords with him.  Now Laertes is nervous.

Claudius tries to have them separated, but Hamlet wounds Laertes.  Gertrude, sick from the poison, collapses.  Claudius lies, saying she’s fainted from all the blood, but she in a weak voice says the wine is poisoned.  She dies.

Hamlet demands that the doors be locked to catch the villain poisoner, but dying Laertes confesses his and the king’s plot to kill Hamlet with Laertes’ unblunted, poisoned sword, now in Hamlet’s hand.  The prince hasn’t even a half hour to live, and no medicine can cure him.

Finally, Hamlet takes his revenge and stabs the king.  Everyone shouts, “Treason!  treason!”  Then Hamlet takes the cup of wine and forces Claudius to drink it, killing him.  Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness before the latter dies.

Now feeling the effects of the powerful poison, Hamlet is weakening.  He says he would explain everything to all the shocked onlookers, but his imminent death won’t let him.  He asks Horatio to explain for him.

Horatio would rather drink any remaining poison in the cup and die with his friend; Hamlet begs him not to, but first to tell everyone all the events that led up to all these deaths.

The sound of an approaching army is heard from outside.  Osric tells everyone Fortinbras is coming in conquest.  English ambassadors are also coming.  Hamlet assumes Fortinbras will be the next king.  After a few final words, Hamlet dies (Quote 24).

Horatio grieves for his friend (Quote 25).

Fortinbras and the English ambassadors enter.  The Norwegian prince is shocked at the sight of so many bodies, as are the ambassadors, who assume they will not get the thanks they deserve for executing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Horatio explains that, had Claudius still been alive, he wouldn’t have thanked England for their deaths, having never ordered them.  Then Horatio tells Fortinbras and the ambassadors that he will relate a shocking story “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.”  Fortinbras will eagerly hear.

Horatio would have Hamlet be given an honourable burial; Fortinbras agrees, sadly taking the throne of Denmark.  The new king has the bodies taken out and the soldiers will shoot for them.

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Analysis of ‘Hamlet’

Hamlet is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1599 and 1602.  A revenge play, it is his longest, lasting about four hours if performed uncut.  It is also his most experimental, since its hero is a self-doubting thinker given to long-winded speeches, not a doer.  In spite of how long it takes him finally to avenge his murdered father and kill his uncle, Hamlet has always been one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.

The play is profoundly philosophical, touching on such issues as existentialism; and the reason for Prince Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle, the usurping King Claudius, is one of the great mysteries of literature, for which many theories have been proposed.  Some of these, as well as one of my own, will be examined below.

Hamlet is a goldmine of famous quotes.  Here are but a few:

1.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 65

2.  “Frailty, thy name is woman!”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 146

3.  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 75

4.  “This above all–to thine own self be true.”  –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 78

5.  “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”  –Marcellus, Act I, Scene iv, line 90

6.  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 166-167

7.  “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 189-190

8.  “…brevity is the soul of wit,…”  –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, line 90

9.  “Words, words, words.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, line 191

10.  “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”  –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, lines 203-204

11.  “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 249-250

12.  “I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.  This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!  how infinite in faculty!  in form, how moving, how express and admirable!  in action how like an angel!  in apprehension how like a god!  the beauty of the world!  the paragon of animals!  And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, about lines 295-309

13.  “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/Could force his soul so to his own conceit/That from her working all his visage wann’d;/Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,/A broken voice, and his whole function suiting/With forms to his conceit?  And all for nothing!/For Hecuba!/What’s Hecuba to him or him to Hecuba,/That he should weep for her?  What would he do,/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have?  He would drown the stage with tears,/And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;/Make mad the guilty, and appal the free,/Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed/The very faculties of eyes and ears./Yet I,/A dull and muddy-mettl’d rascal, peak,/Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/And can say nothing; no, not for a king/Upon whose property and most dear life/A damn’d defeat was made.  Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,/Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,/Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’ th’ throat/As deep as to the lungs?  Who does me this?/Ha!/’Swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be/But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall/To make oppression bitter, or ere this/I should ‘a fatted all the region kites/With this slave’s offal.  Bloody, bawdy villain!/Remoreseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance!/Why, what an ass am I!  This is most brave,/That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,/Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,/And fall a-cursing like a very drab,/A scullion!  Fie upon’t! foh!/About, my brains.  Hum–I have heard/That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaim’d their malefactions;/For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ.  I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle.  I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick.  I ‘a do blench,/I know my course.  The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil; and the devil hath power/T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me.  I’ll have grounds/More relative than this.  The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 543-601

14.  “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 heartache 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 despis’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 these 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.–Soft you now!/The fair Ophelia.–Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins rememb’red.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 56-90

15.  “Get thee to a nunnery.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, 121

16.  “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.  Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.  O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.  I would have such a fellow whipp’d for o’erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod.  Pray you avoid it.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-14

17.  “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  –Gertrude, Act III, Scene ii, line 225

18.  “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  –Claudius, Act III, Scene iii, lines 97-98

19.  “Let it work./For ’tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard; and’t shall go hard/But I will delve one yard below their mines/And blow them at the moon.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv, lines 205-209

20.  “When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/But in battalions!”  –Claudius, Act IV, Scene v, lines 75-76

21.  “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, about lines 179-180

22.  “Let Hercules himself do what he may./The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, lines 285-286

23.  “Not a whit, we defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, about lines 211-216

24.  “The rest is silence.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, line 350

25.  “Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”  –Horatio, Act V, Scene ii, 351-352

There are so many themes in this great play as almost to overwhelm the analyst, so we will start by listing those that will be looked at here.  They are the following: sons avenging fathers; death–in the forms of murder (including regicide) and suicide; madness (real and feigned); action vs. inaction; and the uselessness of words vs. the need for action.

Hamlet isn’t the only son avenging his father’s murder.  So is Laertes, who zealously wishes to avenge the murder of his father, Polonius, at Hamlet’s rash hand.  Elsewhere, young prince Fortinbras wishes to avenge his father by taking back for Norway all the territory that Old Hamlet took from Old Fortinbras (Old Hamlet also killed Old Fortinbras).  Then there is Pyrrhus who, as recounted by the First Player in his “passionate speech”, avenged the murder of his father, Achilles, by killing King Priam during the sacking of Troy.

Death is an extensively explored theme in this play.  One poignant example is when Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull and, with Horatio in the graveyard scene (see Quote 21), meditates on the dead jester’s life.  It saddens Hamlet to contemplate how this jester, so dear and beloved to Hamlet when he was a child, is now reduced to nothing by death…and Hamlet is now actually holding Yorick’s skull in his hand!

Similarly, great men of history, like Alexander the Great, are now each reduced to a skull and bones, no better than a beggar.  Also, it astonishes Hamlet that the First Clown (the gravedigger) can so coolly, and disrespectfully, pat with a spade the skulls of men who once may have been lawyers or other respectable men of society.  Death makes us all equal.

Moving over to more particular forms of death, there is much murder, especially regicide, in Hamlet.  Old Hamlet was the king of Denmark until his murder, before the play begins.  Prince Hamlet must avenge him by killing Claudius, the prince’s uncle and usurping king.  And by killing his uncle, Hamlet will be as guilty of regicide as Claudius is.

These aren’t the only regicides, though.  Old Fortinbras was killed by Old Hamlet.  Then there’s the First Player’s recounting of Pyrrhus’ killing of King Priam.  Also, Polonius mentions portraying, when he was young, Julius Caesar in a play, killed by Brutus; now, though Caesar was a dictator rather than a king, his assassination is close enough to be at least a variation on regicide.  It’s certainly no less a murder.

Other murders, accidental or deliberate, are those of Polonius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself.

From murder we move on to suicide, whether successfully (if accidentally) committed or merely contemplated.  Ophelia drowns herself in a brook: at the very least, she, in her madness, fails to pull her head above water; at most, she deliberately drowns herself in her despair over losing Hamlet’s love (or so it seems to her), losing her father Polonius, and losing her sanity.  The clownish gravediggers later debate, in a parody of legal language, whether or not she’s committed suicide, and therefore deserves a Christian burial.

Contemplations of suicide are done by Hamlet (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter!  O God!  God!”; see also Quote 14), and by Horatio at the end of the play, when he wishes to drink from the poisoned cup as he watches Hamlet dying.

From death we must move to the theme of madness.  We’ve already briefly looked at Ophelia’s madness, she who sings bawdy songs and acts wildly after enduring (as she sees it) Hamlet’s madness, his ill-treatment of her, and his murdering of Polonius.

Then we have Hamlet’s madness.  Presumably, he’s only faking it to distract everyone from his plotting to kill Claudius.  Certainly he insists he’s only “mad in craft,” and, interesting first word here, “essentially…not in madness.”

Could he, however, really be mad?  Hamlet himself wonders about that possibility from time to time (Raving abusively at poor Ophelia during his ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ rant in Act III, Scene i, he shouts, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.”).  He has, after all, seen a ghost, and in the pre-modern world of this play, when people were ignorant of modern psychiatry, seeing a ghost is pretty much tantamount to being possessed by an evil spirit, and therefore to going mad.  To be sure, Horatio and Marcellus warn Hamlet not to go alone with the ghost of Old Hamlet, for fear of the prince going mad (Horatio warns Hamlet in Act I, Scene iv, “What if it [the ghost] tempt you toward the flood, my lord, […]/And there assume some…horrible form,/Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness?  Think of it…”).

Next, we must examine the theme of action versus inaction.  We all know of Hamlet’s inability to act, except at the end of the play, when he knows he’s dying from the scratch of a poisoned rapier.  (We will leave discussion of this famous mystery until the end of the analysis.)  Other examples of this theme, from one extreme to the other, and with several intermediate points along the continuum, are worth exploring first.

Fortinbras represents the extreme of action; his name literally means, ‘strong arm’.  The only thing that keeps him from achieving his goal, reached at the very end of the play, is geography: the Norwegian prince must travel a great distance with his army to reconquer the Polish lands, then conquer Denmark and become its new king.  He is, nonetheless, firmly resolute in going after what he wants.

Perhaps only slightly less resolute is Pyrrhus, who briefly hesitates before striking down King Priam with his sword.  (So recounts the First Player: “So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood/And, like a neutral to his will and matter,/Did nothing./[…] so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,/A roused vengeance sets him new a-work;/And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall/On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,/With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword/Now falls on Priam.”)

Next, we have Laertes, who, though wildly resolute in avenging his father, even to the point of traitorously threatening Claudius, nonetheless cools off somewhat as he and Claudius plot the killing of Hamlet in a duel.  Certainly Claudius wonders about Laertes’ commitment to revenge.  (In Act IV, Scene vii, the king says, “Not that I think you did not love your father;/But that I know love is begun by time,/And that I see, in passages of proof,/Time qualifies the spark and fire of it./There lives within the very flame of love/A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;/And nothing is at a like goodness still;/For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,/Dies in his own too much.  That we would do,/We should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes,/And hath abatements and delays as many/As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;/And then this ‘should’ is like a spendthrift’s sigh/That hurts by easing.”)

Perhaps the crowning theme of this play is the uselessness of words versus the need for action.  Hamlet isn’t Shakespeare’s longest play for nothing.  Indeed, it is overloaded with words and very slow-moving action (see Quote 9), not that this apparent lop-sidedness detracts from the play’s worth, of course; for the whole message of the play can be summed up in the old cliche, ‘action speaks louder than words’.

Reference is constantly made to any character’s effusive or bombastic use of language.  For example, when Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude what he believes to be the “very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy,” all he needs to say is that Hamlet has gone mad from Ophelia’s rejection of his love; instead, Polonius speaks in the most absurdly prolix manner, even hypocritically saying that being laconic is preferable to being loquacious (see Quote 8).  Gertrude feels compelled to tell the chatterbox to use “More matter with less art.”

Earlier, he is similarly hypocritical with Laertes in advising his son to “Give everyone thy ear, but few thy voice.”  Then there’s his disparaging of the First Player’s passionate speeches about Priam and Hecuba, his own interrupting words angering Hamlet (Polonius: “This is too long.”  Hamlet snaps, “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard.”).

Another example of needlessly pompous language is towards the end of the play, when Osric tells Hamlet of Laertes’ challenge to a sword duel.  (The foppish courtier says, “Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing.  Indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.”)  Indeed, Hamlet and Horatio comment on what a pretentious fool Osric is, right to his face.

During the same scene, Hamlet tells Horatio of when he was on the boat to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He forged letters replacing the original order to kill him with one to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and he, for a change, made practical use of the grandiloquent writing style, overloaded with similes and metaphors, that is the convention used in such letters.  (“I sat me down/Devis’d a new commission; wrote it fair./I once did hold it, as our statists do,/a baseness to write fair, and labour’d much/How to forget that learning; but, sir, now,/It did me yeoman’s service.”  Hamlet goes on to describe the letter, quoting what he wrote thus: “An earnest conjuration from the King,/As England was his faithful tributary,/As love between them like the palm might flourish,/As peace should be her wheaten garland wear,/And stand a comma ‘tween their amities,/And many such like as-es of great charge.”)

Hamlet feels no prickings of conscience from sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, for, when Claudius–fearful of his royal person–tells the prince’s two false friends to take Hamlet to England, even though they perhaps don’t know they are to be taking Hamlet to be executed there, they are clearly on the corrupt king’s side.  Indeed, they saturate Claudius with boot-licking words of how dependant all of Denmark is on the king’s safety.  (Rosencrantz says, ” The single and peculiar life is bound/With all the strength and armour of the mind/To keep itself from noyance; but much more/That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests/The lives of many.  The cease of majesty/Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw/What’s near it with it.  It is a massy wheel,/Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,/To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things/Are mortis’d and adjoin’d; which when it falls,/Each small annexment, petty consequence,/Attends the boist’rous ruin.”)

Now we must go to an exploration of how none of this useless garrulousness can replace much-needed action.  When Hamlet is angry over his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle, he says, “break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”  Indeed, he must not speak: he must act, and we all know he can’t do that.  He can’t even act on his contemplated suicide in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.

Hamlet isn’t the only one who cannot act, though: neither can Claudius, racked with guilt over having murdered his brother, and incapable of real repentance.  For if he repents, he must give up everything–his crown, his queen, and his life.  After being executed for murder and treason, he’d have his memory stained also as an incestuous adulterer.  All he can do is insincerely pray for forgiveness: more useless words!  (See quote 18.)

And what of Ophelia?  Did she really actively commit suicide in falling into the brook, or did she merely passively allow herself to be submerged while she, in her madness, distractedly sang the words of her songs?  The gravediggers debate whether or not she acted in her drowning, as we discussed above.

And finally, we must come to Hamlet’s own inaction…till the end of the play.  He finally does act, but why wait till after so many deaths?  He’s not afraid to kill: after all, he reverses the king’s order for his own execution in England so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be killed instead; he also, quite impulsively and thus contrary to his normal sense of caution, kills Polonius.

Indeed, where did this wanton killing of Polonius come from?  He claims he thinks it’s the king behind the arras, but why would Claudius hide there, so soon after praying in his own room?  Surely Hamlet knew it was probably someone other than the king.  Most likely, conflicted Hamlet just lashed out and killed someone, out of a wish to have at least acted in some general sense.

Many theories have been proposed for Hamlet’s delayed revenge, and I will look at some of these, while showing their faults, before proposing my own explanation.

The first is a simple, practical explanation: delaying Hamlet’s revenge is a plot device, intended to lengthen the play to a duration sufficient for the Elizabethan equivalent of a feature film.  The prince would have had easy access to Claudius.  All he’d need to do is ask for a private moment with the king, then when the two were all alone, Hamlet would pull out his rapier and kill Claudius. Had the prince no inhibitions about getting his revenge, the play would have been over in about a half hour.

Such an explanation shows Shakespeare’s reasons for having Hamlet delay, but it doesn’t provide Hamlet’s reasons for waiting so long.  Indeed, Hamlet himself doesn’t know.  (Before getting on the boat for England, he says, “Now, whether it be/Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/Of thinking too precisely on th’ event–/A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom/And ever three parts coward–I do not know/Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,/Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,/To do’t.”)

Some have suggested that Hamlet, knowing he was no better, felt sorry for Claudius: I don’t see how the prince, spewing such contempt on his uncle, would ever sympathize with him.  Consider when he rants at his mother in her bedroom: “Here is your husband, like a mildew’d ear/Blasting his wholesome brother.  Have you eyes?/Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,/And batten on this moor?”

It is true that Hamlet, in killing Claudius, would be as usurping and regicidal as his uncle was in killing Old Hamlet, and therefore would be no better than Claudius.  Such moral hypocrisy would send Hamlet to Hell.  This proposed idea would explain Hamlet’s delay, but not his final killing of Claudius.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote that Hamlet knew that his revenge would make no difference in the larger sphere of things.  We all live, and we all die: the universe rolls merrily along, as it were, regardless of what petty decisions we make in our all too brief, all too insignificant lives.  Hamlet thus sees getting revenge as pointless.  Again, Hamlet’s delaying is explained, but his final getting of revenge is left unanswered.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud gives a fascinating theory–the Oedipus Complex.  Claudius, in murdering Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother, has acted out an unconscious fantasy of the prince’s.  Though Hamlet doesn’t know it, deep down, he wishes he’d killed his father and climbed into bed with Gertrude!  (20th century productions so often show Hamlet having a thing for his mother.)

He can’t bring himself to kill Claudius, because he’s always wanted to do what his uncle has done.  Again, Hamlet fears moral hypocrisy sending him to Hell.  And again, this theory explains the delay, but not the final act of vengeance.

Now I will propose my theory.

I believe that part of what makes Hamlet, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, is its treatment of the subject of regicide, a crime that dates back to prehistoric, pagan times, when the aging king was killed by his younger replacement in a rite of human sacrifice (see such books as Frazer’s Golden Bough for a plethora of examples).  Though a horrible thing to do, killing the sacred king was considered necessary for the survival of the community.

These killings were distorted in the ancient memory of oral tradition and transformed into myths of, for example, dying and resurrecting gods (see Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths for many examples).  Hamlet, I believe, can also be considered such an adaptation of a crime committed throughout history and lodged in our unconscious minds, ever eager to be given new expression in a myth or play.

Killing a king is considered one of the worst crimes to commit, for it combines murder with treason. Furthermore, Claudius commits fratricide as well as regicide, and Hamlet must also kill a family member, making the crime all the more hideous and unnatural.  Yet to leave his father’s murder unavenged would be utterly unfilial.  Hamlet must kill Claudius.

Hamlet must examine his true motives for revenge, already an act that’s paralyzingly paradoxical in its extremes of good and evil.  Is he killing Claudius for his father, or for himself, so he can be the next king of Denmark?

As long as Hamlet is alive and well, he cannot go through with the revenge and physically do it: he can only plot, talk about it in long-winded speeches (Quote 13), and kill other people, those far from his conscience.  It’s often said that he can’t make up his mind, but he has made it up: he just can’t act.

He is psychologically paralyzed by the extreme good of his necessary revenge (revenge for the love of his father, and the morally needed killing of an incestuous regicide) and the extreme evil of his vengeance (Hamlet’s own guilt in committing regicide).

It is only when he knows he’s dying from “the point envenom’d” that he kills Claudius, and when he finally acts, he acts quickly and decisively, totally unlike his hitherto hesitant attitude.  Presumably, when he finally acts, he can feel the poison’s beginning effect on his body, and thus knows there’s no doubt he’s really dying.

Because he’s dying, he knows his revenge can’t at all be from selfish motives: he won’t replace Claudius as king; as he hears Fortinbras approaching with his army, he predicts the Norwegian prince will be king instead.  Now Hamlet’s revenge is only for his father, so he can do it guiltlessly.  The real tragedy of the play, however, is that not only he, but so many others must die alongside Claudius.