Introduction to Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Table of Contents


"Hamlet" is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601. It is one of Shakespeare's most famous and longest plays, with over 4,000 lines. Set in Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet is called to wreak upon his uncle, Claudius, by the ghost of Hamlet's father, King Hamlet.

Plot Summary

The play opens on the battlements of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. The ghost of King Hamlet appears to two sentinels, demanding they fetch Prince Hamlet. Horatio, a scholar and a friend of Hamlet, accompanies the guards. The ghost reveals that it is King Hamlet's spirit, doomed to walk the earth until his sins are purged. It tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, who is now king and married to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.

Act 1

  • Synopsis: Prince Hamlet returns to Denmark from his studies in Wittenberg to find his father dead, his mother remarried to his uncle Claudius, and Denmark in a state of political unrest.
  • Meaning: The opening act sets the stage for the tragedy to come, introducing the central conflict of the play: Hamlet's struggle to come to terms with his father's death and his duty to avenge it. It establishes the theme of appearance vs. reality, as Hamlet feigns madness to uncover the truth.

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Act 2

  • Synopsis: Hamlet becomes increasingly distressed and begins to plan his revenge.
  • Meaning: Act 2 delves deeper into Hamlet's psyche as he grapples with the weight of his father's murder and the burden of seeking revenge. The play-within-a-play highlights the theme of appearance vs. reality, as Hamlet uses the performance to uncover the truth.

Act 3

  • Synopsis: Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England, fearing for his own safety.
  • Meaning: Act 3 is a turning point in the play, as Hamlet's inner turmoil reaches its peak. The "To be, or not to be" soliloquy reflects Hamlet's existential crisis and his struggle to find meaning in a world filled with corruption and deceit.

Act 4

  • Synopsis: Ophelia goes mad with grief over her father's death and drowns herself.
  • Meaning: This act explores the consequences of Hamlet's actions, as his pursuit of revenge leads to the deaths of innocent bystanders. It highlights the destructive nature of vengeance and the tragic consequences of Hamlet's indecision.

Act 5

  • Synopsis: Hamlet and Laertes duel, and both are fatally wounded with the poisoned sword. Gertrude unwittingly drinks from a poisoned cup intended for Hamlet and dies.
  • Meaning: The final act brings the play to a tragic conclusion, with nearly all of the main characters meeting untimely deaths. It underscores the theme of mortality and the inevitability of death, as well as the futility of seeking revenge at any cost.


Prince Hamlet

  • Description: The Prince of Denmark, son of Queen Gertrude and the late King Hamlet, and nephew of King Claudius. Hamlet is melancholic, bitter, and cynical, with a profound intellect and a contemplative nature.

King Claudius

  • Description: The new King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle, and the brother of the former king. Claudius is ambitious, cunning, and morally corrupt.

Queen Gertrude

  • Description: Hamlet's mother and the Queen of Denmark. She marries Claudius shortly after King Hamlet's death, and her hasty marriage to Claudius contributes to Hamlet's sense of betrayal.


  • Description: Polonius's daughter, Hamlet's love interest, and Laertes's sister. Ophelia is obedient and gentle, but she becomes distraught and ultimately mad after Hamlet rejects her.


  • Description: A friend of Hamlet from Wittenberg, Horatio is loyal, rational, and trustworthy. He is the only major character to survive the play.


  • Description: The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius's court, Polonius is a busybody and a meddler. He is the father of Ophelia and Laertes.


  • Description: Polonius's son and Ophelia's brother, Laertes is hot-headed and impulsive. He seeks revenge for his father's death.

Ghost of King Hamlet

  • Description: The spirit of Prince Hamlet's father, who appears to him and demands vengeance for his murder.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

  • Description: Childhood friends of Hamlet, they are summoned by Claudius to spy on the prince.


  • Description: The young Prince of Norway, whose father was killed by King Hamlet. Fortinbras seeks to reclaim the lands lost by his father.



  • Description: "Hamlet" is a revenge tragedy, exploring the theme of vengeance and its consequences. The play examines the moral complexities of seeking revenge and the toll it takes on the avenger.


  • Description: The theme of madness is central to "Hamlet." The play blurs the lines between sanity and insanity, with several characters feigning madness and others truly descending into madness.


  • Description: "Hamlet" is preoccupied with the theme of mortality, exploring the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of the afterlife. The play's most famous soliloquy, "To be, or not to be," reflects on the nature of existence and the fear of the unknown.


  • Description: The play depicts a corrupt court, filled with deceit, betrayal, and moral decay. Claudius's murder of King Hamlet and his incestuous marriage to Gertrude symbolize the moral corruption at the heart of the Danish court.

Appearance vs. Reality

  • Description: "Hamlet" explores the theme of appearance vs. reality, with characters often concealing their true motives behind a facade. Hamlet's feigned madness and Claudius's false remorse are examples of this theme.


"Hamlet" is one of Shakespeare's most famous and enduring plays, known for its complex characters, intricate plot, and exploration of profound themes. It has been described as one of the greatest achievements in Western literature and has been adapted into countless stage productions, films, and other works of art.


"Hamlet" has been adapted into numerous films, stage productions, and literary works. Some notable adaptations include:

  • Film: Laurence Olivier's 1948 adaptation, Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation, and Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation.
  • Stage: John Gielgud's 1934 production, directed by Gielgud and starring himself as Hamlet, and Peter Brook's 2000 production, featuring Adrian Lester as Hamlet.
  • Literature: Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which retells the story of "Hamlet" from the perspective of two minor characters.

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