SUMMARY OF HAMLET #
THE ACTION OF THE PLAY
It is a starry night and bitter cold. Francisco, a lonely sentinel on the battlements of the castle of Elsinore, is relieved by Barnardo as the clock strikes twelve. They are joined by Marcellus, an officer of the guard, and by Horatio, friend of the young Prince Hamlet, come in a mood of humorous scepticism to verify their story of a ghostly apparition. Suddenly the Ghost, an apparition of the late King of Denmark in full armour, appears. Horatio addresses it. It vanishes. Horatio is confirmed in his fears of unrest in the state of Denmark. The Ghost reappears. Horatio spreads his arms and speaks to it. But as the cock crows, it starts, and. eluding their pursuit, vanishes again. Dawn is breaking. Horatio resolves to tell the Prince of what they have seen.
Inside the castle all is warmth and light. Amongst the gaily dressed Court the young Prince Hamlet stands alone in mourning black. In a suavely diplomatic speech, Claudius the King pays tribute to his dead brother whose throne and. wife he has usurped. When he has sent messengers to the King of Norway, and given permission to young Laertes, son of his ancient counsellor Polonius, to leave for Prance, he turns to the brooding figure of his nephew. Hamlet breaks silence with an ironic epigram. Uneasily loquacious, the King implores Hamlet to cease mourning his dead father. When the Queen, his mother, adds her entreaties, Hamlet gives way. Satisfied, the King departs. Left alone, Hamlet is seen to be more embittered by his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage than dejected by his father’s death. When Horatio comes with Marcellus and Barnardo to greet him, his mood. changes to one of cordial warmth. Disturbed by the news of his father’s ghost, he resolves to watch them that night.
In a room in his father’s house, Laertes, bidding fare well to his sister Ophelia; warns her against Hamlet’s advances: when he marries, it will be for reasons of state, not of affection. Though she listens submissively, Ophelia makes a teasing remark at the end of her brother’s exhortation. Their garrulous old. father bustles in, delivers a farewell lecture to his son and then reinforces Laertes’ warning to Ophelia.
As midnight approaches, Hamlet joins Horatio and. the officers on the battlements. The noise of’ trumpets and. drums from within the castle shows that the King holds wassail, The Ghost appears, Hamlet frenziedly questions it, but the Ghost silently beckons him on. Shaking off the others’ restraining hands, Hamlet follows.
Scene 5 :
At last the Ghost speaks. He reveals his murder at the hand of Claudius, and enjoins upon his son the solemn duty of revenge. The Ghost vanishes at dawn. When the others come upon Hamlet, he speaks at random. He swears them to secrecy and is echoed by the Ghost from the cellarage. Hysterically Hamlet answers. Their secrecy must be inviolable, even, if he himself puts an “antic disposition on His last remark reveals a reluctant acceptance of his destiny of revenge.
Hamlet’s “antic disposition” soon becomes evident. Polonius’ long-winded instructions to his servant Reynaldo are followed by the agitated appearance of Ophelia, frightened and disturbed by the strange behaviour of Hamlet.
Claudius, seeking to cure Hamlet’s “transformation”, has sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his fellow—students at Wittenberg. Polonius announces that he can explain Hamlet’s behaviour, and when the Ambassadors from Norway have delivered their message, propounds his theories of Hamlet’s love madness. He suggests that they should spy upon an encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia. Claudius agrees and withdraws with his Court as Hamlet comes in, his eyes upon a book.
Hamlet parries Polonius’ questions with mad logic. Then Guildenstern and Rosencrantz arrive, he assumes a pose of formal melancholy, and hints at his suspicions of the reason for their presence in the Court. He is excited by the news of the arrival of a party of strolling players, and in a changed mood, courteously welcomes his fellow—students. Polonius’ arrival elicits more crazy riddling, but with the Players his mercurial mood changes. He greets them as old friends, quotes from their plays, listens to them, and gives orders to Polonius for their reception. As they leave, he draws one of them aside and asks for The Murder of Gonzago, for which he will write some extra lines. As his friends leave him, he bursts out into a self—lacerating soliloquy touched off by the contrast between. the assumed passion of the Players and his own apathy in the face of real tragedy. But the arrival of the Players has also shown him a way to test the veracity of the Ghost and expose the guilt of the King before the Court.
It is clear to the King that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have failed in their attempts to discover the cause 0f Hamlet’s indisposition. He has agreed to Polonius’ scheme, and withdraws behind the arras with the old. Counsellor leaving Ophelia alone to greet Hamlet. As he does so, be reveals his disturbed conscience. At first Hamlet does not see Ophelia. He muses on the nature of life, the temptations of self—inflicted death, the difficulty of direct action. Catching sight of Ophelia, he greets her gently. But when she attempts to return his gifts, his mood changes. He breaks into a violent denunciation apparently directed at the shrinking girl, but in fact directed against his guilty mother and. himself. Suddenly he questions her about the whereabouts of Polonius. Her pitiful lie does not convince him. He bids her farewell, then twice returns in a mounting crescendo of disgust with all womankind. Then he finally departs, she mourns the change in him, who was once the epitome of all princely virtues. Emerging from behind the arras, the King is aware that Hamlet’s is not the madness of love and determines to send him to England. Nevertheless he concedes Polonius’ request to confront Hamlet with his mother.
The hall of the castle has been made ready for the play. Intent upon the success of his ruse, Hamlet advises the players upon the speaking of his lines, then warms to his theories of acting. They leave to get ready and he despatches his over-zealous watchdogs, Polonius, Rosencrantz and. Guildenstern, to hasten them. When Horatio comes in, Hamlet’s poses drop away. Speaking with weary directness, he makes known his scheme. Announced by trumpets and. drums, the Court enters. Hamlet reassumes his riddling enigmatic pose, bitterly to the King, jestingly to Polonius, lewdly suggestive to the Queen and to Ophelia as he lies with his head in her lap.
The trumpets sound, the Court falls silent, the players perform the Dumb—Show. When it ends, Hamlet bitterly answers Ophelia’s innocent questions. The play begins. The Player Queen vows constancy to her husband. Hamlet suddenly questions his mother. The King is uneasy. Hamlet answers him enigmatically and watches him closely as the Player Lucianus approaches the sleeping “King” and. pours poison in his ear. At once all is confusion. Claudius rises to hi feet, calls for lights, precipitately leaves. Hamlet, hysterically pleased with the success of his plot, improvises a rhymed epilogue for the benefit of Horatio. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return, Hamlet questions them about the King. He answers their message from the Queen with riddles, and. seizing a recorder from one of ‘the Players, torments the reluctant Guildenstern. Polonius comes with another message from the Queen. At last Hamlet promises to go to her, and dismisses them all. His mood is dark, brooding, increasingly ruthless.
Claudius, now aware of his peril, is determined, that Hamlet shall be sent to England. Polonius announces that Hamlet is on his way to his mother’s room He will watch from behind the arras. Left alone, the King confesses his guilt and remorse. He falls upon his knees, Hamlet comes up behind him. Now is his chance to kill the King. He rejects it. Claudius (who had killed Hamlet’s father with his sins upon him) shall not go shriven to heaven. He leaves him at his prayers and passes on to his mother’s room.
Polonius is giving the Queen final instructions in her closet. When Hamlet is heard outside, the old man hides behind the arras. In his disgust with his mother, Hamlet speaks brutally. She calls or help and is echoed by Polonius. Immediately Hamlet thinking it to be the King, draws his sword and stabs through the arras killing not the King but the old busybody. Gertrude’s amazement at his reference to the murder of his father reveals her innocence, but he returns to his reproaches with fresh venom. Her remorse mounts but when the Ghost enters she cannot see it and attributes Hamlet’s agitation to his madness. This gives fresh impetus to Hamlet’s anger against her, which is greater even than his desire to revenge his father’s murder. Again and again he returns to his theme, until his mother promises to withstand all further advances from the King. Hamlet leaves, dragging the body of Polonius with him.
Claudius comes upon the Queen, hears of’ Polonius’ death and sends Rosencrantz and. Guildenstern to find Hamlet.
Hamlet has hidden the body. Rosencrantz Guildenstern call to him, he answers them with riddles, and lures them after him.
The King announces in council his decision to exile Hamlet to avert civil war. Hamlet has been found. Guarded by soldiers, he reveals in his exchanges with the King the whereabouts of the body. With a last ironic comment on his mother’s marriage, he leaves for England. Alone, Claudius reveals his intention to have Hamlet murdered.
On his way to England, Hamlet is again reminded of’ his apathy by the sight of Fortinbras and his army on the march.
The reluctant Queen is persuaded by Horatio to see Ophelia, made mad by the death of her father. The young girl comes in, her hair loose about her shoulders, carrying a lute and singing snatches of balladry. As she leaves, the King orders her to be followed. Shouts from outside precede Laertes bent on revenge for his father’s death. Ophelia returns with flowers in her hand. According to the old funeral custom she distributes them: to Laertes rosemary and pansies, to the King fennel and columbines, to the Queen rue for repentance, to herself rue for sorrow. She leaves, singing a last elegy. The sight of her has softened Laertes’ mood. and he listens docilely to the wily King.
Messengers have brought Horatio a Iet Ironi r1dm who has escaped on his way to England.
In the meanwhile Claudius has made known his schemes to Laertes. He cannot himself proceed against Hamlet be cause of the love borne him by the Queen and by the common people. They are interrupted by a messenger bringing a letter from Hamlet.
Hamlet has landed again in Denmark. The King suggests to Laertes the means to encompass his revenge. Let him challenge Hamlet to a duel and leave his rapier unbaited. Laertes suggests poisoning the rapier. The King feigns reluctance, but lest that fails, he will have a cup of poison ready. The Queen enters weeping; Ophelia is drowned. Momentarily, Laertes’ desire for revenge is submerged by grief.
In a churchyard a sexton and his mate are digging ,a grave. Hamlet and Horatio watch them from afar. As the sexton throws up skull after skull, Hamlet speculates on the transitoriness of’ life and power. He questions the sexton and in his turn is answered in riddles. Hamlet takes in his hands the skull of Yorick, court jester in his childhood, and his mood. becomes tenderly elegiac. They are interrupted by a procession: the King, Queen, Laertes, a coffin with attendants, and a priest. Hamlet and Horatio stand aside as Laertes questions the priest. Suddenly Hamlet realises that it is Ophelia who is to be buried. The Queen scatters flowers upon the coffin as it is lowered into the earth, but Laertes leaps into the grave and commands the earth to be piled upon him also. Not to be outdone, Hamlet announces his identity, and leaps in after him. They grapple in the open grave until they are separated. Thereafter, Laertes is silent as Hamlet rants. When Hamlet has gone, the King reminds Laertes of his scheme.
Back in the castle Hamlet tells Horatio of the King’s plot to kill him in England and his turning of the tables upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Still he seeks confirmation from Horatio that he is justified in killing the lung. His remorse for his behaviour towards Laertes is interrupted by the arrival of the foppish Osric. Momentarily Hamlet becomes again the witty Prince. Then the matter of Osric’s message is at least clear — Laertes’ challenge and the King’s wager - Hamlet accepts. Though confident of victory, he confides to Horatio a feeling of foreboding and of fatalistic acceptance of what is to come. The King enters with the Queen and the Court. He puts the hand of Laertes into that of Hamlet, who makes a generous apology for his behaviour. As they test the foils, the King gives orders for stoups of wine, and for the trumpets, drums and cannon to be sounded. Hamlet wins the first bout. The drums sound the trumpets blow, and a canon—shot is heard outside. The King pledges Hamlet, casts a pearl into a cup of wine and orders it to be given to Hamlet, who refuses it. Hamlet wins the second bout. The Queen hands him her napkin and, taking up his cup of wine, prepares to drink to him. The King tries to prevent her but she drinks the poisoned wine The third bout is a draw. Laertes, now desperate, lunges at Hamlet when his guard is down. The wounded Hamlet wrests the poisoned rapier from him, and. before the King can prevent it, stabs Laertes in his turn. Laertes falls back dying, the Queen falls poisoned, Laertes denounces the King. At last Hamlet turns the envenomed rapier upon the King and forces him to drink the poisoned wine. Claudius dies. With his last breath, Laertes begs forgiveness of Hamlet. The dying Hamlet prevents Horatio’s attempt to drink from the poisoned cup and bids him live so that he shall make the truth known. As Hamlet is dying a warlike march is heard from afar and he is able to give his “dying voice” to young Fortinbras. Horatio bids him farewell. Fortinbras, appalled by the tragic sight of the bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius and the Queen, questions Horatio, who promises to make all known. Hamlet’s body is borne aloft by four captains as a dead march is played, after which a peal of ordnance is shot off.