Hamlet: by Shakespeare - Summary

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      Hamlet, Prince of Denmark a tragedy by William Shakespeare, it was published in 1603. A second published in 1604, has significant differences from the text of the First Folio of 1623. Both are used by modern editors. Various sources have been proposed, among them a lost play on the same subject. We do not know whether Elizabethan audiences were familiar with the story before Shakespeare wrote his play.

      The recent death of King Hamlet has brought his brother Claudius to the Danish throne. Claudius has also married the King’s widow, Gertrude. Prince Hamlet, spectacularly mourning both his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage, undermines Claudius’s attempts to sustain the morale of Denmark in the face of a threatened Norwegian invasion, led by the young and warlike Fortinbras. Told by his friend Horatio of the recent appearances on the battlements of his father’s ghost, Hamlet decides to watch with him. The ghost appears and tells Hamlet that Claudius poisoned him. Hamlet swears vengeance. But the act is not a simple one, and the ghost not necessarily trustworthy. Hamlet’s urge to verify Claudius’s guilt combines with an equally strong need to confirm his mother’s innocence.

      The arrival of a company of actors at the Danish court provides him with an opportunity. He persuades them to revive an old play whose story offers a persuasive parallel to that of Claudius. Hamlet’s eccentric behavior is, by now, indistinguishable from madness. The court chamberlain, Polonius, is convinced that Hamlet is mad. How else is he to explain his treatment of Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter? Claudius gives himself away at the performance of the play, and orders Hamlet to go to England, where he plans to have him killed. But Hamlet escapes his pursuers, confronts Gertrude in her chamber and stabs to death the eaves-dropping Polonius, apparently on the assumption that it, is Claudius, not Polonius, behind the arras.

      Determined to avenge Polonius’s death, his son Laertes returns to Denmark, where he finds Ophelia mad. News reaches, Claudius that Hamlet is back in Denmark. He plots with Laertes a duel in which Hamlet’s death will be assured by a poison-tipped sword. News of Ophelia’s death by drowning strengthens Laertes’s resolve. The duel takes place...and culminates in the death of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius and Hamlet. The play ends with Fortinbras of Norway, newly proclaimed King of Denmark, ordering a military funeral for Hamlet.

      Because the figure of Hamlet has so fascinated successive generations, the play has provoked more discussion, more performances and more scholarship than any other in the whole history of world drama. It stands at the very center of Shakespeare’s dramatic career, on the one hand concluding a decade that had seen the composition of the mature comedies and English history plays, and on the other preceding the sequence of great tragedies. In no other play does Shakespeare subject to such detailed scrutiny the whole art of theatre itself. It is not an accident that the play-within-the-play holds a central position in the pattern of the drama; all the characters are affected by the compulsion to act a part. It is an aspect of the topsy-turvydom of Denmark under Claudius that real feeling should present itself as seeming. The histrionic temperament has never been so fully explored.

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