Setting (time, place, influence)

Hamlet was written by Shakespeare and intended not only to entertain the masses but comment on the England of his day. Written and performed for both the rich and poor of Elizabethan England, Hamlet takes place in Denmark though Shakespeare does not explicitly state the time period. This has allowed various film directors to take certain liberties with the setting and minute details of Hamlet that Shakespeare does not specify. The Classical and Biblical influence of Hamlet is undeniable and can seem pretty redundant and annoying at times, however Shakespeare uses these allusions primarily through Hamlet and his soliloquies to relate his education in comparison his vain family members. (WHolt)



Act 1

Act 1.1 begins with guards and Horatio discussing the mysterious appearance of a ghost resembling the late King Hamlet, and the men decide to involve Hamlet (Jr.) in the affair, as they assume he is the best person to communicate with the ghost. Act 1.2 introduces the story of Claudius's marriage to Hamlet's mother Gertrude, and also the tense relationship between the new King Claudius and Hamlet. Claudius and Gertrude can see that Hamlet is still in mourning by the way that he is dressed, although the appropriate time for mourning had passed. Hamlet shows his abhorrence for his Uncle through his refusal to succumb to his requests and celebrate what is said to be a happy occasion, the marriage, but an event that Hamlet thinks is completely inappropriate and wrong. Clearly, Claudius and Gertrude have moved on from mourning and encourage Hamlet to do the same. Towards the end of the scene, Horatio tells Hamlet about the ghost of his father. Act 1.3 welcomes Laertes, Polonius, and Ophelia as Laertes is about to leave the country, but not without giving his sister some prudent advice to be cautious with her relationship with Hamlet, as he will no doubt eventually leave her for someone else. Laertes receives some advice for himself from his father before he goes away, and Polonius also warns Ophelia about Hamlet, telling her to back off from his for some time, a command she willingly obeys. Act 1.4 brings the reader back to Horatio and Hamlet as they prepare to confront the seemingly anxious ghost and learn why he continues to appear. The men are afraid as the ghost approaches, but Hamlet is determined to hear his father’s words, and follows him. In Act 1.5, the Ghost tells Hamlet the truth about his death, that Claudius betrayed him while he was sleeping and murdered him to obtain his crown and his wife. The ghost tells Hamlet to take revenge upon Claudius, but to leave his mother alone, as her judgment day will come. Hamlet agrees to devote his life to the task of revenge for his father, and he realizes that the smiles people have on their faces can conceal even the worst sins. In the end, Hamlet makes Horatio and the other guard with them swear to never speak of what they have seen or heard that night, and he also confides in the two men that he will be acting mad in front of others from now on as a part of his plan, but he tells them never to tell anybody that it is an act as they will ruin his attempt at revenge. Hamlet in conflicted, because he does not necessarily want to perform the task he knows he is honor-bound to do, but he wants to avenge his father. (ElizC)

Act 2

In Act 2.1 opens with the irritating Polonius instructing Reynaldo to spy on the his son’s behavior in Paris by asking other’s what type of man they consider his son to be. Ophelia enters in a frantic state and admits to her father that Hamlet came into her bedroom, looked at her in a bizarre fashion and acted as if he had “seen a ghost.” While Ophelia just appears shaken up Polonius is convinced Hamlet’s craziness is because of an un-forbidden love he harbors for Ophelia. In Act 2.2 Claudius invites the submissive Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s “friends”, to report to him and Gertrude what Hamlet’s problem seems to be in hope that they can cheer Hamlet out and awaken him from his stupor. Polonius comes to Claudius and Gertrude to translate to them where he thinks Hamlet’s madness is coming from (he believes it to be his love for Ophelia). Hamlet comically messes with Polonius’s mind, which only leads Polonius to believe that Hamlet is madder than he once was before. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pry for an answer from Hamlet, but Hamlet does not trust them as he trust his loyal friend Horatio and diverts all efforts the men attempt at getting the truth out of him. Hamlet is introduced to the players that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have brought with them and he requests the players play the story of Priam, Pyrrhus, and Hecuba (Hecuba’s grief is viewed as opposite to Gertrude’s grief when the King dies). In a soliloquy Hamlet articulates his astonishment that a player can act out the grief a wife feels when her husband dies, and says that if the player knew Hamlet’s tale the stage would “drown…with tears.” Also in the soliloquy Hamlet continues his self loathing because of the fact that he’s not acting even though he believes that Claudius murdered his own father. By the end of the scene Hamlet formulates a plan that he will instruct the players to stage a play that mirrors his father's death as said by the ghost, and in doing so he will test Claudius's guilt or innocence by gauging his reaction to the play. (EBush)

Act 3

The “To be or not to be” speech takes place in Act III scene i, where Hamlet contemplates whether to end life’s suffering by committing suicide or to live for the sake of living. His soliloquy on the fear of death is cut short by the entrance of Ophelia. At first he acts lovingly, but after discovering she has betrayed him, he treats her harshly and claims never to have loved her. The king and Polonius have been hiding behind the tapestry during the confrontation, and Claudius states that Hamlet’s speech does not sound like madness but has profound truths to it. In the next scene Hamlet tells Horatio Claudius murdered King Hamlet and asks his loyal friend to see if Claudius shows any signs of guilt during the play. As the play tells the story of Claudius’s treachery, the king nervously storms out, which excites Hamlet. He accuses R&G of playing him, and then reluctantly goes to his mother’s chamber to talk with her. In the third scene Claudius tells R&G to send Hamlet off to England because his insanity is becoming dangerous. At the same time Hamlet resolves to kill the king while he is sinning, not praying. In the final scene, Hamlet angrily confronts his mother about her betrayal. Polonius is hiding in the bedchamber. Hamlet acts physically violent with her, accusing her of offending his dead father by marrying the corrupt Claudius so soon. Gertrude cries out and Polonius shouts. Thinking the intruder is the king, Hamlet stabs the tapestry and thus kills the adviser. He continues to argue with his weak mother until he sees the Ghost, who Gertrude cannot see, which upsets him. Hamlet tells his mother he has been feigning madness, but to keep his secret without divulging it to Claudius. He urges her to resist Claudius’s advances and become a stronger person. (Aashna)

Act 4

Act four is a series of seven short scenes, including one soliloquy, that serve as plot advancers. 4.1 starts with Gertrude covering for Hamlet claiming he is crazy and that he did not intentionally kill Polonius. Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to convince Hamlet to tell them where hid Polonius's body. This is what happens in 4.2. In 4.3, after a struggle to figure out the location of Polonius's body, Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England where he is to be murdered. In 4.4 Fortinbras makes an appearance sparking another Hamlet soliloquy. Hamlet contrast his issues with the issues of the army. He feels like every one has turned against him and that men are animals and all they do is eat and sleep. At the end he decides he is ready to take action. In 4.5 Ophelia goes crazy and Laertes comes home. In 4.6 we hear the story about Hamlet being kidnaped by pirates and coming home. In 4.7 Claudius fill Laertes in on what happened when he was gone, the make the plan to kill Hamlet, and Ophelia kills herself. This concludes act 4. (MMcG)

Act 5

Act 5 opens with the clown scene, in which two gravediggers are removing a past body in order to make room for the recently deceased Ophelia's. Such morbidity leads Hamlet into an eloquent assertion on the equality captured in death and the meaning that comes from this life when all that we become is the dirt that eventually covers other bodies; this soliloquy serves as a turning point in Hamlet's character as he assumes more courage, more determination and comes to grips with the deeds that must be done, which take place in the final scene. Act 5, scene 2 closes the play in a rather Shakespearean fashion, tying up all loose ends in the plot and restoring satisfactory order to the mayhem of the drama. In a fencing match against Laertes, Hamlet acts on the questions that he has debated throughout the rest of the play. Walking into his own death trap, Hamlet succeeds in killing Claudius as well as Laertes, but he himself falls victim to the poisoned sword and his mother, Gertrude, drinks the poison set aside for Hamlet, leaving a pile of dead bodies, Fortinbras to restore order, and Horatio to share the tale of Hamlet's demise. Hamlet's actions do little, however, in answering many thematic questions, leaving us to debate, ponder, and wonder what would, could, and should have happened as well as the meaning that such a tragic hero's tale leaves behind. (BMITT)



Hamlet is son of the (now deceased) King Hamlet and nephew to (now reigning) King Claudius. Deeply affected by his father's death, Hamlet walks about Elsinore wearing all black. Hamlet is perhaps so intriguing because he does not have all the clear-cut qualities of an archetypal protagonist: he wallows in an untraceable mixture of purposelessness, apathy, and depression, constantly contemplates suicide and/or the inherent brutishness of all humans, and rarely hesitates to use his mordant wit and sharp sarcasm to injure those around him. He is clearly quite intelligent, but is perpetually dissatisfied, not only with seemingly everyone around him (save Horatio), but also with himself. Offering up such stirring soliloquies as the infamous "To be or not to be…," Hamlet serves as a vessel (yeah, I said it) imbued masterfully with Shakespeare's insights on grief, mortality, suicide, human emotions, and human frailty. (Peter B.)


Widow of the former King Hamlet, Gertrude then proceeds to marry her brother-in-law, Claudius (the murderer of Hamlet). Marrying Claudius just months after her husband's death, she greatly offends her son, Hamlet, with her oblivion and inability to display grief toward the death of his father. While Hamlet confusedly begs of his mother to think upon "what judgement would step from this (King Hamlet) to this (Claudius)," Gertrude remains blind to the truth, convinced that her son is simply mad. After the death of Polonius, Ophelia and the state of deep grief that she slips into highlights the unemotional lack of grief by Gertrude. She is blind to the truth throughout the entire play, though she was warned many times. It was her ignorance of the truth that cost her life. (Gaustin)

Gertrude ultimately dies by drinking the poison the Claudius prepares for Hamlet. Her death shows that she remains ignorant of her new husband's actions. It is clear that she believed what others told her and while Hamlet essentially divulges that Claudius is the villain who poisoned his father, she is unwilling to accept or even process the difficult truth. One of her only redeeming qualities is her love for her son, because although she thinks he is insane and fails to understand why he is upset with her, she does provide an obstacle when Claudius decides to kill Hamlet. (Molly)


Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle who murders Hamlet’s father and marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, soon after Old Hamlet was buried. Claudius eventually plots to kill Hamlet once he realizes that the Prince knows more about the murder of Old Hamlet, yet Claudius fails twice in this attempt and is eventually killed by Hamlet in the last scene. Although at first Hamlet does not know about the murder, he finds Claudius annoying and suspicious not only because he marries Gertrude but also because Claudius calls Hamlet’s mourning “a course of impious stubbornness” and an “unmanly grief” (1.2.94). As Claudius discourages Hamlet from mourning, he calls Hamlet’s sorrows “a fault to Heaven, a fault to the dead, and a fault to nature,” when ironically Claudius’s deeds of killing his brother and taking over the queen and the throne are most incestuous and unnatural (1.2.101-102). Also to note is the awkwardly balanced tone in which Claudius addresses the court after marrying Gertrude: “With an auspicious and dropping eye, with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, in equal scale weighing delight and dole” (1.2.11-13). Basically Claudius is pretending to mourn his dead brother while failing to hide his joy and satisfaction. (Tai)

Unlike every other male character in the play, Claudius is not preoccupied with justice, revenge, or morality. Rather, he spends his time worrying how to maintain his own power through his manipulation of others with language. His fascination with his own health and power can be seen when, after Hamlet murders Polonius, he does not comment on the danger Gertrude may have been in, but the hypothetical danger he could have experienced if he’d been in the room. (Luke)


He is Ophelia's father and a close friend of Claudius who lives in the castle as part of the royal court. He blames Hamlet madness on unrequited love and shows Claudius and Gertrude letters Hamlet wrote to Ophelia. His speech is very verbose and tedious even to the other characters. Polonius also organizes "chance encounter" between Ophelia and Hamlet which Polonius and Claudius watch in hiding. He watches Hamlet in secret again when Hamlet is confronting his mother after the play. This results in Polonius's murder for Hamlet stabs him while he is hiding. The reason is not clear, it could be because Hamlet thought Polonius was Claudius or because Hamlet felt Polonius had heard too much. SKB


Ophelia is Hamlet's former sweetheart and the daughter of Polonius. The nature of Ophelia and Hamlet's relationship is somewhat open to interpretation, though there are many references to her chastity by Hamlet, Laertes, and Polonius throughout the play so it is possible that the relationship was serious. Ophelia is used as bait by Polonius and Claudius to try to find out the cause of Hamlet's delusions in a scene that serves as an example of the generally bad treatment Ophelia gets throughout the play. She is the victim of a demanding and obnoxious father and Hamlet, who pretty much rejects her for the duration of the play in an effort to seem crazy. (RLucas)

Throughout the play, Ophelia's life is directly affected by the calculated madness of Hamlet as he pursues avenging the murder of his father, King Hamlet. Many of Hamlet's actions and outbursts are pointed at Ophelia, his sometimes lover, and because of their complicated and confusing relationship, these outbursts affect her greatly. The continuous question of does Hamlet actually love Ophelia is addressed in each of their encounters, unresolved until Ophelia commits suicide and Hamlet begins to mourn her death. Hamlet's madness causes him to murder Polonius, Ophelia's father, which is the main cause of her progression to madness. She is manipulated and played by major male characters in the play, and finally she cannot withstand the pressure any longer, committing suicide. (CarolineKelly)


The son of pretentious Polonius and brother of Hamlet’s lover, Ophelia, Laertes first appears when he asks King Claudius’ permission to depart to France and proceeds to advise his fair sister to refrain from giving herself, in heart and body, too soon to Hamlet. Laertes urges Ophelia that her honorable image may suffer “If with too credent ear [she] list [Hamlet’s] songs, / Or lose [her] heart, or [her] chaste treasure open / To his unmastered importunity.” Later in the play, after Hamlet rashly, although unabashedly, murders Polonius, Laertes swiftly returns from France to seek revenge on Claudius, whom he assumes to have killed Polonius, with an army of rebels in tow ready to overthrow the king. After learning Hamlet’s crime and witnessing Ophelia’s grief-induced madness, Laertes devises a plan with Claudius to kill Hamlet: Laertes will slay or slightly scar Hamlet with the poison-dipped point of a sword in a duel. If this plan should fail, Claudius will poison Hamlet’s wine, therefore killing the prince either way. In the end, Laertes and Hamlet wound each other in the sword-fight, and Laertes confesses Claudius’ intentions to kill Hamlet. By “exchange[ing] forgiveness with…noble Hamlet,” Laertes makes things right with the prince before both die. Laertes, as well as Young Fortinbras, act as foil characters for Hamlet as they represent the passionate, brave spirits that Hamlet, plagued by cowardice in each of his soliloquies, wishes he could muster to kill Claudius. (CChiaroni)

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

The bearers of two of the most ridiculous names in all of English literature, these two childhood friends of Hamlet's are called back from school by Claudius and Gertrude to try to figure out the cause of Hamlet's depression. Throughout the play they serve as sort of undercover agents for the king and queen, but Hamlet senses their true intentions from the moment they arrive and basically knows not to trust them. He does reveal to them that he no longer finds happiness in the world even though he knows that he should appreciate its natural beauty. R&G are the first people that Claudius sends to find out where Hamlet has hidden Polonius's body, and they also are Hamlet's unsuccessful escorts to England. (HW)


Horatio is Hamlet's closest friend and studied with him at the University, but unlike Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, two other friends of Hamlet, Horatio is portrayed as a loyal and trustworthy friend throughout the play. Hoaratio's faithfullness is part of what makes him an ideal image of a good friend. He is always there to help and support Hamlet, as well as believe what Hamlet has to say. Though, he is a minor character, Horatio's role gains significance in the final scene after Hamlet entrusts him with the task to tell his story. In the end, Horatio is one of the only characters left alive. (LL)

Themes/Meanings of the Work

Uncertainty- Throughout the play, the underlying question of “To be, or not to be” seems to convey Shakespeare’s theme of the uncertainty associated with the human condition. Several questionable elements such as Hamlet’s sanity, the plausibility of King Hamlet’s apparition, and the comprehension of an afterlife all contribute to the overall theme of uncertainty and ambiguousness. Additionally, as we examine Hamlet’s meditations each time he contemplates vengeance, he apparently faces a gridlock between action and inaction, honor or sin. Perhaps Shakespeare’s open-ended questions are left deliberately unanswered to enhance its significance in that humanity is also unable to understand life fully in subjects such as death and morality. (Tmott)


Religion and faith: Hamlet, as well as other characters, struggle with faith throughout this tragedy. Hamlet contemplates suicide the first time but is turned off from the idea because of his religion. Ophelia later commits suicide and King Claudius has to pull strings in order for her to even be buried in the christian cemetery. As the play goes on and Hamlet contemplates suicide again, God becomes less of a factor and it is instead the fear of the unknown that drives him from that action. In another instance, claudius goes to confession but finds he cannot confess because he is still enjoying the fruits of his sin. Hamlet begs his mother Gertrude to repent soon after, lecturing her about her corrupt morals and sins. ECL

Self-doubt: Self-doubt as embodied most often in Hamlet becomes one of the most conspicuous motifs in the tragedy. Hamlet is unquestionably intelligent and would certainly qualify as a "thinker;" however, one of his greatest assets, his mind, is also one of his greatest liabilities because it breeds a paralyzing self-doubt that precludes action. One could reasonably argue that the significant action in the play surround the origin of Hamlet's self-doubt and its expression through his eloquent and incisive soliloquy. Many of his famous soliloquies, including "To be or not to be" are centered around the concept of paralyzing fear and self doubt as juxtaposed with his professed desire for the courage to act upon "his motive and cue for passion" (2.2.487). In the "To be or not to be" soliloquy Hamlet struggles with his fear and self-doubt as it relates to his desire to commit suicide to avoid "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;" however, it is only "the dread of something after death" that "makes [him] rather bear those ills…Than fly to others that [he] know not of? " (3.1.57-81) Essentially, only the fear of the unknown and the resulting self-doubt keeps him from committing suicide. In short, the development of Hamlet's self-doubt and ultimately his struggle to combat it surround much of the dramatic events and character development of the tragedy. (W. Almquist)

death, specifically suicide: Though death itself is a dark topic, suicide is perhaps its darkest facet, a facet that Shakespeare explores in depth. Hamlet considers it in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, pessimistically suggesting that everybody would commit suicide if death were not so uncertain. Though his madness prevents him from committing suicide, Ophelia’s madness does not. She perhaps serves as an example of a person who fears the struggles of mortal life more than the “undiscover’d country” of death. Suicide is seen as a terrible sin by some, such as the priest conducting Ophelia’s burial; however, a completely opposing view is also suggested. Horatio, probably the only truly trustworthy character in the play, agrees with the Roman view that suicide is more honorable than living a life without honor. These conflicting views make Hamlet’s psychological struggle all the more relevant and difficult to resolve. The clearest thing one can take away from the play’s discussion of death is that it is one of the few things that will never be known, and thus questions involving it will never be answered. (CBerk)

Weakness: So much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is centered on Prince Hamlet’s weakness. One of the most obvious of these weaknesses is Hamlet’s inability to bring himself to kill Claudius. While Hamlet looks upon himself with disgust at this revelation of supposed shirking in manly duties, his inability to candidly commit such a murder reveals an element of his morality. His weakness again comes into play when he contemplates committing suicide. Hamlet sees suicide as a means to escape his now “worthless” life. Rather than dealing with the relationship of his mother and uncle turned father, Hamlet considers leaving his self declared sorry excuse for a life in favor of the uncharted after-life. Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide reveals his weakness as he seeks to use it as a means of escape from his problems. Furthermore, Claudius exhibits weakness as he sends Hamlet to England to be killed rather than dealing with him independently. (AG-Tagoe)

Deception/Disguise: The motif of deception is prevalent throughout the play, as the characters recurrently mask their inner emotions/intentions with fabricated outward appearances. First exemplified in Claudius’s attempts to retain a popular public opinion and assume the position of an honorable husband, father and king, the audience quickly catches onto his devious falsity when the ghost of King Hamlet reveals his true identity as murderer in act 1.5. Young Hamlet soon adopts the techniques of deception and disguise as he fakes his madness in attempt to facilitate his plot for revenge. The art of deception is also exemplified by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who, though fooling no one, pretend to be Hamlet’s friends while secretly aiding Claudius from the moment they arrive in act 2. The motif is again presented in the players’ rendition of the story of Priam, Pyrrhus, and Hecuba in scene 2, as they succeed in acting out so much pain and grief while feeling nothing personally, which Hamlet addresses in his subsequent soliloquy. (RFL)

Betrayal: Betrayal serves as the basis of the play. The first time we see Hamlet he is mourning his father, and later discovers that his father's death was caused by his unlce. This betrayal motivates Hamlet for the rest of the play. Not only does Hamlet feel betrayed by his own uncle but also by Gertrude. She betrays him by disregarding her motherly duties to put her son's well being before her own selfish desires. She also betrays the old King Hamlet by moving on from his death so quickly. Hamlet is betrayed again by Ophelia when she allows her father and Claudius to listen in on their conversation. Guildenstein and Rosencrantz, Hamlet's childhood friends, also betray him by giving loyalties to Claudius and Gertrude instead of their long time friend, Hamlet. (awan)

Duplicity (especially with respect to the mind’s “actions”): This staggering capacity of human conscience and emotion often complicates Hamlet’s seemingly straightforward moral decisions, as he struggles to choose a concrete and definite course of action. Hamlet’s “split personality” manifests itself both when he contemplates the idea of avenging his father’s death and when he attempts to discover his true feelings for Ophelia. The duplicitous nature of Hamlet’s mind is at the root of many of his problems, most particularly his overwhelming indecision and consideration of suicide (see Hammy’s “To be, or not to be” Act 3, Scene 1 soliloquy). Thus, without much of an action-driven plot, Shakespeare uses this recurring tension and conflict to drive the development (or lack thereof) of his play. (KWatts)

Significance of Opening Scene

The opening scene in Hamlet is significant mainly because of the character and plot development that unfolds throughout the scene. Although we don’t learn anything about the killing of King Hamlet and the main plot, we begin to learn about the premise of the ‘side’ plot, which involves Fortinbras and Norway. The opening scene also starts to develop Horatio’s character by making him represent the rational thought in the scene. Although we come to find out that Horatio is essentially the only level-headed character in the play, the fact that the guards call upon him to clarify their witnessing of the ghost in the opening scene implies their respect of Horatio’s rational thought, which makes us believe that Horatio is almost the voice of reason in this play. The opening scene also helps clarify if the ghost is just a figment of Hamlet’s imagination or not, by demonstrating that the it is in fact a real thing that shows itself to people other than Hamlet. The realness of the Ghost is important because it clarifies that Hamlet wasn’t hallucinating about the Ghost talking to him in other parts of the play. ZI

Significance of Closing Scene

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