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Summary Article: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
from The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

A tragedy by William Shakespeare, first performed c. 1601. A bad, perhaps pirated, Quarto (Q1) was published in 1603. Modern editors use a second Quarto (Q2), published in 1604, and the text in the First Folio of 1623. Both are used by modern editors. Various sources have been proposed, among them a lost play, or Ur-hamlet, perhaps by Thomas Kyd. We do not know whether Elizabethan audiences were familiar with the story before Shakespeare wrote his play.

The recent death of King Hamlet has brought his brother Claudius to the Danish throne. Claudius has also married the King's widow, Gertrude. Prince Hamlet, spectacularly mourning both his father's death and his mother's remarriage, learns from his friend Horatio that his father's ghost has appeared on the battlements of Elsinore. Hamlet decides to watch with him, encounters the ghost and learns that Claudius poisoned his father. Hamlet enjoins his friends to secrecy and swears vengeance, but defers it by alternating between self-doubting soliloquies and displays of feigned madness intended to confirm Claudius's guilt. He denounces Ophelia, whom he had loved, and succeeds in convincing her father, the court chamberlain Polonius, of his madness.

The arrival of a company of actors at the Danish court provides him with further opportunity. He persuades them to stage an old play whose story offers a persuasive parallel to Claudius's crime. Claudius gives himself away, and orders Hamlet to go to England, where he plans to have him killed. Hamlet escapes his pursuers, confronts Gertrude in her chamber and stabs to death the eavesdropping Polonius, apparently on the assumption that it is Claudius, not Polonius, behind the arras. Determined to avenge Polonius's death, his son Laertes returns to Denmark, where he finds Ophelia mad. News reaches Claudius that Hamlet is back in Denmark. He plots with Laertes a duel in which Hamlet's death will be assured by a poison-tipped sword. News of Ophelia's death by drowning strengthens Laertes's resolve. The duel takes place and culminates in the death of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius and Hamlet. The play ends with Fortinbras of Norway, newly proclaimed King of Denmark, ordering a military funeral for Hamlet.

Because the figure of Hamlet has so fascinated successive generations, the play has provoked more discussion, more performances and more scholarship than any other in the whole history of world drama. It stands at the very centre of Shakespeare's dramatic career, on the one hand concluding a decade that had seen the composition of the mature comedies and English history plays, and on the other preceding the sequence of great tragedies. In no other play does Shakespeare subject to such detailed scrutiny the whole art of theatre itself. It is not an accident that the play-within-the-play holds a central position in the pattern of the drama; all the characters are affected by the compulsion to act a part. It is an aspect of the topsy-turvydom of Denmark under Claudius that real feeling should present itself as seeming. The histrionic temperament has never been so fully explored.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, © Cambridge University Press 2000

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