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Shakespeare Summaries – Hamlet

Those of you who know me well will know just how much I love Shakespeare, so I thought I’d spend some time talking about his great plays. I think some of the characters in various Shakespeare characters do reflect Elizabethan ideals and nightmares of women, much as many of the Regency Classics do with men. Hamlet is my absolute favourite play, so it’s what I want to start with…

So here is a brief summary of the play:

At the start of the play, we soon find out that King Hamlet of Denmark has recently died and his widow, Queen Gertrude, has married Hamlet’s brother, Claudius, within a month, a marriage which King Hamlet’s son, Prince Hamlet, has deemed incestuous and both Claudius and Gertrude quickly fell from his favour. The play opens with various servants and gentlemen were keeping watch over the Royal Court late at night and noticing a ghost-like figure in the form of the dead King.

Upon hearing from friend, Horatio, of the ghost, Hamlet goes to where the men were keeping guard and the ghost soon reveals itself. Refusing to talk to anyone, the ghost leads Hamlet to a secluded place and the ghost identifies himself as King Hamlet and reveals the truth that he had in fact been poisoned by Claudius. Hamlet decides to seek vengeance with some persuasion from the ghost.

In Act 1, Scene 3 we meet Ophelia (who is being courted by Hamlet) and hear more from her father and brother, Polonius and Laertes respectively. Laertes is leaving for France and Polonius is advising them both on how to behave. Soon after, Ophelia reports some rather worrying behavior from Hamlet, and this is soon confirmed my many acts we see of Hamlet. As Hamlet is still unsure about the accuracy of the ghost’s words, he decides to put on a play for the King and Queen which portrayed his father’s murder so that he could study Claudius’ reaction to determine his guilt. The play goes well with a running commentary from Hamlet and Claudius abruptly rises on the murder scene, which Hamlet takes as proof of his uncle’s guilt.

After the play has ended, Gertrude calls Hamlet to her for an explanation. Polonius eavesdrops on the conversation and cries out for help when he begins to worry that Hamlet will kill Gertrude. Mistaking Polonius for Claudius, Hamlet stabs at him.  He is by no means remorseful when he realises that it was Polonius he killed. The ghost appears again and urges Hamlet to be gentle with his mother, whilst reminding him of his mission to kill Claudius. Gertrude, unable to see or hear the ghost, interprets the conversation as further proof of Hamlet’s madness.

Deciding that Hamlet is a threat, Claudius sends Hamlet on what the Court thinks is a political mission to England. Alone he admits his true intentions of Hamlet’s death. Meanwhile, Ophelia begins to act with increasing insanity, wandering the castle and singing many bawdy songs. She gives out herbs and flowers to those present and then leaves. Laertes returns from France, obviously distraught due to the happenings in Denmark. Claudius persuades him that Hamlet is entirely responsible and proposes a fencing match between the two. Seeking revenge, Laertes plans to poison his sword so that even a scratch could succeed in killing Hamlet. Claudius says he will offer poisoned wine to Hamlet if that fails. Gertrude then enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned.

We next see two ‘clowns’ digging Ophelia’s grave as a coroner ruled that the death was incidental and therefore she deserves Christian burial. However, the gravediggers argue that Ophelia must have committed suicide and that is what is generally believed. Hamlet and Horatio talk with the gravediggers, unaware that they are digging Ophelia’s grave. They unearth of skull, giving the famous quote ‘Alas, poor Yorick; I knew him, Horatio.’, commonly mistaken for ‘Alas, poor Yorick; I knew him well.’ The funeral procession enters the graveyard, lead by Laertes, who, overcome by grief and upset further by the lack of ceremony (due to the suicide possibility), leaps into the grave and curses Hamlet as the cause of her death. Hamlet soon interrupts, declaring his own love and grief for Ophelia. Hamlet and Laertes begin to fight, but are prized apart by Claudius and Gertrude.

Later that day, a courtier invites Hamlet to the fencing match against Laertes, which Hamlet accepts against persuasions from Horatio to decline. The fencing match begins and soon after Gertrude toasts to Hamlet against warnings from Claudius, and drinks the poisoned wine. Hamlet is injured by the poisoned sword, but in  struggle manages to use Laertes’ sword against him. Gertrude falls, announcing that she had been poisoned in her dying breath.

As they die, Laertes and Hamlet reconcile and Hamlet reveals the truth about Claudius. Hamlet then injures Claudius with the poisoned sword then makes him drink some of the wine to make sure he dies. Horatio tries to kill himself by drinking the remainder of the wine but is stopped by Hamlet as Horatio is the only person alive who would know what had happened and could reveal the truth about the deaths and how Claudius had killed King Hamlet. Prince Hamlet names an heir in his final moments, the Prince of Norway, and he arrives shocked at the scene, with Horatio telling him everything that had happened.

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