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Hamlet: Synopsis

By Isabel Smith-Bernstein

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, has died suddenly. King Hamlet’s brother, Claudius, has been elected as king and married King Hamlet’s wife, Gertrude. Hamlet is told by his best friend, Horatio, that the ghost of his father has been seen on the Elsinore Castle walls, and Hamlet goes with Horatio to see for himself. Sure enough, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells young Hamlet that he was murdered by own brother. Shaken to the core, Hamlet vows to seek the truth and revenge for his late father. Hamlet tells Horatio his plan of putting on an “antic disposition” in order to confuse the nosey Elsinore court as to his motives.

The love of Hamlet’s life is a woman named Ophelia, who shares his wit and desire for truth and authenticity. Ophelia’s father is Claudius’ most trusted advisor, Polonius, who keeps his daughter under strict control. Ophelia’s only other friend at Elsinore, her brother Laertes, leaves to go to school in France. On his way out, Laertes warns Ophelia not to get too involved with Hamlet as he is unlikely to marry her. Polonius overhears and orders his daughter not to see her love any more.

Meanwhile, Norwegian powers encroach on Denmark’s land. Denmark has a long history with Norway and the old King Hamlet killed the old King Norway, leaving Prince Fortinbras of Norway angry and vengeful. Claudius does what he can to keep a tremulous peace between the two nations.

Hamlet feigns madness in front of Claudius, Polonius, and his own mother. Gertrude blames his madness on her sudden marriage to Claudius. Polonius, on the other hand, believes it is because Ophelia has followed his command and refused to see Hamlet. In actuality, Ophelia has done no such thing and helps Hamlet to spread the word of his “madness.” Polonius shows the royal couple a love letter Hamlet wrote to Ophelia, which convinces Gertrude and Claudius of this. Trying to help her son, Gertrude calls Hamlet’s two old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to Elsinore to try to uncover the cause of the madness from Hamlet himself.

Hamlet, wary of deceit in Elsinore, sees immediately through his old friends having been summoned and doesn’t open up to them like his mother planned. However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern brought a company of actors along with them hoping to cheer Hamlet up.

Polonius, still convinced of Hamlet’s madness as a result of his love for Ophelia, sends his daughter into a chamber where he knows Hamlet will be and hides himself with Claudius to eavesdrop on their conversation. Hamlet contemplates life and death before noticing Ophelia. Ophelia begins by trying to heed her father’s commands, but warns Hamlet of where her father and the king hide. Hamlet becomes enraged and rants and rails about the spies to Ophelia, making it sound like it’s about her. They have a tearful parting as Hamlet tries to save her from Denmark’s rotten state.

The players arrive and, always a fan of theater, Hamlet devises a plot for the players to put on a play that mirrors the murder of his father. The players perform for the court, and at the moment when the king-character is murdered by the king’s brother-character, Claudius rises in a rage and storms out of the room. Hamlet takes this as proof of what the ghost told him and from this moment on is ready to kill Claudius for revenge.

Gertrude watched the play with her husband and realizes that she must do what she has been avoiding:  talk to her son one-on-one. On his way to his mother’s room, Hamlet passes Claudius praying. Hamlet almost kills him right there, but worries Claudius’s soul would go to heaven if he were murdered in while praying.

Gertrude and Hamlet fight about his dead father, and Hamlet gets so passionate that Gertrude fears he will kill her. She cries out, causing Polonius—who has been eavesdropping behind the drapes—to cry out as well. Hamlet, thinking that it’s Claudius, stabs through and kills him. In response, Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He also sends missives with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the English to kill Hamlet, but Hamlet discovers the plot and replaces his name with those of his old friends.

Weighed down by grief, Ophelia’s consciousness takes a step beyond what is typical. Instead, she spends her time outside singing old songs to convey how miserable and utterly trapped she is. Laertes returns upon hearing of his father’s death only to find his sister’s antic disposition. Ophelia, speaking in a heightened fashion, makes a series of pointed remarks that make it clear to those who witness her speech that she is a danger to Claudius’ rule—she knows too much. Laertes vows revenge for her condition, and Claudius manipulates him into placing his hate onto Hamlet instead of on the king. Claudius has Ophelia murdered. Gertrude interrupts their meeting to tell Laertes that his sister has drowned.

Hamlet returns from England and falls into the trap that Claudius has set. The king has arranged for Hamlet and Laertes to duel, and he has poisoned Laertes’ blade. In case of Hamlet’s victory, Claudius has also prepared to drop a poisoned pearl into the victor’s cup. Laertes wounds Hamlet in the fencing match, poisoning him. To his dismay, Hamlet and Laertes swap weapons during their fight and Laertes is hit with the poison. When Hamlet will not drink from the cup Claudius offers, Gertrude drinks it instead and dies. Hamlet realizes the treachery and kills Claudius.

Just as Hamlet dies in Horatio’s arms, Fortinbras and his army enter Elsinore in conquest. Fortinbras makes it clear that Hamlet’s dying wish, “tell my story,” will be carried out. The audience perhaps hopes that the cycle of revenge is broken and a reign of authenticity has begun.

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