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​​In a nutshell

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, and also one of the longest! It is a tragedy about young prince Hamlet, whose father was murdered and appeared to him as a ghost to demand he avenges his death. In this summary you'll review the plot, the main characters and their relationships, and what themes come into play.

Plot summary

Act I

King Hamlet of Denmark is dead. His ghost appears to Horatio, a friend of Prince Hamlet, who recognises him. The king is now Claudius, Hamlet's brother, and he has married Queen Gertrude, his brother's widow. Prince Hamlet is told by both King Claudius and Queen Gertrude to stop grieving his father's death, but he is still very sad, and hates that his mother married his uncle just a month after his father's death.

We meet Hamlet's lover, Ophelia, in scene 3. Both her father, Lord Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, advise her not to trust Hamlet and to stay away from him. 

Horatio tells Hamlet about seeing his dead father's ghost, and Hamlet sees him too, but isn't sure if he should trust it. The ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius, and reveals exactly how: Claudius poured poison into King Hamlet's ear while he slept. Hamlet promises to avenge his murder

Act II

Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet acted roughly with her (he had just seen a ghost, but she doesn't know this). Polonius thinks that means Hamlet is in love with her and tells the king. King Claudius, who worries about Hamlet's behaviour, asks two of Hamlet's school friends to spy on him. A group of travelling actors arrive at the castle and Hamlet convinces them to perform a particular play where a king is murdered, and he writes them some lines so that they re-enact his father's murder, just as the ghost told him it happened.


Hamlet's school friends don't know why he is behaving strangely. King Claudius decides to arrange a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet so he and Polonius can spy and see if he really is acting strangely out of love. Before the meeting, in scene 1, Hamlet gives the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, thinking about his own life.

The meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet (scene 1) goes horribly wrong: he confuses her with mixed signals and in the end insults her and tells her to go to a nunnery. King Claudius realises that Hamlet is not acting strangely because of love. However, he also doesn't believe that Hamlet is mad. 

The actors perform the play that Hamlet had asked them to in scene 2. Hamlet and Horatio are paying attention to King Claudius, as they are convinced that his reaction to the play will tell them whether he is innocent or guilty. King Claudius seems very angry by the murder scene, which leads them to believe that he is the murderer.

King Claudius leaves the play and starts praying. While praying, in scene 3, he confesses to having murdered his brother. Hamlet overhears, but decides not to kill him while he prays. This is because he fears that Claudius will go to Heaven if he does that.

In scene 4, Hamlet visits his mother, Queen Gertrude, and acts very aggressive towards her. He accidentally kills Polonius by stabbing the tapestry he was hiding behind when he made a noise. The ghost of the king appears and Hamlet sees him, but Queen Gertrude doesn't, and she believes Hamlet is completely mad. 

Act IV

Hamlet is sent away to England after Polonius' murder, and King Claudius sends with him a sealed letter ordering the authorities to kill Hamlet once he gets there. 

We learn that Fortinbras, Prince of Norway whose father was killed by Hamlet's father, has an army that is passing through Denmark. 

Ophelia asks to see the queen in scene 4, and acts crazy: singing senseless songs and giving away flowers. The king and the queen believe she has gone mad after her father's death. Laertes returns and wants to know who is to blame for his father's death, and why Ophelia is acting like this. He is told that Hamlet is to blame and he decides to get revenge

Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet, and the audience is told that he is coming back to Denmark, that he was kidnapped by pirates and that he discovered King Claudius' plot to kill him. Meanwhile, King Claudius is once again plotting to kill him, this time with Laertes. He plans to arrange a duel between Laertes and Hamlet, to poison Laertes sword, and also poison a cup just in case Hamlet escapes the first poison.

The act closes (scene 6) with Queen Gertrude bringing the news that Ophelia has drowned in a brook. 

Act V

In scene 1, Hamlet finds himself in the graveyard where Ophelia is going to be buried, but he doesn't know that yet. The gravediggers are discussing if Ophelia's death was accidental or a suicide. A gravedigger shows him the skull of a court jest, who he knew as a child, and he gives a soliloquy about life and death talking to it. Then, the royal family alongside Laertes arrive to bury Ophelia. Hamlet realises what happened and declares that he loved Ophelia more than Laertes ever could.

In the final scene, scene 2, Laertes invites Hamlet to the duel. During the duel, King Claudius offers Hamlet the poisoned cup, but he doesn't drink. Queen Gertrude, however, does. Laertes hits Hamlet with the poisoned sword, but they struggle, swap swords, and Hamlet hits Laertes with it too. Queen Gertrude dies, Hamlet realises what is happening, Laertes warns him that he is also poisoned and blames King Claudius for the poison in the sword and in the wine. Laertes and Hamlet forgive each other before dying. Hamlet forces his uncle to drink the poisoned wine and stabs him with the poisoned blade. 

He finally avenged his father's murder, but now, he will die too. Knowing this, he asks Horatio to tell his story to others, and predicts that the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, will become King of Denmark. 

Just like he predicted, Fortinbras arrives and Horatio explains everything to him. The new King of Denmark, moved by Prince Hamlet's story, orders an honourable soldier's burial for him.



The main character, Prince of Denmark. His father just died, and his uncle has become king and married his mother.


The new King of Denmark and Hamlet's uncle. He murdered his brother, the late King. 


Hamlet's mother. After her husband's death, she quickly married his brother, Claudius. 


Hamlet's lover. She is Polonius' daughter and Laertes' sister. 


Very good friend of Hamlet.


Hamlet \leftrightarrow Horatio

Horatio is Hamlet's closest friend. He remains loyal to Hamlet. Hamlet knows this and confides in him until the very end, when he trusts him to tell everybody his story.

Claudius \leftrightarrow Hamlet \leftrightarrow Gertrude

In the first scenes, we see queen Gertrude and newly crowned king Claudius telling Hamlet to stop grieving over his father's death. Of course, Claudius is the one who killed him, and he is wary of Hamlet, the heir. Hamlet despises his uncle, and is angry with his mother.  Gertrude is a very interesting character, because we, as the audience, can't really tell if she is loyal to Claudius or to her son, Hamlet.

Hamlet \leftrightarrow Ophelia

Before the play, we are told that they were in love, Hamlet had been courting her. But Ophelia is obedient and when her father and brother tell her to stay away from Hamlet, she does. She is also used as a pawn by King Claudius and Polonius against Hamlet. Once Polonius dies, Ophelia seems to "go crazy", and in the end she drowns. Some believe it was suicide, including characters in the play.

Hamlet \leftrightarrow Laertes

Laertes is a young Lord, just like Hamlet. But when his father is killed, he is quick to get his revenge (against Hamlet), which can be seen as a contrast with Hamlet, whose father was killed earlier and who is taking far longer to get that revenge. 



This is one of the main themes and present in most of the play. It starts with death, King Hamlet's ghost, and it ends with death in the infamous duel scene. A lot of characters are killed or poisoned during the play, and there's also a suicide theme: Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech can be interpreted as a "to be alive or not"; and Ophelia is implied to have drowned herself, even as some characters say it was an accident (Queen Gertrude and Laertes). 


Hamlet pretends to go mad, and we, as the audience, know. But as the play goes on, the audience starts to wonder whether he is still pretending or whether he has actually gone mad. This is contrasted by Ophelia's descent into madness, which occurs after her father's death, and ends in her own.



Hamlet is given one mission at the start of the play: to avenge his father's death. The play only ends when he completes it. But Hamlet isn't the only character seeking revenge: Laertes returns to avenge his father's murder, and Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince, also wanted revenge for his own father's death, years prior, by the old King Hamlet.

Key quotations




Act 5, Scene 1
HAMLET: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio"
Hamlet speaks to the skull of a court jester he knew as a child. This symbolises life (as Hamlet) and death (as Yorick), as well as memento mori: a reminder that everybody will die one day.
Act 3, Scene 4
QUEEN GERTRUDE: "Mad as the seas and wind, when both contend"
Queen Gertrude is comparing Hamlet's mental state to the rough sea, using a simile.
Act 4, Scene 4
HAMLET: "From this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"
Hamlet is talking to himself and vows to think only of the revenge against his uncle, who he knows is the one who killed his father. He speaks with a rhyming couplet.

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