by W. Shakespeare
- plot summary -
Plagued by royal treachery, vengeful scheming, and an unsettled ghost, Denmark is ripe for destruction. Directly following King Hamlet's recent death, the widowed Queen Gertrude has hastily remarried Claudius, King Hamlet's own brother. Young Prince Hamlet is galled by his mother's disloyalty and sulks darkly in Elsinore castle. At midnight, the rambling ghost of King Hamlet exposes a hidden treachery to Prince Hamlet: Claudius fatally poisoned the slumbering King Hamlet in order to steal his crown and his queen. The phantom king begs Hamlet to avenge his foul murder. Prince Hamlet agrees and feigns insanity to disguise his bloody motive.
King Claudius is troubled by two pests. First, young Fortinbras of Norway has raised his army against Denmark in order to reclaim his father's lost land. Claudius suppresses Fortinbras' challenge but allows the hotheaded young Prince to pass peacefully through Denmark on his way to fight Poland. Claudius' second nuisance is his deranged nephew and stepson, Prince Hamlet. Claudius employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's former friends, to spy on the mad Prince. Polonius, the King's principal advisor, argues that Hamlet's insanity is nothing more than love sickness. Ever watchful of his daughter's chastity, Polonius ordered Ophelia to reject Hamlet's lusty admiration. To prove that this rejection has caused Hamlet's mania, Polonius plants his daughter in Hamlet's path and hides with King Claudius to spy on their fixed encounter. The Prince's mania appears more sinister than expected, and Claudius is unconvinced by Polonius' explanation.
Prince Hamlet hires a group of traveling actors to perform "The Mousetrap" for the royal audience. Because the play closely mirrors the murder of King Hamlet, both Hamlet and his confidant, Horatio, will study the King's reaction for signs of his guilt.
Horrified by the performance, King Claudius prays for forgiveness. However, because he still possesses his crown, his queen, and his ambition, his prayers prove insincere. Hamlet nearly slaughters the kneeling King, but he halts his vengeful sword when he remembers that a soul killed in the midst of prayer flies directly up to heaven.
In Queen Gertrude's chamber, Hamlet chastises his mother for her lusty disloyalty. Spying behind an arras (curtain), Polonius perceives Gertrude's danger and cries for help. Hamlet mistakes the spy for King Claudius, and plunges his sword into the curtain. Polonius is slain, and King Claudius sends Hamlet to England as punishment. Aboard the ship, Prince Hamlet intercepts a treacherous letter from Claudius, which orders the King of England to execute Hamlet. Botching Claudius' scheme, Hamlet forges a new letter, naming the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as those condemned to die.
Polonius' death and his dishonorable burial drive Ophelia to insanity. The maiden ultimately dies, drowned in a suspected suicide. Laertes, Polonius' son, returns with a mob from Paris and demands retribution against Hamlet. Claudius proposes a rigged fencing competition between the Prince and Laertes: Hamlet's sword will be blunted, to protect Laertes, while Laertes' sword will be sharp and poisoned, to slay Hamlet. As planned, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword. In the scuffle, they exchange rapiers and Hamlet slices Laertes with the toxic weapon. Both are doomed to die, but the King and Queen die first. Queen Gertrude falls dead from a poisoned chalice meant for Hamlet and, after the fight with Laertes, Hamlet slashes and kills King Claudius with the poisoned rapier. With his dying breath, Hamlet supports Fortinbras' appointment as the next King of Denmark. Surrounded by the royal massacre, Hamlet pleads with Horatio to tell his tragic story to the world.