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Hamlet - history and plot summary

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The earliest published text of Hamlet is dated 1603. It is a revenge tragedy, with which Shakespeare's audience would have been very familiar. It is worth researching this aspect a little further and asking yourself how closely Shakespeare follows the traditions of revenge tragedy and to what extent he develops and challenges the conventions of the genre. Think about what was happening in English society around the time the play was written: the death of a long reigning monarch, challenges to established ways of viewing the universe and man's place in it, the discovery of the New World, political and religious unrest in Europe, etc. All in all this was a time of change and upheaval. Ask yourself whether Hamlet's dilemmas and continual questioning are a reflection of all this - an attempt to find answers to the big questions. Hamlet is, perhaps, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, and Hamlet himself his most famous tragic hero. ...read more.


Throughout the play, Hamlet spends much of his time debating with himself about how he should fulfil his father's request. He pretends to be mad. Although at some points in the play he is clearly sane, there are times when we might see him as genuinely mad. Claudius becomes suspicious of Hamlet and tension grows between Hamlet and his mother, who is torn between her son and her new husband. Claudius enlists the help of his advisor, Polonius, to spy on Hamlet. For this, they use Polonius's daughter, Ophelia, who appears to be the object of Hamlet's love. This leads to Hamlet rejecting Ophelia. Friends of Hamlet from university, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are also invited to the court by Claudius in order to help him uncover the reasons for Hamlet's melancholy. When a group of actors (the Players) arrive at court, Hamlet seizes the opportunity to test the ghost's story. ...read more.


On his return, Hamlet finds that during his absence Ophelia has gone mad and killed herself out of grief. Her brother, Laertes, spurred on by Claudius, seeks his revenge - the death of Hamlet. A duel is arranged and Laertes, encouraged by Claudius, agrees to cheat by using an unprotected and poisoned sword. To make doubly sure, Claudius prepares a poison drink for Hamlet. Prior to the duel, Hamlet and Laertes confront each other at Ophelia's graveside. The duel itself does not go according to plan: firstly Gertrude accidentally drinks from the poisoned cup; Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned rapier, which he then loses to Hamlet in a scuffle; Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned rapier. Gertrude dies, revealing that the cup is poisoned; Laertes dies, revealing Claudius's treachery and asking Hamlet's forgiveness. Hamlet takes his revenge by stabbing Claudius with the poisoned sword and forcing him to drink from the poisoned cup before he dies himself, naming Fortinbras as successor to the Danish throne. Horatio remains alive to tell the truth of what has happened. ...read more.

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