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Hamlet: Act summaries
Read summaries of all the acts in the play to help you understand further key events and gain insights to use in your own work.
This most enigmatic of all Shakespeare’s plays opens with a question: “Who’s there?” An answer to the enigma of Hamlet himself has intrigued readers and audiences ever since.
In the royal castle of Elsinore in Denmark, the guards are nervously on watch. They have brought Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, to see what they have seen. And it soon appears – the ghost of the dead king, Hamlet’s father, also named Hamlet. But the ghost “stalks away”, unspeaking. Horatio confirms that it is “like the king”, and realises “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The atmosphere is also charged with preparations for war, since young Fortinbras of Norway is assembling troops to win back lands lost to the Danes by his father. As his father was also named Fortinbras, an early parallel with Hamlet is established.
The ghost is in armour, and Horatio suggests there were similar omens of disaster in Rome before Caesar’s assassination. The ghost comes back and seems about to speak when a cock crows and it disappears with the arrival of the dawn. Horatio decides he must “impart what we have seen tonight/ Unto young Hamlet” – the first mention of the play’s hero.
In stark contrast with the drama and “bitter cold” of the first scene, Scene Two opens with Claudius, the Danish king, addressing his court. We understand that Claudius has taken over the throne from his recently deceased brother, as well as marrying Gertrude, his brother’s widow. In other words, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, is now also his stepfather; while Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is now married to his uncle, remaining queen, but with a different king!
Claudius, very much in command, sends messengers to the Norwegian king, seeking to make peace. He also deals with more domestic matters, allowing Laertes, son of Polonius, the king’s adviser, to return to Paris. He then turns his attention to Hamlet, who we realise has been on stage without speaking all this time. Hamlet’s first line – “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” – is typically punning, showing his alienation from his new “father”. His mother too exhorts him to “cast [his] knighted colour off,” [Hamlet traditionally wears black] and cease mourning for his father. In contrast to his treatment of Laertes, Claudius refuses permission for Hamlet to return to his studies in Wittenberg, Germany.
Hamlet is left alone on stage, and, in the first of his many famous soliloquies, expresses his disgust at the re-marriage of his mother to her husband’s brother, saying “frailty: thy name is woman”, and contrasting his uncle with his late father – “Hyperion to a satyr.” Hyperion is the sun-god, and a satyr a kind of mythical, lecherous monster!
Horatio enters. He has come for the funeral of the late king, only to find himself attending a wedding, so short is the gap between the two events. He tells Hamlet of the ghostly appearance of the dead king. After much characteristic questioning of Horatio and the guards, Hamlet vows to come and see for himself that very night.
Before that, however, in Scene Three, we see another parallel version of Hamlet in Laertes. Laertes is the son who receives advice from his father, Polonius. But he also gives lots of advice to his sister, Ophelia. And this centres around a possible attraction between her and Hamlet – linking the two families even further. Laertes warns Ophelia not to expect anything to come from what he considers a flirtation: Hamlet is a royal prince who cannot make free choices about marriage. Laertes fears his sister will leave her “chaste treasure open/ To [Hamlet’s] unmastered importunity”, thus losing her virginity. Ophelia shows considerable independence of spirit, by saying she will listen to “this good lesson” but her brother should not hypocritically ignore his own advice, following a double standard.
Polonius’s long-winded farewell to his son contains many famous exhortations: “Neither a borrower or a lender be...to thine own self be true” which appear sound but which will be severely tested in the rest of the play.
Scene Four shows Hamlet on the battlements awaiting the ghost. In the background we hear noises of drunken celebration, which Hamlet sees as a blot on Denmark’s reputation, speaking of a “vicious mole of nature”, a tiny blemish which can destroy “the pales and forts of reason.” This might be seen as a comment on Claudius, but it has been seen as a self-analysis, since Hamlet himself has so many virtues, but lacks, many think, decisiveness.
The appearance of the ghost shocks and horrifies Hamlet, but he follows when it beckons him, overcoming the discouragement of Horatio and the others. As he goes out of sight Marcellus, a minor character, utters a famous line, summing up the play so far: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
In Scene Five the ghost finally speaks, confirming he is indeed the spirit of Hamlet’s father, exhorting his son to “Revenge his most foul and unnatural murder.” This is the first sign in the play that the dead king has been murdered by his own brother. The ghost also refers to Claudius as “that adulterate beast”, implying [though some think it’s not certain] that Gertrude betrayed her husband when he was still living. The ghost describes in detail how he was poisoned and died unforgiven, “even in the blossoms of my sin.” He powerfully commands his son to “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/ A couch for luxury and damned incest.” [It was considered incestuous to marry a deceased brother’s wife, although Henry VIII had done just that, after a papal dispensation]
When the ghost departs, Hamlet promises he will “wipe away” everything from his mind except the need to revenge his father. But he does not mention what he has learnt, and makes the others swear to keep secret their knowledge of the ghost. He also warns Horatio not to react when he shows an “antic disposition”, behaving as if strange or mad. This will be Hamlet’s means of defence in the vulnerable position he now occupies: if the father has been murdered what of the son?
At the end of Act One, Hamlet, for all his enthusiastic response to the ghost, bemoans that “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right.” The metaphor comes from the practice of setting bones to mend broken limbs. But, rather than being indecisive, is Hamlet beginning to realise how much danger and difficulty lie ahead of him if he is to restore the kingdom to health?
In a play full of secrecy and paranoia, it is hardly surprising, though still shocking, to see Polonius, at the start of Act Two, setting a spy upon his own son! He even encourages Reynaldo to spread false rumours about Laertes. We understand why in many productions Polonius is seen as a kind of chief of intelligence, a spymaster.
Ophelia interrupts this scene, telling her father of Hamlet’s odd behaviour, appearing in her closet [small room] almost as a parody of a lover. Is this the “antic disposition”? Some time seems to have elapsed between Acts One and Two. Hamlet’s actions will puzzle everyone, but the audience knows what he knows, and may not be quite so surprised.
In Scene Two we see Claudius struggling to understand “Hamlet’s transformation.” He has brought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his court, young men who have known Hamlet in the past. He wants them to draw Hamlet out and see “Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him.” Our sense of Elsinore as a place of clandestine intrigue increases.
Polonius tells Claudius he has found the “very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.” Gertrude suspects it is their “o’erhasty marriage,” - an interesting admission – but before Polonius can explain, ambassadors return bringing news of peace with Norway. Claudius’s diplomacy has succeeded, but the audience now knows much more about him than they did when he first appeared; much more that is sinister. Polonius reads aloud a love-letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, as apparent proof of the former’s lovesick lunacy. He promises to “loose” his daughter to Hamlet, while he and Claudius observe them. More unscrupulous spying to find “where truth is hid.”
Meeting Polonius, Hamlet mocks him with much witty, sexually charged banter, which Polonius takes as being confirmation of his theory. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get little more from Hamlet, who tells them that “Denmark is a prison.” He realises his two old “friends” have been sent for – to spy upon him – and he is on his guard. His famous speech beginning “What a piece of work is a man...” and ending “Man delights not me,” is designed to mislead the two spies, although it may equally express his real feelings in the wake of the ghost’s revelations.
Hamlet learns that a troupe of players are coming to Elsinore. He remarks ominously: “He that plays the king shall be welcome.” He now knows that Claudius is “playing” the king! After more mockery of Polonius, he greets the actors. Hamlet recites a speech, and the Player King finishes it, which describes the vengeance of Pyrrhus, who goes to Troy to avenge the death of his father. It is a clear parallel with Hamlet himself. Pyrrhus was notorious for savage violence. This comparison is part of the debate within Hamlet about the nature of revenge.
The scene ends with a long soliloquy in which Hamlet castigates himself for not showing the same strength of feeling as a mere actor manages “in a fiction, in a dream of passion,” when he has so much reason to show real passion. This reminds us that Hamlet has yet to act upon the ghost’s revelations. In fact he looks for further “proof”, planning to have the actors “play something like the murder of [his] father”, while he “observes his [Claudius’s] looks.” Even at this stage he is unsure whether the ghost might not be a “devil” out to delude him.
Act Three begins with Claudius in conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have discovered nothing of the cause of Hamlet’s “distraction.” Sending Gertrude away, Claudius prepares, with Polonius, to eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia. For the first time, Claudius’s private remark – “O heavy burden!” – indicates to the audience his guilt.
Hamlet’s entrance leads to the extremely famous, oft-parodied, “To be or not to be” speech. Though usually regarded as a soliloquy, he is overheard by his uncle and by Polonius, and some productions show him speaking the lines to Ophelia. The gist of Hamlet’s argument shows him in deep despair, contemplating suicide, disgusted with life and with his own inaction, having so far failed to do what the ghost demanded.
The ensuing conversation with the bewildered Ophelia, in which his exhortation “Get thee to a nunnery” absolves her of having to marry him, is perhaps overshadowed by his knowledge that he is being spied upon. This is often revealed when he suddenly asks her “Where’s your father?” But it is equally possible to stage the scene with Hamlet totally unaware of the two “spies.” Unable to comprehend why he should speak so bitterly to her, Ophelia can only assume he is insane – “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” – a chilling anticipation of her own fate. Claudius now strongly doubts that love has caused Hamlet’s “alteration”, and determines to send him away to England. Polonius suggests one last meeting between Hamlet and his mother...after the players’ performance.
We now see Hamlet instructing the actors as Scene Two opens. He also asks Horatio to closely watch Claudius when the murder scene is re-enacted in accordance with the details provided by the ghost. Hamlet looks to his friend – the only one who knows the truth – for further confirmation of Claudius’s guilt.
Hamlet’s mood is very different when he flirts in a sexually explicit manner with Ophelia before the whole court as they prepare to watch the performance. The players begin with a “dumb-show” – a silent re-enactment of the murder. Puzzlingly Claudius does not react to this. Some productions show him distracted, missing the mime. Others have him struggling to control his emotions, until he can do so no longer.
The play-within-the-play begins with strong protestations from the Player Queen that she will never re-marry should her husband die. Hamlet’s target here is his mother as much as his uncle. Gertrude dryly comments “The lady doth protest too much methinks.” The Players show the king’s nephew poisoning the king. This departure from the ghost’s account serves as a warning to Claudius that his own nephew is now a potential avenger.
Just as the murderer pours poison in his victim’s ear, and as Hamlet is explaining how he will then “get the love” of the widow, Claudius at last reacts. Crying for light, his panicky exit brings the performance to an end. Hamlet is delighted, and Horatio confirms that Claudius fled “Upon the talk of the poisoning.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to remonstrate with Hamlet over his bad behaviour, but with the marvellous verbal fluency that is his hallmark, he accuses them of thinking they can play upon him like a pipe, a musical instrument. “You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass...’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.”
Learning that the Queen “would speak” with him – as was Polonius’s plan – Hamlet pauses to ridicule Polonius. Once more, Hamlet tries to transform himself into the kind of hot-blooded avenger he sometimes thinks he should be, but he cannot be like Nero, who murdered his own mother, saying of Gertrude, “I will speak daggers to her but use none.”
Before Hamlet reaches his mother’s chamber, Claudius, now seriously disturbed by what he has seen re-enacted, instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Scene Three to prepare to accompany Hamlet to England. Polonius tells the king he will spy on Hamlet and his father “behind the arras”.
As Claudius kneels in an anguished attempt to pray, confessing “a brother’s murder” and admitting he is “still possessed/ Of those effects for which I did the murder”, Hamlet appears. It is the perfect opportunity to take revenge, but Hamlet declines to take it. He contrasts how his father was murdered “with all his crimes broad blown”, with killing Claudius at prayer, thereby sending his soul to heaven. Some see this as another excuse not to act; others accept Hamlet’s word but condemn his arrogance, compared to the apparently contrite Claudius. Ironically, we then learn that Claudius was unable to pray anyway.
Hamlet, full of frustrated rage, enters [in Scene Four] his mother’s chamber. Deriding Gertrude as “her husband’s brother’s wife,” he hears Polonius behind the arras, and promptly kills him, hoping it is Claudius. He also accuses her of killing a king, suggesting she was involved in Hamlet’s father’s murder. This is never followed up, however, and the play offers no proof that she knew of her first husband’s murder. Either way, Hamlet has now killed Ophelia’s father, and become an object of revenge himself.
He implicitly accuses his mother of adultery, and shows her two images, one of his father, the other of Claudius, crying “what judgement/ Would step from this to this?” In the midst of his terrible tirade, the ghost re-appears, telling Hamlet that his energies are misdirected towards Gertrude, rather than to revenge. With great irony the ghost – who Gertrude does not see, assuming this to be a further sign of her son’s madness – intervenes to protect his wife. A calmer Hamlet, but one no less disgusted by his mother’s behaviour, instructs Gertrude to at least not sleep with her husband. And he tells her that he must go to England, with his “two schoolfellows”, knowing now that they are a threat to him. The act ends with Hamlet “lug[ging] the guts” of the dead Polonius into another room.
The Fourth Act continues the previous action without pause. Claudius learns that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Gertrude tells him her son is “Mad as the sea and wind.” Claudius’s comment – “His liberty is full of threats to all” – seems accurate on the face of it...until we remember that Claudius had much to hide!
In Scene Two, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to extract from Hamlet the whereabouts of Polonius’s corpse. Hamlet, in full manic mode, teases them with cryptic utterances, such as “the body is with the king but the king is not with the body.” The audience understands him to be referring to Claudius, having usurped the throne, not being the rightful king.
Still seeking Hamlet in Scene Three, Claudius admits Hamlet’s popularity with “the distracted multitude.” Hamlet goads the king in a similar vein to the previous scene. Finally admitting where they can find Polonius; Claudius says he must send Hamlet to England “for thine especial safety”, using an argument beloved of tyrants throughout history. Claudius’s brief soliloquy reveals that he has no intention of allowing Hamlet to return alive!
En route to England in Scene Four Hamlet sees young Fortinbras who has been given permission to march his troops across Denmark to Poland. When told that they “go to gain a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name”, Hamlet, in one of his most puzzling speeches, professes admiration for this pointless war. But he also asks profound questions beginning “What is a man?” The answer seems to be “to find quarrel in a straw”, but Hamlet sees that as being “for a fantasy and trick of fame.” As often in the play, his own language seems to undercut his desire “to be bloody or be nothing worth.” We sense that bold, resolute, ruthless Fortinbras is not the suitable role model Hamlet tries to pretend he is!
The “something rotten in the state of Denmark” identified in Act One, has now spread its contagion, driving Ophelia to madness [Scene Five ]. That sickness began with the murder of the king by Claudius, but Hamlet cannot escape the blame: he has murdered Ophelia’s father, having apparently rejected her. We now see her deranged, singing haunting snippets of songs which allude to her father’s death and, through sexual references, to the disintegration of her relationship with Hamlet.
Claudius fears an insurrection, led by Laertes, looking for his father’s killer, and blaming Claudius. With considerable courage, and the ironic comment that “divinity doth hedge a king”, he faces down Laertes’s accusations. Laertes, appalled at the sight of his sister’s lunacy, and suspicious of the secretive burial of his father, eventually promises to listen to Claudius’s explanation.
In Scene Six Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet. Hamlet has been kidnapped by pirates, but they have treated him well. He is returning to Denmark, while “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their course for England.”
Laertes is now [inScene Seven
] very much under the sway of Claudius, who also hears that Hamlet is on the way back to Denmark. Our sympathy for Laertes is tempered when we see him plotting with Claudius as to the best method of killing Hamlet without Gertrude seeing it as murder. They agree to arrange a fencing contest, in which Laertes’ sword will be “unbated”, ensuring the fatal wounding of Hamlet. Laertes himself adds the idea of also poisoning the tip of his sword. The news of Ophelia’s drowning further strengthens Laertes’ resolve.
Act Five begins unexpectedly with two gravediggers [clowns] preparing Ophelia’s grave. When Hamlet and Horatio find them, they are unaware as to whose burial this is. The main gravedigger proves himself to be the only person in the play who is verbally a match for Hamlet! In the process of digging, the skull of Yorick, Hamlet’s father’s jester, is disturbed, giving rise to the famous image of Hamlet confronting the skull of his old friend – and thus the image of his own mortality.
The arrival of the funeral procession causes Hamlet to try to outdo Laertes, who leaps into his sister’s grave, outraged by the sparse ceremony for a suspected suicide. Announcing himself as “Hamlet the Dane” – by which he asserts his claim to the Danish throne – Hamlet too leaps into the grave, grappling with Laertes. He claims that “forty thousand brothers” could not have loved her as he did, ignoring his own treatment of Ophelia, and his murder of her father!
In Scene Two we see a more philosophical Hamlet, explaining to Horatio how he turned the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sending them to their deaths. He now seems ready to rid the world of Claudius – “He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother” – and reclaim the throne. But when he receives a challenge to fence with Laertes it does not seem to occur to Hamlet that he is now as much the object of revenge as the revenger itself. He does, however, seem aware that Claudius will again try to kill him, but he accepts fatalistically that “If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come it will be now.”
With some dignity, speaking of himself in the third person, Hamlet makes a kind of apology to Laertes for his actions, without directly referring to Polonius. In the final dramatic scene, he fences with Laertes, while Claudius tries to make doubly sure that Hamlet will lose by poisoning his wine. In the melee the swords change hands, so that Laertes is fatally wounded; while Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine, to Claudius’s horror. Laertes repents his part in the plot, but he has wounded Hamlet, and tells him “thou art slain.” Seeing his mother die, Hamlet attacks and kills Claudius. His final revenge comes almost by accident, and only Horatio understands his true motivation.
Hearing the approach of Fortinbras, Hamlet, whose own family will disappear with his death, nominates Fortinbras as the next Danish king. At Hamlet’s death, Horatio undertakes to explain the “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts”, which have brought it about, as well as all the other deaths (at this point there are four bodies on the stage). Fortinbras takes charge, paying tribute to Hamlet, and the play ends with a foreign king taking the Danish throne, just as Shakespeare would have known that a Scottish king would soon ascend to the English throne, since Queen Elizabeth will soon die, childless.