Hamlet opens after the death of King Hamlet. His brother has succeeded him to the throne and quickly married the late King’s widow, Gertrude. The ghost of the old King returns to tell his son – Prince Hamlet – that he was murdered by his brother and must be avenged. Needing to establish whether the ghost speaks the truth, Hamlet feigns madness and arranges for a group of players to enact a dramatised version of the ghost’s accusations in front of the court in order to ‘catch the conscience of the King’ (3.2.604). When Hamlet sees the King’s outraged reaction, his suspicions are confirmed, but as he tries to act on them, he mistakes the court councillor Polonius for the King and kills him. The King sends Hamlet to England with orders that he should be killed, but Hamlet manages to escape.

Believing Hamlet’s madness to be a symptom of love for his daughter Ophelia, Polonius had constructed his own plot of surveillance, using Ophelia as bait to draw out Hamlet’s feelings. The emotional strain of being used in this way, combines with her bereavement to drive her to distraction, and she is found drowned. Her brother Laertes demands revenge. A fencing-match is staged between Hamlet and Laertes, with the King and Laertes planning to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword and drink. But Gertrude unwittingly drinks the poison, and, having been fatally wounded with the sword, Hamlet also kills Laertes and the King. Finally, Fortinbras of Norway assumes the throne.


Click here for a short PDF summary of the sources relating to Hamlet from 'Discovering Literature: Shakespeare'.

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