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The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
This is it, guys: the book.
The most powerful, the most influential, the most well-known, the most performed play ever written. And “the world’s most filmed story after Cinderella”!
Of course we’re talking about William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” perhaps the only book in which the Danish talk in English the English have trouble understanding.
Also – one of the small number of R-rated paperbacks your parents will be happy to see you reading!
Who Should Read “Hamlet”? And Why?
“Hamlet” is to books what Michael Jordan is to basketball. Or to put that into different terms, if you’ve never read “Hamlet,” don’t even try to pretend that you know your books.
You’ll be caught. And laughed at.
Fortunately, “Hamlet” is on many school’s obligatory reading lists, so we guess you’re here not because you don’t want to read it, but because you have trouble reading it.
That we understand.
And we’re here to help!
William Shakespeare Biography
William Shakespeare was an English playwright and poet, widely considered the best in the English (or any other) language.
He was born and died on the same day – 23 April – 52 years apart (1564 – 1616). He spent about half of his time on earth writing (1589 – 1613) and ended up with an oeuvre of (roughly) 39 plays, 154 sonnets and 2 long narrative poems.
That’s about 2 plays and 7 sonnets per year! And almost all of them are considered masterpieces to this day.
Consequently, it’s difficult to choose his finest works, but, by acclamation, his four great tragedies – “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello,” and “King Lear” (all written in the first five or six years of the 17th century) – are considered literary landmarks of such distinction that new languages test their worth and developing stage by translating them.
Unsurprisingly, if you take into consideration that he’s called “the father of the English language,” having used more than 20,000 different words in his works, about a tenth of them (1700) for the first time in written history.
So, next time when you’re feeling “uncomfortable” and “gloomy” at work because your “manager” is a “worthless,” “cold-blooded” “madcap,” don’t be surprised if someone asked you if you’re quoting Shakespeare!
Unless you’ve watched the Kenneth Branagh 1996 adaptation, there’s a big chance that you don’t know that “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest play.
And you know why?
Because you’ll find everything in it: betrayal, love, lust, revenge, plots, madness, suicide – and, yes, about as many murders as in a whole season of a CSI show!
And time tends to pass quickly with so much action!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
(By the way, if you have trouble finding your way around the story – we’ve listed all the characters just below; be sure to check them out every time you get the “I’m-at-a-family-gathering-knowing-nobody” feeling.)
So, a little background info.
The title character of our story, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, is the melancholy son of the recently deceased King Hamlet, whose wife Queen Gertrude married Old Hamlet’s brother Claudius about few tears after her husband’s death.
(Which makes you think: “Hamlet” might have never been written if Gertrude’s mother was a certain Bernarda Alba!)
But, hey – it’s the age of yore (i.e., the age of “you can trust no one but your closest relatives”) – and brothers-in-law are always the first ones to help distressed widows, right?
Also, Denmark is in a constant war with Norway – even though Scandinavian countries are not exactly known as warlike for the past millennium or so – and expects an invasion anytime soon.
Led by none other but Prince Fortinbras, the son of Norway’s recently diseased King Fortinbras.
So, to recap:
The people in Norway and Denmark use their titles to tell one from another, since most of them share the same names.
Anyway, you don’t have to be an Einstein (or a Hamlet) to realize – as a sentry called Marcellus does early on – that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
(Although, to be fair, back in the real world, it is anything but.)
First we learn Hamlet is summoned home from Wittenberg (where he is a student) to attend his father’s funeral – like you need a special invitation to do that! Once he does return, he realizes that Gertrude and Claudius are already married.
And – oh! – there’s a third thing: the ghost of Hamlet’s father is lurking around Denmark’s castle.
Don’t believe us?
Well, you can try finding him yourself. even today You just need to go to the city of Helsingør and ask around. Old Hamlet should be somewhere around here:
The guy we quoted earlier (Marcellus) and another sentry (Bernardo) tell Horatio (Hamlet’s best bud) about the ghost sightings, after which they all agree to tell Hamlet himself.
You’d expect from a student at a university to express a more profund disbelief, but – hey! – you don’t exactly question what you want to be true yourself.
So give Hamlet a break!
A meeting is arranged – and Hamlet learns from Hamlet (the Prince from the Ghost) that there was – surprise! surprise! – some foul play involved in his death. Namely, he was murdered by Claudius who slipped some poison in his ear while he was napping.
Which is – we have to say – a needlessly complicated way to kill someone; and which is why numerous studies have tried to find out if it would work at all!
But if you think this is complicated, wait till you hear about Hamlet’s plan!
You see, now that he has a confession from the murdered man himself – which, if possible, would have rendered Sherlock Holmes useless – he decides to “put an antic disposition on,” which is a fancy way of saying that he’s about to go all Jeffrey Goines on everybody, waiting for the right moment to kill Claudius.
Because, of course, even though Claudius married Gertrude suspiciously hasty, and even though he just heard from some ghostly figure in the shape of his dead father things nobody but him could have known, Hamlet is not really sure if Claudius did murder his father.
Interestingly enough, it’s not a question of whether the Ghost exists. It’s a question of whether he’s telling the truth.
And, for some reason, acting mad is Hamlet’s best idea of finding out.
Things certainly go according to plan, since Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia is fairly convinced that he’s as mad as a hornet by the beginning of the second act.
Her father Polonius, the King’s chief counselor Polonius, believes her and has a theory: he’s mad alright, but mad with love for his daughter.
He rushes to tell the royal couple, who are in the midst of welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s closest childhood friends called upon by none other than them to identify the reason behind Hamlet’s strange behavior.
And to make matters even more complicated, Polonius forces Ophelia to act as if she’s still in love with Hamlet so that he, Claudius and Gertrude can spy on them and see Hamlet’s reactions.
So, basically, by this moment, everybody is spying on everybody!
Now, how can anything go wrong?
Soon enough, you realize that some of the characters play their roles better than the others, and that some are simply gullible.
All in all, it seems that Hamlet is the best actor around, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not the sharpest tools in the shed. Hamlet sees through their act straight away and that inspires a monologue you can quote at some dinner party if you want to sound deep and dark:
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an Angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Now, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bring with themselves a troupe of actors they met while traveling to Elsinore.
Hamlet, being the master actor, devises his best and most complicated plan yet – to write a play for the actors in which a king is murdered the same way his father was and see how Claudius would react to it.
Most people take some time to write a single iambic pentameter, but Hamlet writes a whole play in a matter of hours!
And, in the meantime, as Ophelia awaits him and Claudius and Polonius are spying on him, he even manages to utter – out of the blue – a whole soliloquy whose opening line even people who’ve never opened a book know by heart.
Here’s a version of Kenneth Branagh’s performance. It’s subtitled, but, even so, it may sound all Greek to you if you don’t know your Shakespeare.
With “The Murder of Gonzago” – that’s the title of Hamlet’s play – Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” goes all meta: there’s a play within a play played by actors who pretend to be other actors!
Fortunately for Hamlet, Claudius reacts the way he wants him to react, and there’s no more doubt in Hamlet’s mind: he is definitely the killer of his father, also Hamlet.
Of course, Gertrude demands an explanation from her son – along the lines of “What was up with that play, my boy? Are you trying to tell the audience something?” – so Hamlet goes to her room.
But on his way there, he encounters upon Claudius praying. And he doesn’t kill him, since – smart as he is – he realizes that killing him during prayer may result in Claudius going to heaven.
Lesson learned: even if you kill someone, pray as often as you can, and, whatever happens, you’ll inevitably go to heaven.
Shakespeare says so.
That – or Hamlet has actually gone mad!
We don’t know about him – but his girlfriend Ophelia has definitely gone bananas in the meantime, wandering around Elsinore and singing Valentine songs to absolutely nobody.
You’d think there’s some method in her madness too, but you’d be very wrong since that doesn’t explain why Ophelia ends up drowned in the end.
Accident or suicide – who cares?
The only thing that matters is that she’s dead early enough to not witness the bloodbath.
And the reason why she went mad: the death of her father Polonius.
But wait – we skipped that part!
How did Polonius die?
Remember when we told you above that Hamlet decided not to kill the praying heaven-bound Claudius a while ago?
Well, he does end up killing somebody else (albeit accidentally) just a few minutes later!
And that somebody is Polonius who is (my God, what is wrong with Denmark?) spying on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude behind a curtain in her room – which is where Hamlet was heading after “The Murder of Gonzago” in the first place.
Normally, it doesn’t count as an accident kill if you wildly stab a rustling, moving curtain – but, in the case of Hamlet, it apparently does.
In his defense, Hamlet doesn’t know that Polonius is behind the curtain.
(Though we really think that this will not hold up in court!)
Especially, since he doesn’t think that it’s a mouse or a cat!
He thinks that it’s a rat, a man-like rat in the shape of Claudius! You know, the guy he saw praying and passed on killing just a few seconds ago!
Hold your horses now: it gets even bloodier and less comprehensible from here on!
Which, really, makes the ending of “Hamlet” look like a funny scene from “Frasier”!
It makes you wonder whether Shakespeare noticed how long the play is and wanted to get rid of some of the characters. Or all of them to be exact.
The proverbial catalysator is Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, who comes back from France and is, expectedly, pretty mad with Hamlet which leads to a fight at Ophelia’s funeral.
The scuffle is broken up, but Claudius, by this time, has realized that Hamlet is not mad, but bad and dangerous to be around.
Especially if you killed his father.
So, he arranges few different ways to kill him.
First, he sends him alongside Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with a sealed letter addressed to the English king demanding Hamlet’s immediate execution. Hamlet discovers the letter and rewrites it – asking for the heads of his friends instead.
(Quite brutal, but OK.)
When this plan fails, Claudius manages to convince Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel. Hamlet accepts it alright – but there’s a catch he doesn’t know anything about: Laertes’ sword is poisoned.
As is the wine Claudius sets aside for Hamlet to drink after the duel.
You know, just in case.
However, Hamlet does well during the duel leading two to none – but also to Gertrude toasting to his health by drinking the poisoned wine in his stead.
So she dies too.
Laertes uses the moment to stab Hamlet, who, unlike his mother or his father, doesn’t die instantly – but lives long enough to steal Laertes blade and stab him.
And even Laertes dies before Hamlet, even though both are stabbed with the same poisoned sword.
However, before his death, Laertes reconciles with Hamlet and tells him that it’s all Claudius’ fault – as if we need anyone to tell us that at this point.
So, Hamlet stabs Claudius too with the same poisoned sword and – yet again – unlike Hamlet, Claudius dies instantly.
Horatio comes just in time to hear Hamlet’s dying words.
Mercifully, since Hamlet tells Horatio to not kill himself which Horatio desperately wants because – why the hell not! Everybody’s dead anyway!
And Hamlet doesn’t want Horatio to kill himself for two reasons: 1) to tell his story; and 2) to make known that Hamlet has named Fortinbras as his successor.
Remember that guy?
Young Fortinbras was the son of the old king Fortinbras the old king Hamlet fought once to keep the autonomy of Denmark intact so that his son, young Hamlet, could rule it one day!
So, yes – young Hamlet’s last wish makes no sense whatsoever.
Hamlet – the depressed son of Hamlet and, if he had lived to have a child with Ophelia, probably the father of at least one or two Hamlets as well; also – the nephew of Claudius, and a talented playwright and actor.
The Ghost – the old Hamlet, a bit deadish.
Claudius – young Hamlet’s uncle/stepfather and old Hamlet’s brother/murderer; also, the King of Denmark.
Gertrude – the Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother.
Polonius – the King’s chief counselor and the father of Ophelia and Laertes.
Ophelia – Polonius’s daughter, the inspiration for a painting you won’t be able to take your eyes off.
Laertes – Polonius’s son.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – childhood friends of Hamlet and Claudius’ spies.
Horatio – Hamlet’s friend.
Marcellus – Elsinore sentry.
Bernardo – Elsinore sentry.
Fortinbras – Prince of Norway and, by the end of the play, Denmark as well; son of Fortinbras, the dead King of Norway.
Gravediggers, Actors, Osric and other unimportant people who appear for a scene because Shakespeare had an actors troupe and had to give a role to each and every one of his members.
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“Hamlet PDF Quotes”This above all: to thine own self be true, | And it must follow, as the night the day, | Thou canst not then be false to any man. Click To Tweet Doubt thou the stars are fire; | Doubt that the sun doth move; | Doubt truth to be a liar; | But never doubt I love. Click To Tweet There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Click To Tweet There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Click To Tweet Brevity is the soul of wit. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“Hamlet” has influenced so many things that there are more Wikipedia articles about the play than there are articles overall in most of the encyclopedias you’ve read as a child!
And some of these articles are about people whose only appearance in “Hamlet” is as a dead man’s skull (looking at you, Yorick!)
So, yeah – it’s pretty essential that you know a thing or two about this play. Because some people want to know absolutely everything about it!
So see what the fuss is about.
But we feel that we need to warn you: be prepared to become a “Hamlet” addict!